Hungría: la universidad iliberal
Junio 1, 2024


Illiberal Universities

One of the most interesting stories in global higher education over the past couple of years has been the creeping government takeover of higher education in Hungary. The most famous example of this was the government expelling the George Soros-funded Central European University, which subsequently took up residence in Austria. Less well-known perhaps is the process of severing public universities from the state and creating Foundation universities. For the most part this meant giving institutions North American-style managerial and financial autonomy, but saddling them with a governance structure in which appointees of the governing FIDESZ party have eternal, built-in control. And they then use this governance structure to provide an illiberal ideological slant to the university.

In substance, the takeover process used in Hungary was not that different from how Vladimir Putin gradually tamed Russian higher education. It’s also not that far from how Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has treated higher education in his state in the last 18 months or so (recall if you will my discussion with Brendan Cantwell on this subject a few weeks ago). And all three of these governments have taken aim at similar types of education programming (specifically, patriotic history and gender studies) as well as certain types of science (e.g. climate science) as well.

Our guests this week are Andrea Petö from the Central European University in Vienna and Jo-Anne Dillabough of Cambridge University in the UK. These two are collaborators on the UK ESRC project Higher Education, States of Precarity and Conflict in the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’: UK, Hungary, South Africa, and Turkey and the Horizon Europe project Rising nationalisms, shifting geopolitics and the future of European higher education and research openness. In early May, they jointly penned an article for University World News entitled New Deceptions: How Illiberalism is hijacking the university and it was so fascinating that I had to invite them on the show.

Today’s discussion ranges over the history of higher education (haven’t universities been illiberal for most of their history), institutional ownership (are private universities necessarily illiberal?) and the role of federalism in moderating illiberalism. But do pay attention in particular to Andrea’s recounting of events in Hungary. As a professor at Central European University throughout that institution’s battle with the Hungarian state, she had a front-row seat at the development in FIDESZ’s higher education policies and her observations on the subject are – I think – particularly trenchant.

The World of Higher Education

Episode 2.33 | Illiberal Universities


Alex Usher (AU): Andrea, I’d like to start with you. Tell me what is an illiberal university? Is there a precise definition of this term? Also you’ve used the phrase polypore institutions. A polypore being a particular kind of fungus. How are these two themes linked?

Andrea Peto (AP): Thank you very much for this question. So the illiberal universities are very specific institutions because they are created as institutions of the new illiberal states. They are partly state funded or partly funded by very dubious individuals through the dark money. Illiberalism is now the buzzword to understand what is happening around us. I consider this as a useful category, because this is not backlash, this is not authoritarianism, but a new form of state, which is operating with these polypore institutions. So before the listeners start Googling what the heck she’s talking about, this is this mushroom, which lives on the trunk of the tree and uses the energy and uses the resources from the trunk of the tree, but doesn’t produce anything else than this polypore, this kind of mushroom. That’s what the illiberalism is doing with the university as a form and as an institution. They are hijacking, instrumentalizing, and using the resources, the format of the institutions, but they are using it for their own purposes, which I would call a democracy exploitation to use it for undermining liberal democracy and create a different form of state via educational activities.

AU: Is it possible to be illiberal, but not polypore?

AP: The illiberalism is operating through these three modus operandi, like creating parallel institutions like, familialism. It doesn’t have a family policy, but like familialism where certain families are prioritized. Also that women are really not agents of this policy. So the fight for women having the right to study in higher education is back. So we are going back to the 19th century. The third one is secularization. So there is no policy discussion, but rather the discussion about how to save, protect institutions and states from the constructed enemy like gender or George Soros or the migrants. So in a sense, there is this constant feeling of being in danger and being under threat. So these three new elements of the modus operandi of the illiberal policy has a major impact on higher education because of this new wave of illiberal universities being founded around the world. And at the same time, they are using, misusing, instrumentalizing resources from the public universities via the state capture.

