Troubling Times for Internationalization in Hungary

It is important to investigate the threat to Hungarian higher education and find ways to support the students and faculty working to preserve academic freedom. 

October 9, 2017

In the early years of the Bologna guidelines adoption, Hungarian higher education institutions (HEIs) embraced internationalization initiatives and institutional reforms and became a leader in Central Europe in providing students and faculty pathways for professional and economic mobility. With a tremendous demand for college graduates in the post-soviet revitalized market, the private rate of return in Hungary for college graduates was higher than any other industrialized country. Unfortunately, turbulent times soon followed, and many Hungarian HEIs with missions in conflict with the increasingly authoritarian government have struggled to match the internationalization achievements of the previous decade. With national elections only months away, and the current government looking to increase its nationalist stronghold, it is important to investigate the threat to Hungarian higher education and find ways to support the students and faculty working to preserve academic freedom. 


Internationalization under attack

Internationalization in Hungarian HEIs is not and has never been systematic, neither on a national scale nor within individual institutions, however one can assess early internationalization strategies implemented in the country's top research institutions as successful. Initiatives such as cross-national partnerships and faculty international research participation increased in the years just after the Bologna adoption. Unfortunately, these early years were not bellwether for internationalization implementation to come.

Like many post-Soviet countries, student enrollment nearly quadrupled between 1989 and 2005 in Hungary. Had institutions met the enrollment increases with sufficient faculty hiring and incentives and expanded student services and funding, perhaps the institutional boon would have helped provide stability in the lean years that followed. Instead, Hungarian HEIs hired contingent faculty with European Union grant money or diverted funds that should have gone to establishing globally competitive doctoral programs and international research projects. With shrinking central government resources, Hungarian HEIs faculty and administrators now spend a significant amount of time writing grants to supplement dwindling resources. According to one HEI department head, “Leading this institution is like tying a man and asking him to swim across the Danube.”

Student mobility was especially hard hit by a 2012 government-initiated repayment scheme wherein graduates who had received educational funding were required to repay the government if they left the country to pursue professional opportunities. Student mobility has continued to suffer in the years since these laws were established. Furthermore, the government has prioritized for student funding those disciplines with high civic value—young Hungarians who are meant to become useful citizens don’t need to study international business or French literature, so the theory goes.


The war on the academe

Fidesz, the ruling national party that gained control of the Hungarian parliament in 2007, instituted sweeping changes to the national higher education laws and policies with especially deleterious attention paid to research institutions that promoted student and faculty mobility. Fidesz has further exerted its control over Hungarian HEIs by appointing powerful university Chancellors willing to incorporate Primer Minister Victor Orban’s “illiberal” policies into a system=wide overhaul of the national education agenda. Through changes to accreditation and the implementation of work-based state curriculums, Hungarian HEIs are now in deep crisis.   

Faculties in major HEIs today acknowledge that implementation of various internationalization initiatives may serve as salve for the government’s war on the academe—both in advancing humanistic ideals and economic protections. While the government wages a cruel campaign against refugees, institutions still strive to recruit international students to supplement the capital lost by the decrease in domestic student enrollment. This is promising at a local level yet it does nothing to sway the dogma of the openly hostile far-right government leaders who have turned a nationalist mood into higher education policy: Hungary is for Hungarians. One needs not look farther than the recent attack against the Central European University, whose fate is still in peril, and whose founder, George Soros, has become the primary target for far-right political ads.

To say that the government lacks an international vision to sustain competitive research universities in Hungary is an understatement. In most cases, the government is openly hostile to such initiatives, seemingly energized by the ire in Brussels and bolstered by growing nationalist movements in the United States, England, France, Germany, and Russia. Still, it’s difficult to ignore the recent report by the World Economic Forum that showed Hungary’s global competitiveness rise nine spots since 2014, an increase that indicates advancements in technological readiness. Innovation and financial markets are also positive contributors to the increase. The report is not entirely positive, however, as it warned that the Hungarian workforce is increasingly inadequately educated, a trend with the potential for widespread negative implications in years to come. 


A story to tell

Internationalization initiatives are slowly perishing in Hungarian HEIs with student scholastic and faculty professional lives hanging in the balance. We must ask what will happen to these institutions once heralded for their international excellence, institutions that once drove global innovations and knowledge flows.

The international academic community has been quick to defend Hungarian HIEs, but the fight is far from over. To quote the late poet Jim Harrison, “Death waits inside us for a door to open. . . . Death steals everything except our stories.” As Hungarian authoritarianism is closing doors on academic freedom and global competitiveness, is another door opening? As internationalization initiatives die in Hungary, what stories will the students and faculty have to tell the world? More importantly, who is listening?


Jessica Jewell is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at Kent State University, where she is also the senior academic program director of the Wick Poetry Center. The focus of her research is on faculty lives in Hungary, with particular interest in the forces affecting internationalization in Hungarian higher education institutions. 



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