No, universities didn’t become private. They have just lost their autonomy to Orbán.
In a sweeping rubberstamping session Parliament voted to place the majority of Hungarian universities out of the reach of any future government. So-called “public interest-serving foundations” were set up and put above the universities, having the last word in every spending and hiring decision. Not ham-fisted at all.
The board of those foundations has been filled with Orbán’s loyalists, ministers, state secretaries, local strongmen with zero academic affiliation – for life. They will not be dependent from the state anymore – only from Orbán himself. Whether in opposition or not.
The political weakling professors who are still in their jobs (very visible non-Orbánists have been subtly removed a long time ago) are limply begging to promise them even just nominal autonomy – but it only saves them face and helps them keep pretending. They have been toeing the line ever since Orbán put loyalist chancellors above them in 2014 with full budgetary control over universities and appointing the rectors – and that was long before Orbán expelled CEU from Hungary. The autonomy these universities are losing has been tarnished a long time ago. That is why they were institutionally quiet when Orbán occupied the first few universities, forced them into the infamous foundations and gained political influence. Corvinus was the first to go, SZFE was a more recent victim. The 11 universities we lost today could long see it coming.
And of course, the money.
For all we know the entire university theme of the heist is just a huge diversion. The public money and assets that go into these foundations is breathtaking. At the last count over 3 billion euros’ worth of public money was sank there, plus uncountable assets, shares and real estate, placed out of reach of any future government.
And that is just the beginning because Orbánists in Brussels are heavily lobbying to make these monster foundations eligible to soak up the incoming EU funds, signaling that this is by no means the last of the public money hidden in them.
And if you ever wonder – no, the state is not let off the hook financing these universities in the future. The entire heist makes no sense at all if you insist on looking at it as a higher education policy move. They are still state-funded.
The assets and shares in state owned enterprises that were inexplicably put into these foundations make no sense at all. 11 years ago Orbán had to nationalize and eliminate the entire private pension wealth of the country to get the cash to buy these shares back from the Russians, only to gain control in these companies. (And the Russians weren’t selling so you can imagine the price.) And now suddenly “the state” that wanted to control them so much puts its shares into random foundations presiding over universities and out of its own reach? Of course that doesn’t make any sense unless we learn to distinguish between Orbán and the state and understand that these new entities will always be his.
The best excuse Orbánists could come up for the blatant move is protectionism, that they just wanted to block any foreign buyout. Like that’s okay.
The same excuse applies to the roster of companies they declared to be of national security importance and thus unsellable without the approval of Mr Minister. Also, they have to open up and tell their business secrets to Mr Minister so that he can protect them better. As I said, it was a busy day in parliament and foreign press can only pick one headline.
I know western universities also have problems with symbolic issues over their autonomy and that anything that is state-funded will always be exposed to a politician like Orbán who don’t feel like restraining themselves. But those are first world problems compared to this public money grab.
Orbán is currently outsourcing big chunks of the country (and thus dismantling the state) into entities that only answer to him. Some say he might be planning to lose in 2022 and plotting a B plan.
At any rate, any new government that may follow Orbán will find no money in the budget, huge debt to autocrats like Putin and Xi, and zero legal tools to govern. Orbán is making sure we get punished if we ever dare to vote his ass out and I can already hear the fearful choir of authoritarian underdogs arguing that we must keep him in power to avoid an ungovernable country.
But the same underdog minds have kept arguing throughout the 2010s that “at least Orbán has stolen himself full, the new guys would start from scratch” and look where that landed us. He may stop stealing any day now- if the assumptions are correct – but not before ramping up the public money pump for a last, good run.
And as always, the entire move is cemented with 2/3 supermajority into the constitution.