AU: Right. Let me turn to you, Jo-Anne. In what way is illiberalism in universities really a new phenomenon? Because it seems to me that for much of the history of universities, in most parts of the world, universities were conservative or reactionary. So if I think about universities in Germany in the Wilhelmine period, or the religious universities that played such a big role in the development of higher education in Latin America, those were all illiberal institutions. What’s different about today’s wave of illiberal universities?

Jo-Anne Dillabough (JD): It’s an excellent question. I suppose we might start just with a bit of history first. Andrea has painted a very nice picture of this new model. So, I mean, if we were to go to not an ultimate starting point, but a significant one, we might be talking about empire. Including the role of empire in the creation of university institutions more generally, and the way in which those legacies live on in the contemporary moment. But we would also have to think about the ways in which the transformations of those institutions have taken place amidst different kinds of political transformations in contexts. So, you could talk about the Latin American case and recognize that particular history played a role in shaping something that was never democratic, never had a democratic set of origins, and was always essentially driven by a certain state-based project that maybe came from Empire, if you like. You see a close relationship between state interests and university interests. We’re seeing that now, too. In a different way, though, in the way that Andrea talked about in the first question. So, the idea that the modern institution of higher education has always been a liberal bastion, of course, needs troubling. There’s no question about that. The idea of a illiberalism being new. I think the concept is important in our framework, because we had a period in ‘68 in different parts of the world where we hoped that universities were being democratized, and to quote somebody like Hannah Arendt, where there was potential and a positive Agora, agonistic space that was positive was in place. Always captured by the new right, quite critically and new managerialism but with a recognition, basically that things were transforming, and that the notion of a diverse public was being represented there. What we’re seeing now is a new form of neonationalism, new kinds of fascisms and these forms of capture that Andrea is talking about that are different from this past history. So they’re emblematic of that history, but they’re not identical.

AU: Interesting. Andrea, much of your critique is focused specifically on the evolution of the higher education sector in Hungary. Of course, you’re at Central European University, which famously was driven out of Hungary a few years ago by the Orban government. So what’s happened in Hungary over the last decade with respect to higher education and in particular, what has the emergence of foundation universities meant?

AP: Hungary actually served as a laboratory of illiberal policies. Several policies had been tested in Hungary, which were partly coming from the Putin government, from Russia and partly from the US Republican forces. But what is new here that higher education is that had become important. Previously, before the illiberal takeover, the politicians and policy makers who were working in higher education had limited abilities and limited political ambitions. But now this has absolutely changed because higher education became a strategic field, which in the past 10 years had been totally transformed. It started with appointing chancellors to the heads of the universities and the chancellors became the employees of the different faculty. The faculty lost its civil servant status or tenure in other contexts and they became just very precarious employees. And then then this kind of institutional transformation happened, which I have to stress did not go without protest. Some trade unions actually protested. But of course, the liberal politicians also made it impossible to wage a kind of successful labor action against this.

Then they privatized most of the Hungarian higher education into so called foundations. So, more than 80% of students now studying in the Hungarian higher education are enrolled in these foundational universities which are working as kind of business models so these kinds of institutions are operating as business units. When this transformation happened, the salary of the faculty had been increased two to three times, so there was no reasonable resistance to this kind of transformation. This kind of transformation, of course, led to the decrease of academic freedom or any kind of autonomy or the previous institutions in universities like senates or councils. Let me refer back again to this polypore, this kind of alibi function of certain institutions. Consequently those institutions who were transformed to foundations were banned from the European Union Erasmus program.

AU: I understand that there has also been an exporting of the model with a college in Hungary purchasing a university in Austria and bringing that same flavor of university governance to another country. What’s the story there?

AP: The Mathias Corvinus College has got the same funding as the whole higher educational sector in Hungary, which is enormous. This is a non-transparent institution, a think tank, and also a kind of quasi-university. They bought an Austrian university, the module university, in order to export this illiberal model and also creating another space, another educational institution where the different models and different educational activities can be expanded. The module university is not the only one, which is this kind of illiberal polypore university, like the Jacobs University in Germany in Bremen which is now bought by an oligarch. The Corvinus University is actually having public money channel to Austria. So that actually is a very strange case of internationalization and also how money flows from the east to west, which is showing that the internationalization of higher education with entering new actors from the illiberal states has been changing.

