Yesterday I was elated when I read an article about the founding of an organization of college and university students. The organizers named it "Hallgatói Hálózat" (Student Network). I was glad for at least three reasons. First and foremost because I consider the current apolitical attitude of Hungarian students a dangerous development with far-reaching consequences for the future. Second, because from the description it became clear that this is a left-liberal initiative which is a welcome development in university circles where the students, to the extent that they care about politics at all, seem to be attracted to Fidesz and Jobbik. And third, I consider the decision made about twenty years ago that forbade political activities within the colleges and universities harmful.
Although I disapprove of the Antall government's decision to ban political activities within the institutes of higher learning, I understand the thinking behind it at the time. MSZMP and its youth organization, KISZ (Kommunista Ifjúsági Szövetség), were seemingly omnipresent. All work places had local party cells that played a somewhat sinister role: they were the political watchdogs on the local level. In high schools and colleges it was KISZ that had a similar role. The new democratic government very rightly wanted to get rid of these party cells from offices, factories, and schools. Where, in my opinion, the government went wrong was that it banished all political activities from the universities.
I am not familiar with the situation in this respect in Europe, but in North America and Great Britain it is customary to have "parties," political groups represented on campuses. These "parties" are student-led groups where people who are attracted to a national party or an ideology can gather. I'm most familiar with the Yale Political Union that was founded in 1934 and modelled on the Cambridge Union Society and the Oxford Union. It was established in order to foster political culture. The Union is an umbrella organization that currently includes several parties: the Liberal Party, the Party of the Left, the Independent Party, the Federalist Party, the Conservative Party, and the Tory Party. As you can see, they don't correspond to the party structure of the United States. These parties are actually independent debating societies where students learn the art of civilized and intelligent political discourse.
The decision of the Antall government twenty years ago, although understandable, was a serious mistake. Politics naturally couldn't be completely banished from the universities, but what was missing was the transparency of the students' political activities.
Moved by democratic impulses, a new student organization was created that allegedly represented student interests and in this respect resembled a trade union. The leaders of these student unions get paid and they have a fairly large budget. Among other things, they hand out stipends to the needy. I've heard horror stories about these student unions and their questionable financial dealings. Moreover, according to people who are familiar with the situation, these student unions were the breeding ground for budding Jobbik leaders, and it was here that young Fidesz politicians learned the art of politicking, mostly against the university's administration.
The slogan of the new Student Network is "It's not enough to 'like', you must organize." And they were organizing against Rózsa Hoffmann's ideas on higher education. It was no coincidence that the group was founded at Corvinus University which at one point was supposed to be divided up among several lesser known universities. The Network was organizing a whole night of activities that was open to college and university students. They planned the all-night bash for tomorrow to coincide with the "revolution of the clowns," but the students were also mindful that it was twenty-two years ago, on June 16, 1989, that Viktor Orbán made his famous speech about the Hungarian youth at the reburial of Imre Nagy.
Between eight and midnight the organizers were planning to have lectures on three topics: the problems of higher education, the connection between politics and ideology, and the responsibility of the younger generation. After midnight the participants would have had a free discussion on the topics heard earlier and anything else that was on their minds.
But it is very possible that there will be no Student Network and all-night bash at Corvinus. The university's president announced that "the university is not allowing the gathering for technical and substantive reasons." Apparently, the authorities consider the gathering "too political" in nature. The e-mail that was sent to all Corvinus students today announced that the whole university will be shut tight.
Tamás Mészáros, president of the university, is a man of liberal convictions and surely in theory he is not against the students' initiative. Rather, I think he is afraid that after such a gathering of students the government's rather negative feelings about Corvinus as the "hotbed of liberal economics" will only intensify. He is hoping to save his university and he thinks that the students' activities might make his negotiations more difficult. Most likely Mészáros is right.
But students in general cannot easily be persuaded by such arguments. They are continuing their efforts to hold the planned program. On Facebook the organizers noted that forbidding the meeting "amply demonstrates the need to do something."