#Stories of Resistance – Szabad Egyetem: a story of student activism and beyond in Hungary

UPDATE (6 October 2020): EU court rules against Hungary over law that targeted Soros-affiliated university

The European Union’s highest court has ruled that changes by Hungary to its law on higher education, which effectively forced a university founded by George Soros to leave the country, were not in line with EU law.

The European court of justice (ECJ) ruled against prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government, saying in the ruling that “the conditions introduced by Hungary to enable foreign higher education institutions to carry out their activities in its territory are incompatible with EU law”. At the heart of the conflict is the fate of the Central European University (CEU) established by Soros, a Hungarian-American financier. Under pressure from Orbán, it had to relocate most of its main activities to Vienna from Budapest, where it had been operating since the early 1990s. (Article originally published in The Guardian)

BACKGROUND: Story of student activism and beyond in Hungary by Szabad Egyetem Collective

Szabad Egyetem is a collective of students and members of Hungarian civil society who came together last October 2018 to contest the position of the Hungarian government towards the Central European University (CEU). The collective has since evolved to fight for academic freedom and similar issues in Hungary at large. They believe that an academic institution is first and foremost a space where honest, critical dialogues take place, in a continued exchange and effort for the pursuit of accessible knowledge. They fight for academic freedom.

The incipit

Initially, we were a group of (mainly) international students from CEU, contesting the decision of the Hungarian government, ruled by Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, to expel our university from the country. Orbán led a ruthless defamatory campaign against CEU and its founder, George Soros, a campaign that recently helped him win another election. CEU announced that, if the government were not to sign an agreement to allow for the university operations to continue in Budapest, we would announce our move on December the 1st, 2018. This deadline was, for us, a trigger for a student mobilization that needed to happen, even if there was little hope regarding the future of our university in Hungary. After all, people needed to know what was happening in this European country, and if there was ever a chance to make Orbán sign the agreement that would allow CEU to stay, we had to try. We started to meet every Tuesday night since last October, gradually attracting larger groups of young activists. Everyone had the right to talk and express a position, a lot of voices had to be mediated to find common ground and agree that we would plan a big march before the December 1st deadline in the hope that the Hungarian society would show solidarity to CEU as it did back in 2017, when the first waves of protest started.

We organized a march followed by a week-long occupation of the square in front of the Parliament, i.e. the last week before the deadline. In this occupation, we promoted open lectures with professors from Central European University and other Hungarian universities, workshops, concerts and other social events The cold, rainy days became warmer with the increasing solidarity that people showed towards us, participating in our activities, bringing us food, or merely coming to spend some time with us. This “pedagogical activist experience” involving lectures, workshops and other “academic-like” activities tailored much of our identity and defined our movement’s name as “Szabad Egyetem” (in English, “Open University”). Since then, our concern has been to fight for freedom of education by involving the community in activities that disseminate scientific knowledge, reflect about activism and demonstrate, in practice, how important intellectual freedom is.

Beyond CEU

The agreement that would allow CEU to stay in Budapest has never been signed, and CEU is starting its operations in Vienna in 2019 academic year. However, the silver lining of this outrageous news is its ability to create a movement that today fights for freedom of education in a general sense – very much needed in Hungary, considering that the government has heavily restricted research autonomy of the Hungarian Academy of Science, banned Gender Studies by closing down the program offered at the University of ELTE, and it is privatizing the Corvinus University, just to name a few. The fact that our movement’s name is in Hungarian and does not mention CEU reflects how our identity has changed from movement of (mostly) international students to one deeply connected and concerned with Hungary and the attacks on academic freedom the country faces. As one of our slogans says, “It did not start with CEU, it will not end with CEU”. 

Also, as we witnessed all of this happening broadly in the country we were living in, we realized that our solidarity could not stop at our own academic institution. We tried to involve as many Hungarians as possible and it is only thanks to their support that we could start a dialogue with other organizations, especially the media as we overcame the language barrier in the organization of our activities. We organized and took part in several successful actions among which the most successful were: our first big march for academic freedom in November 2018, which attracted thousands of people; the legally registered occupation of Kossuth ter for a week right after the march, occupation which we planned around the concept of a free university, inviting professors of different institutions to give their lectures in our tents, organizing talks, workshops, forums, concerts and much more, day and night, regardless of the freezing winds, the rain, the snow and unbearably cold temperatures; our actions of solidarity, joining blockades and protests, towards Hungarian workers and the Trade Unions, when the government passed a law, nicknamed “Slave Law” for badly worsening their already fragile working conditions; our participation in the MTA protests, bringing in a human chain of banners explaining through a timeline the various attacks academic freedom the country had suffered. Meanwhile, we have also participated in protests, expressed solidarity to other activists’ groups, we have been invited to talk and conferences in other countries, we started regular activities to involve local communities and provide channels of discussion about political and rights abuses issues, such a series of lectures on Hungarian history, a series of Gender Lectures around Budapest universities and a Szabad Cinema of movies and discussions.

