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“Reforming” higher education, Orbán style

“Zdenek” suggested today’s topic and I gladly accepted his invitation. The topic is timely, and I am naturally interested in higher education.

There has been talk about trimming the faculties at a number of universities for some time. The first piece of news I read about the dismissal of faculty members across the board was in March 2012 when it was reported that colleges and universities were in trouble because their budgets had already been trimmed by 13 billion forints in 2011. How much less money they would get in 2012 was still not known.

Today, a year later, we know that Hungarian higher education is not exactly high on the Orbán government’s agenda. Although Viktor Orbán’s twenty-year plan includes upgrading Hungarian universities to the point that they will be among the best in Europe, his government seems determined to diminish even their current state of mediocrity.

kick outOne way to destroy the reputation of a university is to fire faculty members with distinguished international reputations. And that’s exactly what the Orbán government has been doing in the last few years. I assume that long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum remember the cleansing of the Philosophical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. If not, it is worth taking a look at the January 2010 post on the affair. At that point several philosophers were dismissed. Now it seems that literature and linguistics professors are in the crosshairs. It is not immaterial that they are liberals.

I do understand, given the government’s attitude toward higher education and its financing, that universities are strapped for funds. The problem is that the decision about who gets dismissed seems to be politically motivated.  At least this was the situation in 2011. At the moment we don’t know with any certainty who will be leaving the Faculty of Arts, just that 22 university professors who are older than 62 will lose their jobs. In addition, the university will ask 10 part-time instructors to take a half a year of unpaid leave. According to the by-laws of ELTE, associate professors can work up to the age of 65 while full professors can stay until the age of 70.

None of the people mentioned as possible targets would qualify for forced retirement under the rules of the university. Tamás Tarján (Hungarian literature) is a 62-year-old associate professor. Sándor Radnóti, a full professor, is 66. László Kálmán (linguistics) is an associate professor and is only 56 years old. György Tverdota (literature), a full professor and departmental chairman, is 65. The last person mentioned was Ádám Nádasdy (linguist), a 66-year-old associate professor; he is the only one who should, according to ELTE’s retirement terms, step down.

The news about the dismissals was first reported by NépszabadságThe author of the article specifically mentioned four names: Sándor Radnóti, Tamás Tarján, György Tverdota, and László Kálmán. Since then, Sándor Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that as far as he knows his name is not on the list. As Radnóti explained, he shouldn’t be forced to retire because he didn’t have the privilege of having a job for forty years as required by law. In the 1970s he worked for a publishing house but was fired for political reasons. Radnóti told Magyar Narancs that he has a verbal assurance that his job is safe.

László Kálmán told Magyar Narancs that he did receive a letter from the dean of the faculty suggesting that he take an unpaid leave of absence until the end of the year. However, it turned out that this is not the first time he received such a notice. Ádám Nádasdy is also among those who might be terminated, but so far he hasn’t received any word about his fate. However, he knows that things can change very quickly.

Everything is in flux, but my hunch is that the information Népszabadság received has some basis. Perhaps the letters haven’t been sent out yet, but most likely the decisions have already been made.

One problem with this allegedly mechanical approach is that the decision makers pay no attention whatsoever to quality. It doesn’t matter how famous or how valuable the faculty member is. The person must leave because of his or her age.  It is enough to take a quick look at these men’s curriculum vitae to realize that if they are dismissed the university will deprive itself of valuable assets. They all are known abroad because they either studied or taught at foreign universities. They all received high academic honors at home and abroad. László Kálmán speaks English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Russian. Ádám Nádasdy speaks English, Italian, German, and French. And what a lecturer! I highly recommend listening to a lecture he delivered at the Mindentudás Egyeteme a few years ago. It is a treat. György Tverdota is the foremost expert on the poetry of Attila József and is regularly invited to international conferences. Several of his works have been translated.

I used the phrase “allegedly mechanical” advisedly in describing the process of forced faculty retirement. Do we really think that only 22 members of the Faculty of Arts at ELTE are older than 62? Presumably age is only one criterion in deciding who stays and who goes. The people mentioned above are well known liberals who frequently express their opposition to the Orbán government’s policies. László Kálmán often analyses speeches of Fidesz politicians, and Radnóti was already a victim of political harassment when Viktor Orbán set Gyula Budai loose to find dirt on the liberal opposition.

I’ve saved the best for last. The new undersecretary for higher education, István Klinghammer, came out with this startling statement: “It is not in the interest of foreigners to have high quality Hungarian education.”  It is jarring, to say the least, to hear this kind of right-wing paranoia from a former president of ELTE and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (elected in 2010).

Klinghammer is a great fan of forcing students who receive scholarships to stay in Hungary for a number of years. However, trying to make scholarship students the modern-day equivalent of indentured servants will prompt yet another fight with the European Union. Just today László Andor, EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, made it clear in an interview that Brussels will not accept the proposed bill tying Hungarian students to the homeland in its current form.

Klinghammer also has a very low opinion of certain majors. In his introductory interview as the new undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s ministry he referred to Mickey Mouse majors. He himself began his studies at the College of Engineering (mechanical engineering) but switched to ELTE’s Faculty of Science where he received a degree in geography. His first diploma entitled him to teach geography in high school. He received a degree in cartography later. It seems that Klinghammer’s fame as a cartographer didn’t exactly spread far and wide.

I’m curious whether the Faculty of Sciences at ELTE will have similar budgetary cuts that will necessitate firing twenty-thirty faculty members. By the way, as far as I can ascertain, Klinghammer is still on the faculty of ELTE. He is 72 years old.