For more than a month now, hundreds of Hungarian students have occupied the campus of the Hungarian University of Theater and Film Arts in response to the government’s attacks on university autonomy. Their fight, carefully planned and persistently carried out, attracted international attention and evoked support from all corners of society. Here is how it happened.
At a glance:
- The Hungarian government announced the privatization of eight universities, including art universities, without consulting with any of the affected institutions or stakeholders beforehand.
- The new model brings universities under direct political control and restricts their autonomy.
- Only one university put up a fight. That university was the University of Theater and Film Arts, where professors went on strike and students occupied the campus.
- With its innovative actions, the new student movement attracted international attention and mobilized supporters from all corners of society.
I am standing on Vas street, in front the Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Arts, or “SZFE” as it is locally known. The walls are decorated with colorful flags and slogans. “Free SZFE!” “We won’t be silenced!” “We stand up for the freedom of our university!” A recurring symbol runs through the banners; an open hand with a #freeSZFE hashtag. There are four women standing on the balcony above the entrance wearing masks. They are standing guard, as hundreds of other people before them, in solidarity with the students who occupy the campus in protest against the political invasion of their university. One of the four women is my mother, a drama teacher and a former student of the university. I am incredibly proud of her.
So why did she, a woman in her sixties, join theater and film students in a radical act to occupy their campus?
Political invasion or educational reform?
The government argues their educational reforms are par for the course for the region; the privatization of state universities is happening in other countries as well. According to them, it is only liberal political hysteria fueled by the opposition and, as usual, George Soros.
But unless you think the European University Association (EUA) is also part of the great Soros conspiracy, there is convincing evidence on the contrary. In 2016, the EUA reported that Hungarian universities ranked 23rd in organizational, 28th in financial and 22nd in staff autonomy in Europe, and that was before the current wave of privatization. (The report was published before the government launched its privatization. The situation has likely deteriorated since then.)
As the chart on the right shows, public spending on higher education has significantly declined during the first years of the Orban administration. It is one of the lowest in the EU as a percentage of GDP. As Ferenc Büttner, an educational expert pointed out in his article on Mérce, underfinancing of higher education had several negative social consequences.
Many students and professors decided to leave the country and study/teach at universities abroad. In addition, reduced access to higher education blocks social mobility and leads to a hierarchical, rigid and closed society. According to Büttner, the plan to privatise universities exacerbated this problem.
The first university privatised was the Budapest Corvinus University, offering educational programmes in business administration, economics, and social sciences. When the government announced its plan to privatise it in 2018, trade unions criticised the decision because they were not consulted and the proposed changes restricted the autonomy of the university. The government argued that there are many prestigious universities abroad operated by private foundations. But as 444.hu points us, there are three major differences between these and their Hungarian model.
- First, the privatized Hungarian universities are still funded by the government.
- Second, the board of these foundations are almost exclusively made up of pro-government politicians and businessmen (including Judit Varga, the Minister of Justice, and Sándor Csányi, a prominent banker and a close friend of Mr. Orban). This means they are completely under the financial and political control of the government.
- Third, the institutional changes have been adopted without any debate and without consultation with students, faculty, professional guilds or any other key interest group.. Even rectors could not see the text of the bills about their own universities before they were submitted to the parliament.
This makes the Hungarian “university reform” unprecedented in Europe. Post-privatization, theater and film professionals, professors and students are completely excluded from decision making about the curriculum or the university’s operations, while the government exerts complete financial and political control of them.
David stands up to Goliath
The government declared its intention to bring eight universities under direct political control under the privatization scheme in 2020. It used the COVID-19 crisis as distraction in the hope that it can execute its plan without significant resistance. It almost succeeded. Even if the citizens of these universities were completely disregarded when the government designed and implemented the institutional changes, most of them were forced into submission without any difficulties. Surprisingly, the smallest university among the eight, the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) was the only one that put up a stick resistance, like a small David against the huge Goliath of the Orban regime. Its brave students and professors stirred up the stagnant water of Hungarian political life and inspired many other people to speak up for academic freedom.
If we want to understand how and why the University of Theatre and Film Arts became the centre of resistance, we should start with the story of the culture war launched by the government after 2010.
Culture War: Political attacks against SZFE
In 2018 the pro-government press launched a culture war against liberal artists and scientists, that is, against those who were known to be critical to the new authoritarian system. They demanded liberal figures to be replaced by those who were in the “national camp” (that is, loyal to the government). The culture war included a smear campaign against SZFE, considered a liberal stronghold by many. The aim was to undermine the reputation of its professors, including Gábor Székely, Gábor Zsámbéki and Gábor Máté, who were living legends in the field of theatre and film arts, teaching generations of excellent actors and directors.
Of course not all the criticisms against SZFE were politically motivated. A number of disturbing #metoo era revelations delivered another perfectly timed, if unintentional blow to the university. Several actors spoke up against emotional abuse, sexism and discrimination enbedded in the educational system and demanded institutional reforms. One of the critics was Árpád Schilling, an award winning independent theatre director who emigrated to France in 2018 for political reasons. His wife, Lilla Sárosdi came out as victim of sexual abuse, previously assaulted by László Marton, an acclaimed director. In November 2019 Péter Gothár, a director and professors of SZFE was accused of sexual abuse.
