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21st May 2022

MEPs hear clash over occupied Hungarian drama school

  • Student leader Hanna Milovits said students are maintaining the occupation while simultaneously attending classes - while the new chancellor has shut down internet access and closed schoolrooms (Photo: European Parliament)

Representatives from Hungary's top theatre and film school laid bare their conflict with Viktor Orban's government over academic freedoms in the European parliament's culture and education committee on Tuesday (27 October).

MEPs were given a first-hand account of the latest battle between an independent institution and the Hungarian government.

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The clash drew over 10,000 people to the streets in Budapest last Friday in support of the Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) and in protest against what protestors see as the government's attempts to undermine academic freedom.

Legislation passed earlier in the summer by the ruling Fidesz party transferred the ownership of the university to a private foundation.

The new board of trustees has been appointed by the government for life, and since assumed control of practically all management functions while disempowering the university's elected senate.

In response, the senate and the majority of the faculty resigned, and students occupied the school's buildings.

Innovation and technology minister Laszlo Gyorgy argued on Tuesday that the disagreements are purely professional, and said that while transfers of authority at other universities went smoothly, only the theatre school is resisting.

Gyorgy also argued that the new model will increase the quality of education, and actually grants more autonomy to the university than state-ownership provides.

Critics, however, see the reforms as attempts to limit the schools' autonomy and to bring them ideologically closer to the government.

Laszlo Upor, the former deputy rector of SZFE called the transition "forced" and told MEPs that the new system is "private with a twist". He added that the university still lives on public money "but without public control, without checks and balances".

Upor said the concerns and requests of the academic leadership and the alternatives suggested over months had been ignored by the ministry.

Hanna Milovits, vice-president of the student body, said the university and student leadership only learned about the new board members from the press.

She said students are maintaining the blockade and simultaneously attending classes - while the new chancellor has shut down internet access and closed schoolrooms, in an attempt to end the occupation.

Milovits added that students are ready to negotiate with the ministry "if and when" their rights are restored, and are treated as equal partners.

Meanwhile, Attila Vidnyanszky, a renowned theatre director and the new chair of the board, said changes had been necessary, and insisted the board are ready to negotiate.

Vidnyanszky, however, called Friday's protest a leftwing political campaign event, accused students of being indoctrinated from "outside" and said they were pushed to occupy the university - an accusation which Milovits rejected.

Orban's Fidesz party had already been scolded by the EU's top court over legal amendments that forced the Central European University out of the country.

Celebrity support

The dispute over control of the film and theatre school has generated global support with dozens of internationally recognised artists - including actresses Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren and author Salman Rushdie - supporting the school and its autonomy.

Sabine Verheyen, an MEP from the German Christian Democratic Union party, who chairs the committee, said freedom of art and expression is a fundamental part of EU values. But there is little the EU can do as this is mostly a member-state matter.

Upor called the current standoff a "war of nerves".

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