Hallgatói Önkormányzatok

Corruption at the University of Szeged

It was about a year and a half ago that Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education” which, despite its title, was mostly about corruption in Hungarian higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Transparency International interviewed 500 students and conducted a number of in-depth interviews with teachers and administrative professionals. The result? According to the students, corruption is highest in political life but is also present in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believed that the faculty was not at all or was only partially honest.

When this study was published I wrote a post entitled “Corrupt student leaders, corrupt politicians” in which I drew a parallel between corruption in politics and corruption in the student unions. In that piece I did not go into the details of how these student leaders operate, what kinds of illegal activities they pursue, and in what way they are assisted by corrupt university officials. Today, inspired by several recent newspaper articles on the “untouchable student leader” Márk Török of the University of Szeged, I would like to concentrate on these aspects of Hungarian university life, using the University of Szeged as a prototype.

The student union (HÖK) at the University of Szeged is notorious. Szeged is a large university, with an enrollment of 30,000. The yearly budget of the student union is 3.5 billion forints, an enormous sum for undergraduates to dispose of. However, seasoned HÖK leaders are no ordinary undergraduates. They have held their leadership positions for years. Since student leaders must actually be students, they are perpetual undergraduates. Often it takes them years to get a degree and, when they receive it, they immediately enroll in another department or school. So, for example, Márk Török began his university career as a history major. Once he got a degree in history he enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of Pedagogy and then moved over to the Law School. By now Török is 30 years old and has been enrolled as a student at the University of Szeged for the last twelve years. Between 2004 and 2008 he was the student union president of the Faculty of Arts; after that, he became president of the student union of the whole university. There was only one break in his presidential career when in 2008, as a result of disciplinary action against him, he could not attend college for two semesters. But apparently even then he was running the show from behind the scenes.

The powerful student leader, Márk Török

The powerful student leader Márk Török

The 3.5 billion forints allocated to the student union are spent without any oversight. It is the “president” of the student union who, with associates of his own choosing, decides how much money will be spent on what. In early 2011 first- and second-year students in Szeged signed a petition to demand more transparency but got nowhere.

People who know the inner workings of the university are convinced that the university administration has been cowed by the student union leaders, who can blackmail them in the university senate where promotions or/and appointments are being decided. If a professor gives them trouble, with their votes and some clever finagling they can ruin the person’s university career. It is impossible that the university administration doesn’t know of the alleged Ponzi-scheme that urged students to enroll in an association to receive a monthly stipend from HÖK of which ten percent would be paid as a membership fee in the association. The students were told to recruit five others. Upon closer investigation, it was determined that this was Török’s business venture. They also must know that HÖK, through a business venture, runs two pubs in Szeged.

Inside of the university Török can do practically anything he wants. For example, he made renovations in the building of the Faculty of Arts without university approval or obtaining a building permit. He is powerful enough to make administrative changes that are to his advantage. The deputy president in charge of the student unions who was responsible for Török’s expulsion paid dearly for daring to challenge the almighty student leader. Eventually even his post was eliminated. By now, without Török’s permission no student can expelled for either academic or disciplinary reasons.

In 2013 Török was again reelected president of the university’s student union. He was the only candidate and his platform was not publicly available. Átlátszó Oktatás (Transparent Education) is suing the university.

Abcug.hu published a surprisingly positive portrait of Márk Török. The reporter, Illés Szurovecz, went to his old high school in Veszprém where his former teachers spoke highly of him, describing him as mature beyond his years. He was always a leader with a flair for the theatrical. He was fiercely independent: “he had his own plans. What he decided on he carried through” even if it meant serious conflicts. He was his own man and did not need “allies.” He did not care what other people thought of him.

Within the university Török is unpopular, yet there is no one who can take his place. In any case, normally he is the only applicant for the post. The reason for his lonely position is his centralizing efforts in the last few years. Only his closest friends can have meaningful positions within the organization. Even his critics think that, after his departure from HÖK, Török will be in “some leading position.”

All this reminds me of Viktor Orbán. Purposeful, power-hungry, self-confident, stubborn, someone who keeps tab on everything, who has no allies, only subordinates. Unlike Viktor Orbán, however, Török seems to have business acumen. He is like an Orbán and Simicska combined into a single corrupt political manipulator. He has a promising career in the Hungarian mafia state.

