In the last two years Hungarians have been promised over and over again more peaceful days ahead. The era of “revolutionary changes” had come to an end, the Orbán government claimed, because it had achieved everything the prime minister ever dreamed of. But then the ever-busy members of the government looked around and found hundreds more urgent tasks that would make the “renewed” country even “more perfect.” The latest idea is a thorough reform of the whole state apparatus.
I was puzzled by János Lázár’s statement last October because I thought that the reorganization of the government apparatus had already been accomplished by Tibor Navracsics, who in addition to being minister of justice in the second Orbán government was also entrusted with the reform of the state apparatus. And here we are, four years after Navracsics’s reform and months after the minister’s initial statement, and Lázár just announced that the “state is in alarming shape.” It is too big, ataxic, hard to move. Therefore, the government is preparing, in its usual helter-skelter fashion, another round of “reforms.” The latest scandal in higher education is connected to this brainstorm of the Orbán administration.
First, we have to define some terms that are not easily comprehensible for people from Anglo-Saxon countries. If you look at the website of any Hungarian law school, you will find that it is described as “állam- és jogtudományi kar/faculty” of such and such a university. “Államtudomány” is the mirror translation of the German “Staatswissenschaft,” which means “the science of the structure and nature of the state.” Admittedly, that doesn’t help us much. It’s necessary to look at the curriculum of some Hungarian law schools to find the kinds of courses that belong under the category of államtudomány: constitutional law, administrative law, international law, and financial law. These subjects have been an integral part of legal studies ever since 1777. Now, it seems that the Orbán government wants to split the two fields and move courses pertaining to “államtudomány” to the new Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetem ([NKE] National Civil Service University). NKE would have the exclusive right to teach these subjects.
The deans of the law schools are up in arms. That is, six out of seven. The only dean who seems to be satisfied with the government decision is from the Péter Pázmány Catholic University. The six argue that such a division is impossible. Indeed, can anyone imagine becoming a lawyer without taking constitutional law? But that is just one of the problems. Perhaps the most serious issue is the likely plan that only NKE graduates, especially those who have earned NKE’s new degree in államtudomány and public administration (közigazgatás), will be eligible to become civil servants. Law degrees are useful in all sorts of professional careers, including state and local administration, but the new arrangement would preclude law school graduates from entering such professions. Thus, it is very likely that in four or five years there would be a committed cadre of NKE graduates ready to join Viktor Orbán’s right-wing, nationalistic civil service and no one on the other side who had ever studied subjects critical to the functioning of a modern democracy.
The answer from the president of NKE is that the “deans completely misunderstood the proposal.” Sure, deans of six law schools all misunderstood NKE’s announcement, which clearly said that “only NKE can offer degrees in államtudomány, public administration, national security, police matters, military science, international and European administration.” But according to him, this new arrangement doesn’t mean that law schools will be unable to teach subjects that until now have been considered to be part of the államtudomány/public administration. Law students will naturally also study subjects pertaining to államtudomány, and he assured the deans that a doctorate in law will still remain “a very valuable degree.” Just not of any use to those who want to become civil servants. They can’t work in the ministry of justice, for example.
It was not only the deans who misunderstood NKE’s explanation of this new arrangement. Even legal scholars who are members of the Hungarian Academy of Science seemed unable to understand the Hungarian language because they agreed with the deans: what is happening is outrageous. The legal section of the academy had been planning to hold a meeting at NKE, but now several legal scholars refuse to cross NKE’s threshold. According to the latest, the deans and the academicians are planning to meet László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of higher education. Palkovics, I’m sure, will not be too sympathetic. He is an engineer who thinks that higher education should serve a country that looks like a large factory floor. Moreover, I don’t know how much he could do in this case even if he were so inclined. NKE is no longer under the ministry of human resources. The following ministries are in charge of this new university: ministry of justice, ministry of defense, ministry of justice, and ministry of the interior.
NKE occupies a privileged place in Hungarian higher education. According to a new law enacted this year, NKE doesn’t need the approval of the Magyar Felsőoktatási Akkreditációs Bizottság (Hungarian Accreditation Commission/MFAB) to introduce new degree requirements while other Hungarian institutions of higher learning do. So, if NKE wants to introduce a doctoral program, let’s say, in police work, it will be able to do so without consulting the Hungarian accreditation commission. This example may sound outlandish but, in fact, such a plan is under consideration at NKE. Earlier, MFAB turned down the request for such a doctoral program, but MFAB no longer has any say in the matter.
One could ask how it is possible that NKE can circumvent MFAB. The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), the umbrella organization of European accreditation commissions, allows institutions of higher education to apply for accreditation from any of the 45 commissions under ENQA. The 2015 Hungarian law, however, permits only NKE to take advantage of this provision. All other Hungarian universities must be accredited by MFAB. It looks as if Zoltán Balog finds this kind of discrimination to be unacceptable, and apparently he came up with amendments to the law that would allow Hungarian universities other than NKE to ask for accreditation from a board outside of the country. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were Balog.