Hungary’s Parliament voted on Tuesday to transfer control of 11 state universities, along with billions of euros in related state assets, to quasi-public foundations led by close allies of the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Critics immediately denounced the move as a government handover of both public education and a vast network of public assets — including real estate and shares in Hungarian companies — to Mr. Orban and his supporters.
According to the measure that passed on Tuesday, the foundations will “ensure the realization of vital public goals” by managing the universities more efficiently, regardless of who is in power.
But going forward, any changes to the rules governing the foundations will require a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Practically speaking, this that means any effort to tinker with the new system of oversight will require the same level of political support as overhauling the Constitution.
The minister of innovation and technology, Laszlo Palkovics, said in an interview with Index.hu that the high bar for future changes had been chosen “in the interest of financial and legal stability.”
Critics say the transfer will allow Mr. Orban and his allies to retain significant influence indefinitely — even if he is voted out of office — over universities that have been academically independent. With Hungary’s previously divided opposition mounting a unified campaign against Mr. Orban in elections scheduled for next year, he faces the most significant challenge in over a decade.
Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, noted that the initial foundation board members are appointed by Mr. Orban’s government. “When openings arise, subsequent members are appointed by this board,” she said. “So in effect, these are endlessly renewing Orban regimes.”
Installing political allies at the helm of these foundations, added Balint Magyar, a sociologist who has twice served as a minister of education, means that “the autonomy of teaching and research staff is not ensured.”
Such concerns are not baseless, as Mr. Orban’s government has long waged a culture war against liberal values to advance nativist policies in Hungarian economics, education, and culture. Accusations that Mr. Orban has eroded the rule of law and democratic values have put him on a collision course with the European Union, one of the few meaningful checks on his power.
But in late 2020, Hungary and Poland challenged the bloc’s effort to tie billions in E.U. aid to the countries’ adherence to the rule of law. Following months of tense negotiations, which required unanimity from the European Union’s national leaders, a compromise was reached to permit the bloc to cut a member states’ funds only if its rule of law violations directly infringed the bloc’s financial interests.
Within days, Mr. Orban’s governing coalition adopted a raft of sweeping measures to curtail the rights of gay people and to make it harder to monitor how the government spends public funds.
Higher education features prominently in the government’s proposal for how it plans to use a windfall of subsidies expected through the European Union’s coronavirus recovery fund. According to Bloomberg, Hungary has asked the bloc to channel one-fifth of the grants it is eligible to receive under the bloc’s €800 billion recovery fund to the “modernization of universities.”
The framework created Tuesday, Prof. Scheppele said, “removes all transparency from how E.U. funds are spent, and any assets that go into these foundations go off the public books — out of the purview of the state audit office, out of the reach of freedom of information requests, and out of all public accountability.”
An opposition lawmaker, Akos Hadhazy, likened Tuesday’s move to the contentious period during Hungary’s democratic transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s when members of Hungary’s communist elite secured access to key state assets.
“He may not be preparing to lose” next year’s elections, Mr. Hadhazy said of Mr. Orban, “but this will suffice in terms of a Plan B.”