‘How dictatorship works’: Hungarian academic quits in censorship row

A prominent academic has resigned from a Hungarian higher education body, alleging censorship and accusing the top European standards organisation of turning a blind eye to waning academic freedom in central Europe.

Andrea Pető, a professor at the Central European University in Vienna, said she had resigned from the Hungarian Accreditation Committee’s humanities subcommittee last week after she was asked to change part of an article she wrote that was due to be published in an academic journal.

Academic freedom in Hungary has been under pressure since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010. Under the prime minister’s self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy”, the ruling Fidesz party has sought to take control of courts and public institutions, while shrinking the space for independent media and NGOs. The Central European University was forced to leave Budapest for Vienna in 2018, and observers have voiced concern about a tax on institutions helping refugee students and researchers.

Pető said the director of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (MAB), Prof Valeria Csépe, asked her to withdraw a statement in the draft article that criticised the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) for failing to confront a slide to illiberalism in educational policy in Hungary and Poland.

MAB is a member of ENQA, a Brussels-based body that promotes quality standards in higher education across Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia.

“You can feel how dictatorship works,” the historian and specialist in gender studies said in her first interview with international media since her resignation. “Because this is not the state, this is not Prime Minister Orbán who is giving orders. Those who make this system work are the kind of ordinary people who are running those institutions. The whole story looks as it had happened in communist Hungary well before 1989.”

Pető said the request to withdraw her criticism of ENQA was “unacceptable … against my values, against my professional conviction, against everything I have been working for in the last 30 years.

“The president of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee wanted me to change what I think about the European accreditation process, namely that the ENQA is unprepared for the illiberal attack, as they are just accepting at face value what is reported to them as the truth.”

She accused ENQA of staying silent while academic freedom was under pressure in Hungary, citing the examples of the Hungarian government’s decision to close gender studies programmes and policies that pushed her university to leave Budapest for Vienna – the first time in decades a university has been forced out of a European country.

The professor said “the European infrastructure” was so focused on box-ticking requirements it was failing to recognise a paradigm shift in higher education in central Europe.

MAB joined the pan-European ENQA in 2002 and had its membership reconfirmed in September 2018 under a regular five-year review.

Her resignation came after what she described as “a very stormy discussion” on academic responsibility inside MAB’s humanities subcommittee over a government plan to cut teacher training by one year, which she opposes.

The professor hopes other academics will also resign, as she believes the episode illustrates a wider problem. In the article, which was published unchanged last week, she argued an illiberal turn in higher education policy was leading to self censorship among Hungarian academics.

MAB declined to comment publicly. Senior sources, however, do not dispute that the director requested a change to Pető’s article, but characterise the change as a technical correction relating to MAB’s relationship with ENQA.

In a statement, ENQA said the purpose of its agency reviews was to assess “compliance with external quality assurance activities relating to learning and teaching in higher education”. It added that academic freedom “is not specifically covered” by those standards and the review process, but is covered by other aspects of the Bologna process, a reference to a wider policy of cooperation in European higher education spanning 48 countries.

“The ENQA review process assesses the agency itself (its policies and practices) and not the education system of the country in which it operates,” the agency added. ENQA also said it had full confidence in the independent experts, who receive training, to carry out reviews. “Since the review in 2018, ENQA remains satisfied that [MAB] continues to meet the standards of the ESG,” a reference to its standards and guidelines on quality assurance.

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