Conference Conversation Starter: how right-wing politics can alter the course of higher education

Conference Conversation Starter: how right-wing politics can alter the course of higher education

This blog is the second of three complementing the 2017 Conference Conversation Starter. This year’s volume features seven articles aiming to make you think more about your goals regarding internationalisation. Today’s blog comes from Norbert Sabic, who contributed a piece to the Conference Conversation Starter about recent legislation in Hungary that may be threatening academic freedoms in the country. If this blog intrigues you, download the full volume before next week’s conference.

The end of internationalisation in higher education?

The advance of nationalist, populist and authoritarian politics in several developed countries, and the policies they further, often directly or indirectly question the internationalisation of higher education. For a long time, developments in European higher education have followed in the footsteps of the broader integration process taking place on the continent. Among other things, countries were eager to adopt similar degree structures or make the existing ones more compatible, harmonize their quality assurance procedures, develop a common credit system, and implement measures that would make European level mobility for both students and academic staff easier. Many of these efforts directly reinforced the internationalisation of higher education.
However, when the process of integration is questioned, as we have seen in the case of the UK, skepticism may arise regarding the internationalisation of higher education as well. In the recently presented manifesto of the UK’s Conservative Party, serious doubts and even fears are expressed about international students entering the country. Consequently, they pledge for more control, tougher visa requirements, and an overall reduction in the net amount of international students. All of the mentioned measures are justified on the grounds that immigration, by and large increased through the influx of international students to the country, has been “too fast and too high”, making it difficult to build a cohesive society (Forward Together: The Conservative Manifesto 2017, pp. 54). This example underscores that political forces built on ideas of nativism, populism and authoritarianism can have significant consequences for the internationalisation of higher education.

The effects of politics on academics

Hungary, with a stable right government for the past six years, offers a fitting example for exploring in more depth how such political forces relate to longstanding trends in higher education. The country’s higher education landscape has been in turmoil for the past few years. The latest amendment to the higher education legislation sought to regulate more strictly the work of international universities in Hungary, and more specifically, set legal barriers to the operation of the Central European University (CEU).
In the EAIE 2017 Conference Conversation Starter, my essay ‘Harmony or cacophony? The story of an international university in Hungary’ points out that the actions of the government in Hungary look more like disjointed and ad-hoc policy changes than consistent and coherent advancements in the field of higher education. Therefore, it is very hard to assess any meaningful implications to the internationalisation of higher education in the country. Although this objective is still important and is reiterated in Hungary’s latest strategy on higher education, the government seems to implement it selectively in line with other political agendas. While an international university like CEU might need to close its doors in Budapest, the government is working hard to support the expansion of its own higher education across the borders.
From 2016, students in the Serbian town of Sombor have the possibility to study elderly care, a BSc programme offered by the Hungarian University of Pecs. Another programme in the field of mechatronics from the University of Szeged is soon to be opened in the Serbian city of Subotica. These ‘exported’ study programmes are just some of the latest additions to the already established Hungarian private universities in Romania and Slovakia. The expansion has been driven by the Hungarian government to ensure that the Hungarian minority living in neighboring countries receives adequate training, first and foremost, in line with the labour market needs of Hungary. This points out that the Hungarian government is willing to support internationalisation, but following closely its own nationalist interests.

An uncertain future for CEU

At this moment, it is still unclear how the situation with CEU will unfold. Even though numerous European institutions condemned the amendment of the Hungarian higher education law by stating that it was changed in an undemocratic manner that singled out one particular university the government does not show much willingness to change it. Currently, the negotiations between the State of New York and the representatives of the Hungarian government are still ongoing, to which CEU is not invited. One can only speculate whether an agreement will be reached and how that will affect the university. Even if a new international agreement would warrant the continued operation of CEU in Budapest, things will never be the same again.
Head back to the EAIE blog tomorrow for the final article on the Conference Conversation Starter! The full publication is available for download on the EAIE Events App and online, and you’ll receive a printed copy in your conference bag next week in Seville.
Norbert Sabic is Strategic Planning Assistant at CEU in Hungary.