Thanks to the forums we organized during the occupation, perhaps our biggest achievement has been that Hungarian students founded Hallgatói Szakszervezet (HaSz), the first Hungarian student union, which is now growing and becoming a sound presence among the actors of dissent in the Hungarian civil society scene. These achievements did not come easily, they are not only the result of a combined effort of many people, mostly students who cannot speak Hungarian and already suffer sleepless nights for the amount of coursework, but they were earned in spite of the pressure of the government, which does not like opposition, of the Hungarian media, for the vast majority controlled by Fidesz, which trashed us and our effort in every possible way, spreading lies and misrepresenting our struggle.  Ultimately, the hardest goal to achieve was shaking an exhausted population out of their apathy and convincing people that things can change for the better and that our collective actions can make a difference. We managed to convince a few – I still remember many old people, for instance, bringing us home-made food, hot tea and covers during our occupying nights, or donating us money thanking us for what we were doing – while some people we annoyed, and others were not convinced this struggle was worth fighting for.

The strategy

We have done a lot of research and we discussed how to structure ourselves in order to be functional but also completely horizontal. We also drafted a constitution and created a set of rules to use during assemblies, on how to take decisions and to use money. Regarding how to reach out to other people and get people involved, we created a committee for outreach, we worked to build various coalitions (for instance, with Hasz, the trade unions, the union of teachers etc.). We thought of activities that would allow us to talk with people or how to simply involve them (like a football tournament in front of the Parliament to protest the budget cuts on education compared to the money spent on building stadiums). Because of the various national backgrounds of our members, we had a striking potential to outreach to international media, whose coverage of our struggle, also thanks to the work of our social media team and our press releases, was considerably high. We trained ourselves on what it means to become activists, and we try as much as our capacity allows us to keep a constant presence in demonstrations and actions for academic freedom in Hungary.

Now that CEU is leaving and MTA, Corvinus and Elte have changed forever, it is difficult to find the enthusiasm we had back when we started. But it does not mean that we should give up, and we are planning another smaller occupation with the start of the new academic year: firstly, the attacks came for the refugees, then the academic institutions, finally the workers and civil society all along. There is a lot still worth fighting for, and we will continue with our attempts to involve the broader Hungarian society, as well as to reach out to international media with our capacity, because what is happening in Hungary cannot be left untold.

The inspiring message of Szabad Egyetem

The fact that most of us are not Hungarian, and will most likely leave Hungary after our studies, has attracted some antagonism, but has also inspired many, as it was inspiring to see us resisting in the Hungarian winter just to prove a point under the Prime Minister’s nose: free education cannot be stopped, critical thinking cannot be suppressed, our eagerness to learn cannot be tamed. At the same time, our commitment to Hungary and to the struggle of Hungarian academic institutions has been proven over time, and by organizing sporadic big protest events or regular, informal activities (like the movies screening), we keep people in Budapest informed about what we do through our social media channels, leafleting and mailing list. Probably, the peak of our impact was during the occupation and the following wave of workers protests, which were triggered by the new law, but also came at the right time, where people’s dissent against the government was flaming up thanks to the initial mobilization of students.

As this story has shown, every single act of dissent can be considered an achievement, the revitalization of the opposition within Hungarian civil society and political scene, the creation of a student union and the attention of the press might seem small for an officially democratic country, but they are breaths of fresh air in the process of consolidation of an illiberal democracy where not only education is at risk. Our motto isSzabad Orszag, Szabad Egyetem” meaning Free Country, Free/Open University. Our logo is a fist holding a pencil on a maroon background.

Giorgia from the collective stated:

This movement inspires me every day, as the people that make it inspire and amaze me every day. The commitment, the self-sacrifice, the perseverance, the empathy and the solidarity expressed in every gesture, every discussion and decision taught me what it means to be an activist, what it means to creatively fight together against oppression, what it feels like to enter a partnership of people who are so different from each other, with different backgrounds, different approaches, different political values, different languages, yet they have all set their differences aside because of one common value, academic freedom, and know that resisting oppression is what morality requires, and we can only do it together.