Demonstration in Budapest against the Hungarian government’s move to force Central European University to leave the country.

Lack of academic freedom when politicians want to control research

Svenska 2019-01-16

New research institutions are employing loyal employees who lack academic qualifications in Hungary. And the government is appointing financial supervisors at the universities. The aim is to get rid of free-thinking researchers, asserts Andrea Petö, a professor of Gender Studies in Budapest. In Sweden, too, political forces that question certain research are appearing.

Two and a half billion people in the world currently live in countries where democratic rights and freedoms have been progressively limited over the past ten years. This is demonstrated in studies from the international research collaboration Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which measures democracy on the basis of several different indicators. The restriction of freedoms often follows a similar pattern.

“First, the freedom of the media is restricted and civil society organisations are attacked. Often, efforts are then made to undermine the rule of law, for example by appointing loyalist judges. Then academic freedom is reduced,” says Staffan I Lindberg, a professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and one of V-Dem’s research leaders.

CEU is forced to leave Hungary

In April 2017, the Hungarian government pushed through an amendment to the Law on Higher Education. It forced the Central European University (CEU) to leave the country (see fact box). In October 2018, a ban was also issued forbidding the teaching of gender studies at the two universities with degree awarding programmes in gender studies– without explanation and without consulting the universities.

According to Andrea Petö, who is a professor of Gender Studies at CEU, the decision stems from efforts by the regime to control the production of knowledge and the rights of the country’s inhabitants in matters relating to sexuality and abortion, as well as the right to adoption and in vitro fertilization (IVF).

“Hungary is a laboratory in which certain ideas are tested and then spread to other countries, such as Poland or Belgium. Above all, this has to do with restructuring the funding of higher education and establishing parallel loyalist institutions,” she says.

Over the last 25 years, government funding for higher education has fallen significantly. At the same time, the government is appointing finance supervisors at the universities. The official aim is to free universities from administrative burdens, but according to Petö, the real aim is to get rid of free-thinking researchers who conduct independent research.

Loyalists control knowledge

The new institutions function outside previous accreditation systems and employ loyalist employees who lack academic qualifications. For example, in the field of history there is the Veritas Research Institute. According to its website, its objective is to study and reevaluate the history of Hungary over the last 150 years, especially the historical events that have created much debate.

“This is a way of controlling knowledge by ensuring that the money is channelled to the new institutions. In addition to the history institutes, there are also several demography and migration studies institutes. This destroys free research.”

Another strategy is to privatise state universities, a solution that has been discussed for Corvinus University of Budapest, among others.

An assault on liberal values

According to Petö, the right wing has brought together issues such as women’s rights, LGBTQ issues and gender equality policy under the umbrella concept of gender ideology. This term also incorporates various actors that have not cooperated in the past, such as various Christian churches, Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims.

“It is an ideological assault on liberal values, academic freedom and freedom of education. The anti-gender movement is transnational, but varies in different countries because the institutional structures are different.”

What can you CEU academics do now?

“Inform the outside world, find allies, talk about the future as we want to see it, and work together internationally, including through student exchanges. I believe in conversations – we learn so much from them.”

Banned teaching of gender equality

But it is not only in Hungary that academic freedom is limited. In August 2018, the Bulgarian Ministry of Education banned a research project on the teaching of gender equality in school. The project was accused of spreading gender ideology and brainwashing children.

Certain types of research are also being questioned in Sweden. The focus of the research may include gender studies, gender equality work, pedagogical research and research on racism and climate issues.

For example, in the autumn elections the Sweden Democrats’ research policy spokesperson, Robert Stenkvist, called into question Mattias Gardell’s research on the connection between transnational racist networks and shootings in Sweden. The Sweden Democrats also believe that gender research has become an umbrella ideology.

Problematic approach

Overall, the party often adopts a problematic approach to research, says Lena Martinsson, a professor of Gender Studies at the University of Gothenburg.

“They have also submitted motions to the Parliament that preschools should not work to challenge gender stereotypes, but should instead teach the children a Swedish cultural heritage. This is contrary to educational research, which emphasises the role of the educator as someone who sees and recognises the children and who opens their eyes to more ways of understanding themselves and society.

The Christian Democrats have also criticized gender and norm-critical perspectives in preschool. During her election campaign, Sara Skyttedal, the Municipal Commissioner of Linköping Municipality, called these approaches ‘gender crap’.

“Something has happened in recent years when it comes to how politicians interfere in research and try to control it,” says Lena Martinsson.

Vice-chancellors must stand up

Lena Martinsson also sees a broader social conservative anti-gender movement, and she cites political pundits at the Göteborgs-Posten and Svenska Dagbladet newspapers as examples.

“The use of international conspiracy theories to launch a political attack on a subject that researches discrimination and endeavours to advance democracy is of course deeply problematic. In this case, it is important that the vice-chancellors stand up for the autonomy and scientificity of their universities,” says Lena Martinsson.

Text: Inna Sevelius
Photo: REUTERS / Bernadett Szabo