Heads of Hungary’s top arts university quit amid fears of state control

FILE PHOTO: Students attend a protest against threats to academic freedom in Budapest
FILE PHOTO: Students attend a protest against threats to academic freedom in Budapest, Hungary, June 21, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

August 31, 2020

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The management of Hungary’s prestigious University of Theatre and Film Arts resigned on Monday in protest over the imposition of a government-appointed board which they say will undermine the school’s autonomy.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s supporters and pro-government journalists have long argued that after he won a third strong mandate in 2018, it was time for a shift in culture towards conservative values to end what they call the domination of the arts in Hungary by liberals and left-wingers.

In power for a decade, Orban, a nationalist, has steadily tightened government control over various walks of Hungarian public life including universities, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and state media. Oligarchs close to Orban have bought up large chunks of the private media.

In a speech following his 2018 election victory, Orban said the main task was to “embed the political system in a cultural era.”

A law passed by parliament earlier this year transferred the ownership of the state-run theatre school, which goes back 155 years, to a private foundation.

The government appointed a board of five trustees, rejecting members proposed by the university. The university’s senate said it had been deprived of its right to decide on budgetary, organisational and personnel issues.

“This was a cornerstone for us that if there is nothing left of the autonomy of the institution then we must retreat to the classrooms to teach,” said deputy dean Eszter Novak.

“This is the start of a new era.”

Several leading theatre directors have resigned from their teaching positions at the school in recent weeks. Students were due to stage a protest at the university later on Monday.

The government, which denies any attempt to censure free expression, has said the fact that some universities will be governed by a board of trustees will actually eliminate state influence over them.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than and Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by Gareth Jones)