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Corrupt student leaders, corrupt politicians

Just the other day Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education.” This title is somewhat misleading because the main emphasis is on corruption in higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Five hundred students were interviewed in a questionnaire survey, and a number of in-depth interviews were conducted with teachers and administrative professionals. According to the students, it is in politics that corruption is the highest but it is also present, even if not to such an extent, in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believe that the teaching staff is not at all or only partially honest. Twenty-six percent question the integrity of the admission committees, and 46% doubt the honesty of the student council/union.

Let me concentrate on the student councils here. The HÖKs were set up with generous support from the government in the early 1990s when politicians in their democratic zeal felt that students, just like every other group, needed their own self-governing institution. They were given both funding and wide-ranging privileges. They could offer financial assistance to students in need. They also had jurisdiction over the dormitories. And they had the right to vote on the appointment and promotion of professors.

Quickly enough some students discovered the benefits of attaining high positions in the student union, including substantial personal monetary benefits. As a result, it was not always the most honest men and women (mostly men, I’m afraid) who vied for these positions.

These student unions became incubators for future politicians, especially those who eventually ended up in Fidesz. Fidesz in the 1990s was extremely popular among students, and eventually the whole leadership of Fidelitas, the junior branch of the party, underwent their political apprenticeship in student unions of various universities. Since then, with the rise of Jobbik, in some universities Jobbik took over the student unions. You may recall that at the Faculty of Arts of ELTE the Jobbik leadership of HÖK picked out “the most promising” (i.e., most likely to join Jobbik) freshmen. This crew had a running list of entering freshmen and made special mention of who might be a Jew or a left-winger.

A leadership position in HÖK could have been good preparation for an honorable political career. These student leaders had to negotiate with the faculty and the university administration, and in theory they were supposed to defend the rights of the student body. Unfortunately their primary concern was to fill their pockets and acquire more and more power. In the study half of the students claim that members of the student union ask for money, gifts or favors from those who request a place in the dormitory or social assistance. The financial affairs of the student union are unregulated and opaque.

The corruption of the budding Fidesz-Jobbik student leaders practically guaranteed that when they found themselves in more important political positions they would carry on their shady business, only on a much grander scale.

Perhaps the most notorious HÖK was at the University of Szeged where in early 2011 there was practically a student revolt to get rid of the corrupt HÖK members. There, as István Tanács, Népszabadság‘s Szeged correspondent wrote, “instead of student autonomy HÖK had a potential for blackmail of the administration.” About 600 students, freshmen and sophomores, naive souls, signed a petition demanding more electoral transparency. Their demands were modest: they wanted the votes collected to be kept at night in the safe of the Dean’s Office and not in the office of HÖK. They wanted a public notary to be present when the results of the election were counted. They also demanded a completely new election for all positions and not individual replacements of students whose term of office was ending.

"I no longer want to be chairman for that long" -- Márk Török, the notorious chairman of Szeged HÖK

“I no longer want to be chairman for that long” — Márk Török, the notorious chairman of the Szeged HÖK

The leadership of the Szeged HÖK managed to fend off the attempts at undercutting their power within the organization. That could be done relatively easily because the heads of the student unions are not elected in a truly democratic manner. In fact, the HÖK in Szeged is organized in such a way that its president has absolute power and the university’s administration has no say whatsoever over its affairs. The university’s senate accepted that arrangement as well as the demand of HÖK that this provision can be changed only with the approval of the student union.

The head of the Szeged HÖK is in charge of billions of forints spent on scholarships, the maintenance of dormitories, and assistance for living expenses, for books, for sports and cultural events. Moreover, without the approval of the leadership of the Szeged HÖK no student can be removed from the university for academic or disciplinary reasons. One of the vice-presidents of the university who made such a decision on his own was himself eventually removed from the university at the insistence of the HÖK chairman. It looks as if the university administration is actually afraid of the student union.

So, the younger Fidesz leadership, and these people by now are probably in their early forties, often comes from these student unions where for years they were masters of manipulation and where they enjoyed unquestioned, concentrated power. We shouldn’t be surprised about the atmosphere that pervades the party. In addition, let’s not forget that Viktor Orbán and his buddies come from a very similar background. When they were at university they spent more time politicking than studying. They managed to achieve self-government within their small dormitory and ran the show with practically no supervision.

While I think that political activity should be part of university life, I also think that the power of HÖK should be broken once the electorate gets rid of those who brought into Hungarian political life the institutionalized corruption learned already in college.