It may well not be on your radar, but the Central European University in Hungary, led by Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff, is under threat from Hungarys populist leader Viktor Orbán. In April this university – a beacon, it has to be said, of democratic values in Central Europe – was the subject of a law passed that aims to close it down next year. Ignatieff should know by this Christmas whether he has a job there or not, in 2019.
Ignatieff has become a central figure in the battle against populist, deeply conservative, reactionary politics in Eastern Europe. If Orbán wins this battle , it would be the first time that a member of the European Union dares to legislate an attack on the academic freedom of a university in Europe. Can the EU really stand by and watch this happen? Probably.
Ignatieff argues, persuasively that academic freedom is a core European value and a right that protects us all, not a privilege of the professorial elite, as it is sometimes misrepresented. His description of universities as important “counter-majoritarian institutions” should resonate . He sees them as just as vital to society as a free press and an independent judiciary, in counter-balancing majority governments.
Ignatieff had assumed, naively perhaps, that Hungary, relieved of its soviet yoke and now a member of the EU, would be receptive to liberal ideas, values and ,of course, education . The CEU might create a cadre of students who could absorb these values., go out into society and help transform the political culture. Eastern European universities had been churning out bureaucrats and scientists schooled in the finer points of marxist theory, and the primacy of the state and the collective . Surely a new Hungarian elite, now members of the EU and cherishing its values and accessing US and Hungarian accredited courses – would be created espousing the values that most support in the west . Quite a few of them, understandably , when given the chance, saw their futures in Paris, Berlin and London but the CEU nonetheless still quickly developed a cosmopolitan and diverse international student base. Until recently this worked pretty well .
Ignatieff is painfully honest in his analysis of the CEUs predicament “What we did not see coming at CEU is that we trained the liberal democratic transition elite, but we trained the elites that lost. In Hungary the post-1989 liberal democratic elite were pulverised in the elections. We are now facing all the consequences of having trained the elite that lost.” “The liberal transition story we believed was that we would move from liberalisation of the market to inevitable liberalisation of thought to inevitable liberalisation of politics, with universities as a kind of battering ram in the charge towards liberal democracy. Suddenly we weren’t allowed to have a dual legal American identity, which meant we couldn’t issue American accredited degrees in Hungary because local Hungarian universities were jealous of the fact that we could award United States masters and PhDs. They saw it as our competitive advantage and the national bourgeoisie supported by the state wanted to ‘level the playing field’.”
It is the case that authoritarian regimes ,whether in Europe , Russia or China, dont see Universities as products of the Enlightenment and bastions of freedom of thought and expression, cultivating individuals in pursuit of the truth . Instead, Universities are there to serve the interests of the state, not the individual, to sustain public administration, to control their future bureaucracy and to provide skills for the economy. They are not interested in liberal values. And local traditional universities, of course ,do not want any troublesome competition.
Ignatieff says “ All of these regimes are trying to create what used to be called a national bourgeoisie, attendant on subsidies, state support, state contracts, state education. So these are regimes that use education to create a national bourgeoisie which will in turn support them to the degree that they depend on elections at all. And this electoral base supports this kind of regime because it supports migration control.”
He is almost certainly right that they dont want a multicultural, pluralist future. So, control of universities is part of an attempt to re-engineer these societies and to defend them as mono-ethnic societies controlled by their own state-supported national bourgeoisie.
This is all the more shocking because Hungary is a member of the EU . The EU stands for democratic values and is supposed to be keen on sharing, defending and promoting these values. Its part of the deal for being a member of the club. One reason why Turkey has found its application for admission to the EU kicked into the long grass is that it doesn’t quite get these values under its authoritarian leader Erdogan, who is culling universities of everyone who doesnt overtly support him, his world view and his party.
But Hungary is being allowed to ignore the EUs values. One has to ask, Why? And lets hope that a slightly more worldly wise Ignatieff , and the CEU, are still there well into the New Year and beyond. But they need help from EU political establishment, and they richly deserve it.