These issues were adequately tackled by the university: Gothar was dismissed from his job. According to Schilling, long awaited institutional reforms were implemented and new professors joined the staff in recent years. But the pro-government press presented these issues not as the signs of systemic discrimination of the outdated educational system but as the intellectual and moral crisis of liberal elites. The government used the artificially heated media hysteria over the “liberal sexual predators” as a cover for its political takeover in the field of culture. In December 2019 the parliament adopted a law that established the National Council of Culture, a government controlled body to implement institutional reforms. Part of these reforms were the so-called “model change” in higher education, that is, the privatisation of art universities according to the model described above.
The escalation of the crisis
At first, university leadership was cooperating. They accepted the privatization agenda but sent a list of theater and film professionals they recommended for the newly created board of trustees (kuratórium) of the private foundation governing the university. None of the people recommended by the university were appointed but pro-government people.
The university’s new chairman became Attila Vidnyánszky, a vexed pro-government theater director handpicked by the government with a history of addressing the university’s faculty as the “liberal gang.” He previously declared that he had no intention to participate in the board. He was now the plenipotentiary lord of the university. The Senate, the main decision making body was soon deprived of all its powers, including the right to decide about its own rules, budget and positions. Vidnyánszky and the government expected that the university will be subjugated without resistance, as it happened with many previous public institutions. But this time they miscalculated.
The rise of a theatre dictator
The Budapest-based SZFE is not the first theatre art university to be invaded by the government. The University of Theatre Art in Kaposvár underwent a similar process a few years after Orban won the 2010 parliamentary elections. And the nemesis of its institutional autonomy was the same person: Attila Vidnyánszky. Mr. Vidnyánszky is a Hungarian theatre director from the Subcarpathian region, in present day Ukraine. After the landslide victory of Fidesz in 2010, Vidnyánszky became a protégé of the new government and he was appointed the new director of the Kaposvár University of Theatre Art. Judit Csáki, a former professor who was dismissed by Vidnyánszky, said in an interview that the takeover was gradual and slow. But finally all professors he disliked were replaced by his loyal friends. On top of his job as the director of the Subcarpathian Hungarian Drama Theatre, the chair of the Hungarian Theatrical Society and the head of the Kaposvár university, he became the director of the National Theatre in 2012. He replaced Róbert Alföldi, an openly gay liberal theatre director appointed by the previous Socialist-Liberal administration. At the moment, has no less than nine leading positions (!) at various institutions and boards. Partizán, an independent online media outlet interviewed two students from Kaposvár, who studied in Vidnyánszky’s class. They complained that Vidnyánszky was missing many classes and was not present when needed. His performance as the head of the national theatre was also criticised because despite the enormous public funds received from the government, he could not fill the theatre with paying guests, only with organised groups of pensioners and high school students. And being the single most powerful and well-funded figure in the field has still not satisfied the ambitions of Mr. Vidnyánszky. He picked out SZFE as its new target.
The arrogance and cynicism of the takeover caused an enormous uproar among students and professors alike and led to an open war between the university and the government. Leading professors, including Zsámbéki and Székely, announced their resignation in protest. Many actors, directors expressed their support publicly to the university and speak up for academic freedom. Other artists, much fewer in number, the main beneficiaries of the cultural policies of the government, lined up behind Vidnyánszky.
On August 31 the full leadership of the university resigned. On this occasion, students organised a street farewell party in front of the university campus on Vas street. The event became a political demonstration. Thousands of people showed up to express their solidarity. This reinforced the commitment of students to continue their resistance. As Balázs Dohy, a student of SZFE, whom I interviewed in our show at the independent Tilos Radio, pointed out:
On September 1, students occupied the main campus building on Vas street. They published a declaration of autonomy with a list of thirteen demands, including the reinstatement of the independent institutions of the university, such as the Senate. They rejected the new private foundation, its board and the law that authorized them. No one can enter without their permission, except students and professors.
“We have several working groups, our people work day and night on this campaign,” said Balázs Dohy. A student protest group, Secret University (Titkos egyetem), was formed to facilitate dialogue among students of all Hungarian universities about the autonomy of education. A new song was written as its anthem. In the following days, the red-white stripes used to seal off the entrance of the building became a symbol of resistance in Hungary and appeared on doors, bags, balconies and cars. For many, it is also a show of solidarity with those protesting for freedom and democracy in Belarus, a country ruled by a regime that is in friendly terms with Orban’s government (read our article!).
Although Vidnyánszky claimed that there is a silent part of students who would like to continue their studies, this claim is not supported by facts. Balázs Dohy said they conducted an anonymous survey before they started the boycott, almost 100% said they agree with the boycott and refuse to continue their studies under the illegitimate new leadership. “We have been learning the methods of direct democracy and the way to make decisions,” he said. “We created safety health rules to avoid the risk of COVID-infections. Everybody is really motivated and disciplined to follow these rules.”
