The University Governance Debate in Hungary

Balazs Szendroi

The Oxford Magazine, December 2005

The Hungarian Parliament voted for a new Higher Education Bill on 23 May 2005. Using his constitutional rights, President of Hungary Ferenc Madl sent the law to the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Hungary, raising objections to some of its paragraphs. In its decision dated 25 October 2005, the Court upheld the objections, and sent the bill back to parliament for reconsideration. The following are excerpts from paragraphs of the bill, found unconstitutional by the Court:

Every Higher Education Institution [HEI] shall have a Governing Council, responsible for strategic decisions. The Governing Council shall be chaired by the Rector of the HEI. [...] The Council shall have seven, respectively nine members [depending on the size of the HEI], of whom two, respectively three are nominated by the Minister for Education of the Republic of Hungary; four, respectively five members are nominated by the Senate of the HEI, one of whom will be delegated by the Student Council. The Senate may veto the nomination of the Student Council. The Senate may also veto, with a two-thirds qualified majority, the nominations of the Minister for Education.

Members of the Council shall not be [...] employees or students of the HEI.

The Governing Council shall be responsible for the strategic, employment and business management of the HEI. [...] The Senate shall be responsible for managing the teaching and research activities of the HEI, in accordance with the Statutes of the HEI and the strategic decisions of the Governing Council.

The decision of the Court concerns itself primarily with the relationship between HEIs and the government. In Hungary, several universities and departments are still controlled by senior academics left over from the Communist era, when promotion depended on an uneven mixture of academic and political factors. Under such circumstances, there is something to be said for a period in which the elected government exercises some degree of direct control to ensure that full transition to a post-communist HE system is achieved; presumably this argument motivated the Minister for Education in his formulation of the bill. Nevertheless, the Court clearly held the opinion that university autonomy stands above such considerations. It formulates some points which, I believe, are of wider relevance.

The arguments of the Court are based on various clauses of the Constitution of the Republic of Hungary, as well as The Magna Charta of European Universities, whose first Fundamental Principle reads:

The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies, differently organized because of geography and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.

The argumentation continues as follows:

The autonomy of the HEI guarantees the freedom of academic and artistic life, as well as freedom of education in the HEI. [...] The Court recognises the autonomy of the HEI as a basic constitutional principle. [...] The HEI, as every autonomous, that is self-governing, institution, must have an elected, representative governing body. Members of the HEI must have the right to form autonomous representative bodies, in which the right of the self-governance of the HEI rests. The autonomy of higher education is manifested in the HEI: the community of teachers, researchers and students. [...] The institutional autonomy includes economic autonomy: the HEI can determine, within the law, its own budget, and manage its own financial affairs.

The Governing Council, as proposed by the Bill, is obviously not an autonomous governing body of the HEI. Given that its members are not employees of the HEI, nor members of its academic community, and do not take part in its academic activities, they do not necessarily have the knowledge of the day-to-day affairs of academia. [...] Such a body, foreign to the HEI, cannot be authorized to exercise rights that are protected by the principle of autonomy [...] as this would mean an end to that autonomy. [...] Creating and authorizing a Governing Council as proposed by the Bill stands in fundamental contradiction with the freedom of academic life.