AU: So, that’s Hungary. Jo-Anne, let me ask you about polypore institutions elsewhere. To me, the closest institutional and governmental parallels to Hungarian higher education were in Russia, and I’m talking pre-invasion here, you have that shared hostility in particular towards things like gender studies and using state regulation and institutional power to sort of reject that line of inquiry. Where else are we seeing polypore institutions? What can you tell us about how this illiberal model is spreading?

JD: Yeah, well, I’ll speak about that generally, I think, because the sort of micro details can take quite a long time to explain. But what I will say is this, the way Andrea’s explained it is a nice architectural framework for understanding geopolitics and geopolitical transformations and the ways in which it’s using higher education as its lobbying space, as a sort of space of capture. I think the idea that somehow, for example, that you know, concepts of the west or westernization or whatever we might use, and I say that in inverted commas with lots of critical reflections on it you know, definitely playing a role in all of this, but the direction of travel, I think, is quite interesting and the models are quite interesting. The way in which its operating now is new, and we’ve tried to map that out for you.

But what’s important is, historically, if you’re looking at concepts of authoritarianism, you’ll have institutions that have always had authoritarian features. So you can’t really speak about liberal universities in the same way, if you use cases like Syria or Turkey, or South Africa, because essentially what you’re looking at is a very different kind of political history shaping up the ways in which higher education knowledge production practices are undertaken. So the centralization of employees, including rectors have always been part of that story. It’s always been conflated with a sort of state control. Knowledge production is always constrained there because of course you can’t speak against the state or against a regime. If we can see the history of Turkey, for example, it’s an important space. We’ve got the peace signatories as our exemplary case of people getting fired if they’re standing against the state in the context of the Kurdish question and there’s a lot of examples of this. The academics then become targets for the state, and we see this being, not only enduring, but something that predates this model we’re talking about. So in many ways, we could have a debate about this, but I think Hungary’s borrowing, not only from its own history, but other forms of authoritarianism to remodel its future with a higher education is one of the important spaces it captures to sustain itself for political purposes, selfish political purposes.

AU: Andrea, one aspect of your argument that I found quite interesting in the University World News article was the way you described illiberal or polypore institutions attacking the hard sciences. I usually think of illiberal universities as being focused on ideas in the social sciences and humanities, which I think maybe are the more natural home of culture wars. But you’re talking about the hard sciences as well. Shouldn’t global academic peer review systems in the sciences make this difficult? And how are they failing to stop this in Hungary in particular?

AP: Yeah, you are right. There is this understanding that the cultural wars are only waging in places like gender studies and postcolonial studies, but don’t forget that environmental studies and the climate studies are also attacked during this kind of cultural war because this is a fight for the hearts and the minds for the future voters and also for the youngsters. STEM is also a part of this fight not only because the STEM has got always more funding so it means that it is more important in the eyes of the illiberals but it’s also connected with important ideological questions. So in Hungary, it was really very close to have all the biology textbooks being replaced by creationist textbooks. So in a sense, this is also a form of redoing the secularization of science and scientific thinking, and it’s also a good business. So we are always forgetting because we are always listening to university administrators who are looking at spreadsheets and crying that university education can be a good business if it is done in a kind of ruthless and hard way. That’s what several universities are actually doing when they are selling departments, research units, or institutions to the different business enterprises.

So, the argument in this article is that neoliberalization and illiberalism sometimes very difficult to differentiate because they are very often using the very same language, which is about excellence, about outreach, about indices, about money they are making. So, in a sense your question about how the different accreditation and international agencies which are expected to safeguard the academic excellence are actually collapsing here because they are totally powerless as far as this new, polyporized language is concerned.