In a country that experienced 10 years of authoritarian hybrid-regime, many people became skeptical about the feasibility of resistance and the efficiency of traditional forms of protest, such as petitions and street demonstrations. It was a great challenge for students to mobilise public support without being accused of doing the same old things and expecting different results.
On September 6, a few days after the campus occupation started, they successfully came up with an innovative approach: they organised a human chain from the university to the parliament, in which people were handing over the Magna Charta Universitatum, a declaration including their conditions to any future negotiations with the government. Thousands joined the human chain, which is celebrated as an innovative public performance by the press, actively involving participants in collective action rather than asking them to be the passive audience of long speeches.
The list of supporters of SZFE’s freedom fight are growing by the day (this is an updated list in Hungarian). Universities, public institutions and non-governmental organisations from Glasgow to Kolkata, as well as celebrities, actors, novelists and scientists. David Lan, the director of the Young Vic Theatre in London, helped to collect signatures abroad, including Cate Balnchett, Helen Mirren, Eddie Redmayne, Pawel Pawlikowski and Salman Rushdie. The rectors of 24 German art universities condemned the attack against SZFE. The Berliner Ensemble, a leading theatre in Europe, announced on September 5 that it cancelled its guest performance in a festival organised by Vidnyánszky.
Those who join Vidnyánszky in his attack against SZFE risk public condemnation and face isolation. The Hungrian Film Academy withdrew the mandate of its chair, Emil Novák, after he accepted Vidnyánszky’s offer to join the board in the private foundation. Twenty four members of the Hungarian Society of Cinematographers, where Novak is member of the board, left the organisation in protest.
The autocracy strikes back
The growing resistance and international scandal came as an unpleasant surprise for Orban’s regime that came under formal investigation by the EU Commission for violating the rule of law and European values. The pro-government press viciously attacked the professors and students of the university, accusing them of serving foreign interests and manipulated by George Soros and his global conspiracy against Hungary. Vidnyánszky himself is one of the accusers, making the surreal claim that Amnesty International brainwashed students in a summer camp and prepared them to occupy the university. He says there was liberal political indoctrination at the university and there are “terrifying forces” behind the students. The pro-government Magyar Hírlap accused peacefully protesting students of being the successors of the Lenin-boys, the red terrorist brigades who committed violent crimes during the revolution in 1919.
On September 29, one month after the blockade started, the government appointed a military colonel, Gábor Szarka as the chancellor of the university. Mr. Szarka, who worked for the military academy before and has no previous expertise in theatre or film arts, was denied entry to the university building by students. He sent an open letter to the professors who participate in the strike, applying the carrot and stick approach. He promised a pay rise to all professors who finished the strike but threatened those who “continue to participate in activities that distort the lawful operation of the university.”
By the time I am writing this article, the resistance has not been broken. Both professors and students rejected Szarka’s ultimatum and the blocad continued. On 8th October, an another attempt of Mr. Szarka to enter the building was blocked by a wall of students. On October 9th, students built a three meter high watchtower from lumber in front of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology, where they read out aloud their 13 points declaration every hour from 8 am to 8 pm. On the same day they launched a campaign among students, asking them to call on their professors to hold one extracurricular class in this semester, where they can discuss the issue of the endangered autonomy of higher education.
Future prospects of resistance
These students have achieved a lot with minimal resources, and they did so in the face of fierce government opposition. They were able to attract more global attention than many well-financed advocacy campaigns run by professional communicators. But what is really fascinating is how they managed to mobilize simple people within Hungary. Food donations from restaurants and private citizens are coming to the students on guard at the Vas utca campus. It is trending among young people to wear SZFE face masks on mass transportation. Red-and-white stripes appear wherever I go in the city centre. The Vas utca campus became a public sight, attracting many people to walk by and see the slogans and posters on the walls. There were so many organizations and people who wanted to participate in the guard that the students had to create a waiting list, everybody could serve less than half an hour. People consider it such an honor to stand guard that they travel hundreds of miles for this half an hour.
My mother took the train from my hometown, Kecskemét, 120 km from Budapest, just to stand there for 15 minutes.
In his legendary book, The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel, a dissident who was imprisoned by the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia in the 80s, points out that post-totalitarian regimes don’t necessarily want people to believe in their lies – they want them to comply with them, and they want them to believe that their dissent would not make a difference. We are living in times that are creepily familiar to many Hungarians who grew up in those post-totalitarian systems. We don’t know whether the current resistance of the powerless will be successful to overcome the oppression of the powerful. But we know that many people, including my mother, now believe that their actions make a difference. And this is very dangerous for autocratic systems like the Hungarian.
Article by Peter Sarosi
Illustrated by Istvan Gabor Takacs using the photo of Lázár Todoroff
Photo gallery: Lázár Todoroff
Executive Director of the Rights Reporter Foundation.
He is a historian, a human rights activist and drug policy expert, the founder and editor of the Drugreporter website since 2004, a documentary film maker and blogger. He has been working for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) for more than 10 years. Now he leads the Rights Reporter Foundation.