This summer, Budapest’s prestigious University of the Arts and Theatre (SZFE) was placed under the governance of a private foundation. But while supporters claimed the move would prompt needed reform, others saw it as the latest step in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “war on culture” — an extended campaign which has seen Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party clamp down on liberalism or even opposition sentiment. Not only did the private foundation taking charge of the university welcomed in a new, unelected board of trustees, it also happened to be funded directly by Fidesz.
Seven other universities in Hungary have already been put under similar boards. This time, however, the fast turn-around of the reform and the lack of consultation with student leaders and staff of the university led to an unexpected resistance. Students occupied the SZFE building, with hundreds more flocking to daily demonstrations, including a human chain stretching the five kilometres between SZFE and the Hungarian parliament building. Thousands marched on the streets of Budapest to express their solidarity.
As the occupation continues, The Calvert Journal asked four people involved in the cause to talk more about the demonstrations, democracy, and the future of both the university and its supporters.
No two days that are the same [on the barricade]. It’s an extreme, intense situation where we don’t know what might happen next; we have to be able to react quickly and effectively. Periods of time are divided by the bigger protests and performances, such as forming the human chain and open days. We spend days preparing for the events, focusing solely on the upcoming tasks ahead.
The government claims that the transfer of university ownership, from state to private, will provide financial independence and will make the institution more competitive. But this is already the only higher education institution in Europe that received Student Oscar nominations three consecutive years, which culminated in 2018, when Istvan Kovacs was awarded the prestigious prize.
If you leave here with a degree, your career in the industry is guaranteed. The high-standard of education is assured by the unique way professors and students work together and the networks we develop. The remodelling of the university puts these relationships in danger. The protests led to our names being listed on official records, foreshadowing some daunting scenarios. Just imagine, in an interview one could suddenly be presented with a Facebook picture or post tagged with #FREESZFE ; ‘Do you remember posting this in September 2020?’.
I wholly identify with the professors here and stand in solidarity with the students. Our university went through the same thing, but at a slower pace. We also start this year with our freedom impaired and the power of our board kept minimal. About 30 teachers, including myself, have signed a solidarity declaration; I bring donations to the students occupying the university. As I’m writing, some of their sleeping bags, wet from spending the night outside as part of a demonstration, are drying in my flat. Hundreds of artists, film and theatre personnel stand guard outside the university. The message is clear: “#freeszfe!”
The government has been gradually diluting the university’s autonomy for the past 10 years. First, they named and appointed their own chancellors. Now, under the banner of “restructuring”, the university is under a new board of trustees, not appointed based on the university’s democratic law, which weakens the original academic senate’s power. The way the changes were carried out mean occupation and ultimately disenfranchisement. [The government] already hold complete power over media and politics, education is next. We already know this strategy from the Second World War and the Soviet occupation. It’s Hungarian deja vu: once again, the dictators are coming.
Teachers have resigned, and there’s no dean, which is unprecedented in Hungary. Outstanding teachers, such as director Ildiko Enyedi and theatre director Tamas Ascher have resigned. The new board has appointed two new vice-directors and named a new chancellor, an ex-marksman colonel. The new chancellor has been attacking the university daily; he prevented access to the internet in the university building, closed classrooms used for meetings, and banned taking pictures and videos in an institution that hosts an internationally acknowledged cinematography course. It’s like bombing a city before the invasion. They expected unconditional surrender, but instead the bomb exploded in their hands before they could throw it.
The blockade is our main form of protest. We don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of these undemocratically implemented bodies, so they can’t access the building. From 1 September, we have also been organising weekly demonstrations to maximise public involvement. We aim to make these events as original and varied as possible — we want to provide an experience. We also try to involve students from other universities, to give them a platform where they can voice their concerns and to represent their own interests. We will be holding up the blockade until our demands are met. In the meantime, we have started alternative forms of education and are deliberating on what we can do for the resistance to succeed — what needs to change and what kind of educational reform we need.
Students and teachers unanimously agree that studying is our desire and job, but traditional education can’t happen while the blockade is up. We started an “Education Republic” where we rethought the structure of our teaching. Some of these classes follow the usual format, while others provide a more open, transparent approach to teaching, where film and theatre students have more opportunities to mix and attend different lectures.
We want to reestablish institutional autonomy, which means self-governance. The community can make their own decisions about how they want their society to operate, what values they represent. But agreements are achieved within a democratic, professional frame. When an external body makes decisions — who can teach and what the curriculum is, the democratic order suffers — and the freedom of learning and working will be subservient to ideology.
This case points beyond SZFE: the government is actively trying to make middle- and higher-education wither away. It’s exactly 30 years since communism ended in Hungary, and yet we have not been able to build a democracy similar to those in the West. If anything, the past few years showed that our democracy is regressing. The institutional structure exists, but the current government has been expanding its authority, fighting anything in their way.
The current leadership’s all-encompassing legislative power ensures that there are very few barriers to its will. It’s difficult to understand from a Western point of view but Hungary’s history has always been formed, and changes decided, by a small, elite political circle. There’s no culture of the public’s voice being heard or realised.
We need to aim for unity with SZFE. We need to think about unity on a national level. There’s no proper political alternative: the current opposition doesn’t offer a political vision, and only defines itself through rejection of the current government. We need to start working towards an alternative that helps us channel our needs and brings people closer to the realisation that we do have a choice. We need a system change, a change in mentality — but the road ahead is long and bumpy.