It is hard to describe my state of mind when I read about student unions as they exist in Hungary. My feelings are a mixture of outrage, disgust, and contempt. Contempt for university administrators who not only tolerate but are cowed by these so-called student leaders who, in some cases, are common criminals. Outrage that none of the governments between 1990 and 2016 was willing and able to do anything to put an end to student unions in their present form. I understand that any attempt to disband these student unions would have been met with fierce opposition from the right because by the second half of the 1990s most of these unions were in the hands of Fidesz and, later, Jobbik. If there is a change in the political system of the country one of the early tasks of any new democratic government should be the removal of these thoroughly corrupt bodies, instead allowing each university to devise its own independent student union/student government that truly represents the student body and that has drastically reduced power.
What brought this topic to the fore again? Naturally, another scandal at the University of Szeged, where HÖK (the Hungarian acronym for the student union system) over the last ten years has created conditions that would not be tolerated at any western university. At least not at those I’m familiar with.
One can only feel disgust for such cowards as the members of the Szeged administration who sank so low as to sue an honest investigative journalist of atlatszo.hu because he exposed fraud in one of the HÖK elections and, after being pressured by HÖK, demanded 340,000 forints from the journalist because the university’s good name suffered as a result of his revelations. The necessary money was collected within a few days on the internet. Shame on the University of Szeged, although I’m happy to report that the journalist, after going all the way to the Kúria, won last month. The University of Szeged will have to reimburse him, and he in turn will hand the money over to atlatszo.hu.
I wrote twice about HÖK in connection with the University of Szeged, in which I described this particular student union as “the most notorious.” Hungarian student union leaders have power that would be unimaginable elsewhere. The first problem is the amount of money these student organizations handle. In the case of Szeged, it is 3.5 billion forints. The student leaders spend this money practically without any supervision. They have power over such things as granting scholarships and allocating coveted dormitory places. That’s bad enough, but without the approval of the leadership of the Szeged HÖK no student can be removed from the university for academic or disciplinary reasons. Because student leaders have been allocated one third of the seats in the university’s senate, they can actually blackmail the members of the faculty in the body where promotions and/or appointments are being decided. If a professor gives them trouble, with their votes and some clever finagling they can ruin the person’s university career. Students shouldn’t have such far-reaching power when it comes to academic matters. And they certainly shouldn’t be in charge of scholarships.
HÖKs at other universities might not be as corrupt as the one in Szeged, but all of them are considered to be corrupt to a greater or lesser degree. And this corruption has ramifications that extend far beyond the university walls. The younger Fidesz leadership, and these people by now are probably in their early forties, often come from these student unions, where for years they were masters of manipulation and where they enjoyed unquestioned, concentrated power. Perfect grooming for later political life in Fidesz. And if we think about it, Viktor Orbán and his buddies come from a very similar background. When they were at university they spent more time politicking than studying, and they managed to achieve self-government in their small dormitory with practically no supervision. But at least they didn’t get paid, as today’s HÖK leaders do. Now in power, they’re making up for it.
So, why do I return again to the Szeged HÖK? Because, if the university and the ministry of human resources are lucky, the president of HÖK, Márk Török, might be removed from his position after a staggering twelve years. But don’t hold your breath. He is suing the university and, because of sloppy wording of the relevant law, he may even win. One could ask how anyone could be the head of a student union for over twelve years. Easily. Török got his first degree in history, then moved over as a candidate for a teaching certificate, after which he began law school. And he used this time to advance his own interests. I don’t have space here to tell the story of Török’s Ponzi scheme or to elaborate on the fact that the Szeged HÖK runs two pubs in town. True horror stories. And yet there is a university with 30,000 students that is entirely powerless.
Admittedly, last year the ministry of human resources did make one small change to the law governing student unions. They stipulated that no person can be an “officeholder” of HÖK for more than four years. That would have meant in Török’s case that he was already ineligible to run and to be elected to office last September. Somehow, however, Török’s case fell through the cracks due to the sloppiness of the ministry of human resources. The ministry gave two different interpretations of what they meant by the “previous four years.”
But that is not the end of the ineptitude of Zoltán Balog’s ministry. The law on higher education talks only about an “officeholder of HÖK” and doesn’t stipulate whether this means only a high officeholder or everyone who has a HÖK title (such as press secretary). The question is whether the university can get rid of only Márk Török or whether it can also oust the rest of the organization that has overstayed its welcome. Or is the law so vague that it will be struck down, letting the whole crew remain at Szeged? When atlatszo.hu inquired, different universities gave different answers to the question of who is an officeholder. According to Corvinus University, “officeholder” means only the president, but other universities consider “officeholder” to cover all officials of the student union. According to the legal think tank Eötvös Károly Intézet (EKINT), the latter interpretation is the correct one, but that unfortunately doesn’t solve all of the problems of the university in trying to get rid of Márk Török and his entourage. EKINT says that the university administration will have to take the university’s by-laws into consideration in ascertaining how they can enforce the new four-year limit as applied to HÖK officers. So now they can argue legal niceties when they should have removed Török from HÖK ages ago because of his criminal activities.
As of today, the president of the university was in an upbeat mood. He made the decision to annul Török’s election of last September. I have no idea why they waited so long because already last September the police were investigating the suspicious circumstances of the elections. But, of course, HÖK in turn will sue the university. Total madness.
The Hungarian government back in 1990 created a monster. But for that monster to thrive over the years it needed the active help of corrupt Fidesz and Jobbik politicians and cowardly university officials. And that it got in spades. What failed to thrive, unfortunately, was Hungarian higher education itself.