AU: Jo-Anne, one claim you both made in your University World News article that I found a bit surprising was that private institutions in Western Europe are deceptive institutions seeking an alternative to a liberal mindset. I think you mentioned both the University of Buckingham in the UK and Constructor University in Germany or Jacobs University in Bremen. Are you actually making the argument that all private universities are necessarily illiberal? And if not, what makes some private universities illiberal and others not?

JD: That’s also an excellent question and hard to do in a short time space. I don’t think I would make the claim that all private institutions are illiberal. I would probably make the claim that all private institutions that have forms of funding that aren’t driven by the concept of the public good have illiberal elements. These elements come from a much earlier period, perhaps more history, not the kind of empire stuff I was talking about earlier, but the hold of the university from the new right, and the concept of the new right capturing the imagination of the senior leaders of institutions, because there’s all kinds of pressures about what the public’s going to look like. You’ve got extraterritorial pressures like the World Bank and a whole number of other organizations basically saying to countries, look, we’re going to experiment with how you’re doing in terms of your various sectors, including education and you really need to create a more competitive space in order to meet the needs of our labor market or our future forecasting agendas, etc. But this is often done in the name of the private and sometimes from funding sources that are not about the public. So obviously it would be, too simplistic a case to simply say all private universities are illiberal, but what we have to see are the tendencies or what are the sort of interventions that are coming from other sources that actually lead to that.

If we moved away just a little bit from the question of the private and we went to, let’s just say the UK. An example is free speech legislation introduced by the government, ruled out by people who are broadly on the conservative right, who aren’t really talking about positive agonistic speech where we think together without banisters, but are instead actually talking about ensuring that everybody can speak including people who might be speakers who harm their audience. So, they call it free speech, they’re using the term freedom, capturing the imagination through freedom, saying, this makes us liberal, but actually that’s an illiberal intervention, and that’s a really important case.

The other one that I think we do talk about in the article is the case of prevent. I think that’s relatively a strange thing if I was a Canadian listener, the idea that a public university institution actually has a monitoring policy in its university to monitor so called terrorism, inverted commas. And instead of being an autonomous scholar in that framework, one becomes a species of monitor. So the prevent is a duty, and it’s inside higher education institutions, where we have to so called monitor terrorism. Historically speaking, especially if you’re thinking about this post 68 moment, critical intellectuals are not driving their agendas through being a species monitor. Their goal is to agonize over our societies and their transformations without being impeded by these interventions. The last thing I’d say is you want to take the US as an example, look at what’s happening in Florida.

AU: Let me stop you on Florida, because Florida, that’s all happening in public institutions, right? That’s about state capture by the governor Ron DeSantis and a Republican House and Senate but what interests me about Florida is there has been a really big attempt through the capture of new college of Florida through the use of state power to limit teaching in certain areas. Florida is trying to push some illiberal ideas, but there are restrictions on it because of outside accreditors. There are restrictions on it because the funding system for science is still in DC. and is not captured by the DeSantis state and similarly in the EU, you see the EU acting as a check, in effect, on Hungary. It does push back, at least to some degree, against Hungarian universities. So is federalism a check? Is it an insurance policy against illiberalism? And if so, how effective is it?

AP: That’s a really important question, especially because we are recording this before the European Union elections, and we don’t really know what will happen during those elections. It is very true that because the higher education in the European Union is a national competency, the European Union has got very limited and very smart ways of trying to balance if one of the European Union member states is introducing illiberal measures. The fact that some of these privatized so-called foundation universities are excluded from the different exchange programs like the Erasmus programs and the Horizon program, that actually has an impact. So, in a sense, there needs to be reconceptualization because there are obviously new agents here with their very dark agenda.

But in the U.S. context, you see that there are, of course, several private universities which are trying to be independent from the public capture and from also from the federal intervention. So this also shows that the different orthodoxies which are driving our understanding like “state is good, private is bad,” needs to be a kind of more nuanced way analyzed because the Central European University, which is a private university and had been for a long time really a beacon of free thinking and academic freedom in an illiberal state which was captured by the illiberal government. Also in some cases, the local university administrators are considered to be the largest threat for academic freedom independently from the transnational or the national levels. So in a sense the multilayeredness might be a resource, but also can be a danger.

