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Amid protests, the Hungarian parliament is reviewing higher education

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – The Hungarian parliament on Tuesday voted in favor of billions of dollars worth of state-owned assets that will oversee many of the country’s state universities and cultural institutions, which opposition figures have condemned as theft of state funds.

By a decision of the two-thirds majority in the ruling coalition, 11 universities were placed under the control of state-funded non-governmental organizations headed by a government-appointed board of trustees, the latest move by the prime minister to call for Hungary to take over higher education. Victor Orban և his ruling Fidesz party.

The foundations have been given billions of dollars in public assets, including valuable real estate, a palace, a port, shares in partly private companies such as MOL Energy and the pharmaceutical company Gideon Richter, leading to mass transfer allegations. wealth in the hands of loyal government officials.

“This is a very dangerous step. “Many assume it is a deep state,” said Miklos Ligeti, legal director of Transparency International Hungary’s anti-corruption group.

The Hungarian government insists that reforms are needed to modernize higher education, that the new model represents a “rethinking of the role of the state” in which foundations address the public tasks normally performed by the government.

It denies that public assets are endangered once they are relocated, and says universities have been given the choice to engage in reform.

“We are talking here about public benefit funds … so all the assets of these funds can be used only for public purposes, for higher education activities, they do not become private property in any way,” the government’s International Communications Office said. The Associated Press reported about it by e-mail.

Critics say universities have been forced to adopt the new model because they have not received any guarantees to ensure their academic autonomy.

Independent lawmaker Bernadette Schell says she believes the move is a way for the Hungarian ruling party to maintain its influence in key areas of public and cultural life, even if it loses power in next year’s elections.

“Basically, a parallel state is formed, a state within a state, where the next government has very little room to implement its election program. “Until then, the state simply receives foreign funding,” Szel said after the vote.

The constitutional amendments passed late last year changed the legal definition of state funds, giving the grounds more scope to use them at their discretion, with little public scrutiny. This has led to fears that valuable public assets could be sold by foundations to fund university operations or to internally politically connected insiders at reduced prices.

“On the one hand, this is an attempt to transfer state assets to the private ownership of the ruling party, their friends, but it is also an attempt to maintain control over the social sector, even if the ruling party is ousted. Salt Ened, a professor at Central European University, is a higher education institution that was forced to leave the country in 2018 after Orban made controversial changes to higher education legislation.

Some higher education institutions have resisted the reorganization attempt. Students and faculty at the University of Cinema and Theater in Budapest last year seized the university after its democratically elected senate was dissolved and placed under the control of the foundation. They argued that the move was an attempt to suppress their autonomy and stifle academic freedom.

Ened said the reforms “have nothing to do with higher education” and that the reshuffle was a further attempt by Orban’s government to bring more fluctuations to the country’s institutions.

“The ideological and political control of education is simply part of a larger scheme, where all spheres of life, industry, trade, research, religion and sports, are all under Orban’s general direction,” Enedin said.

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