AU: So in conclusion, let me ask both of you, what do you think the future is for illiberal universities? If we redid this interview in 2035, do you think this type of institution will be more prevalent than it is today? Or will it be a forgotten relic?

AP: I think that there is good news that higher education became a strategic field. Because of the attacks and because the illiberals are so successfully capturing the higher education and because the bottom up demand from the students to have a new form of education, but this kind of paradoxical recognition of the higher education can actually play in both ways, it can be a new business field, then some business enterprises can show up and save it. It can also lead to a new business, which is the academic freedom studies and a new field the academic freedom studies. But definitely, we see that the consequences of the neoliberalization, the managerialism in higher education and the loss of higher education as a public good needs to be addressed as a problem. The problem is that the illiberals are more successfully and with more money are addressing it, and they are offering different alternatives, which are very exclusivist and based on hate and very much against the inclusion of women into education. So this is an open game and it’s an interesting field. I believe that re-enchanting the higher education and going back to the higher education as a public good might help us to somehow make this podcast redundant by 2035.

AU: Jo-Anne, last word to you.

JD: That’s helpful for me to think about. I don’t know if cynical is the right word but I have different perspectives on the future, but also on the role of business inside the institution. I’m in a research office at the moment and I can see where the pressure points are for institutions in terms of, as we often talk about it here, paying the heating and lighting overhead costs and things for research and where philanthropy can intervene into the ways in which we think about robust knowledge production for the public good. I can also see the erosion and this, you know, the late David Graeber’s concept of the university as a space for the public. My major worry is that if it remains a space that continues to be neutralized politically or set up so that it’s about culture wars and not about thinking together to resist the bigger picture problems we’re facing like conflict, violence, war, all of the things that we ought to be participating in and engaging in, in important integral ways to transform the way in which despots decide to capture our institutions and undermine us as people should have autonomy around that, then I think we’ve got issues. I think we have issues that we really need to do something about. I really think we need to be in situations inside all university institutions of higher education where we’re navigating a more robust kind of transparent sensibility. That also impacts on how we think about ourselves as scholars. A big thing that I’ve spent really a large part of my career doing is talking about the bureaucratization of the critical intellectual inside institutions. The idea that we’re being captured by a privatized imaginary. Wendy Brown has a book out, it’s a while ago now, but shares it with other people as published by his own books called authoritarianism. This pervasive rationality that absorbs the scholar into the framework. I’m not saying people don’t resist or that there isn’t the possibility of doing that. But I’m saying that in the context of our working lives and the ways in which this privatization frames our working lives, it gets in the way of this this idea. It may be very romantic or nostalgic. Often, if you talk like this, you’ll have a lot of early career scholars who only know the private side of things seeing the argument as outdated. That to me, I think is quite frightening. So I’m not sure yet about the innovative side of it and the idea that we might have the capacity for an egalitarian private to frame the university’s mandate. I’ve got questions about a more global transnational solidarity framework for thinking about how to agonize over what we mean about the public in the 21st century and not the kind of internationalization movement that Andrea was talking about, a new kind of internationalization that it is ultimately about corruption and not about the public good.

AU: Jo-Anne, Andrea, thank you very much for being with us today. It just remains for me to thank our excellent producers, Tiffany MacLennan and Sam Pufek, and you, our listeners for joining us. If you have any questions or comments about today’s podcast or ideas for future podcasts, please don’t hesitate to contact us at [email protected]. Join us next week for our final podcast of the season. Our guest will be William C. Kirby, the TM Chang professor of China studies at Harvard University and the Spangler Family professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. He’ll be joining us to talk about his excellent recent book, Empire of Ideas, creating the modern university from Germany to America to China. Bye for now.


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