LeftEast editor Agnes Gagyi spoke to Anikó Gregor, one of the faculty in charge of the Gender Studies masters program at Budapest-based Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), shut down by the governments de-accreditation of Gender Studies programs in November. Gregor’s analysis places the ban in the context of Fidesz’s strategy of emphasizing liberal democracy’s failures, economic repositioning away from the EU and the privatization of higher education. It provides insight into the emerging links with Anti-Slave Law protests happening in the country for the past two weeks.
In international news, current problems in higher education in Hungary appear through two main issues: CEU moving to Vienna, and the ban on gender studies programs as discipline. Could you explain how the situation looks like from your perspective, and how it links to broader processes?
To understand the actions of the Orbán government we must bear in mind two things. First and foremost, we must consider the relative position of Hungary: it is a semi-peripheral country with a neoliberal economy which relies heavily on foreign investment and EU support. Secondly, we must remember that Hungary has become the perfect example of a captured state. The political elite has turned itself into the economic ruling class while still disguising itself as a political party. Despite the circulation of politically and culturally influential self-definition of Hungary as “illiberal state”, in the economic domain, the harshest neoliberal policies have been introduced in the country, day after day. In this context, Orbán’s intentions are increasingly obvious. Until recently, development funds from the EU drove economic growth and helped build up a loyal local clientele. The spill-over effect of pumped-in EU funding was an increase in the standard of living of wealthier, middle class and upper-class Hungarians. In the last couple of years the average standard of living has increased. But so did social inequality. So much so that Hungary is now the least socially mobile member state of the EU.
Unfortunately, Hungary’s EU funds have been used and spent well before the 2020 date until when they were originally supposed to last. Yet maintaining the status quo and legitimizing anti-democratic steps require resources. So now, if they are to replace EU funds with Russian and Chinese loans as sources of investment (as they intend), Orbán and his government must shift their rhetorical focus. In the decades after political transition from communism, the (mission impossible) project of catching-up with the (liberal, prosperous, “super progressive, and democratic”) “West” influenced and framed cultural and economic values. European integration was part of this project. But we are currently witnessing the denial, or at least the strong questioning, of these values. Now, the project of turning to the “East”, with its neo-traditionalist new order, is the one meant to bring hope.
Besides, discourses about “gender” as a dangerous concept and threat to the social order are neither brand new phenomena nor unique to Hungary. As Andrea Pető, Weronika Grzebalska and Eszter Kováts convincingly argue in their piece about “gender” as symbolic glue, “gender” has become a signifier of the failure of the (neo)liberal order. A stand-in for the lost promise of regime change and the lost chance of social mobility, “gender” has come to symbolize in the eyes of the many even more: the uncertainty, social risk and growing social inequality neoliberalism frames as individual failure. Those political actors applying this conversion technique in order to polarize realized and capitalized on the fact that “gender” covers very different and often oppositional standpoints even in the field of academia and activism. If we take the genealogy of the term “gender”, Jemima Repo’s recent findings highlight this even more: “gender” itself is a neoliberal biopolitical concept aimed at controlling the reproduction and production of bodies. Reductive approaches to “gender”, focusing on individual rights and identity, wittingly or unwittingly reproduce an argument in which individual solutions are promoted instead of structural change. This framing is the same as that of the neoliberal Right, shared by Orbán, in that it blames solely individuals themselves for their social situation: it is their individual failure, their individual responsibility.
The “West”, “Brussels”, the “EU”, the “CEU”, “civic organizations”, “NGOs”, “open society”, “progressivism”, “liberalism”, “autonomy”, “tolerance”, “dignity”, “equality”, “gender”, “LGBT”, “feminism”, “migrants” and the association chain can be continued, all express, for a huge part of Hungarian society, the failure of the promise of transition to a neoliberal market economy. These concepts no longer carry the meaning attached to them in the Political and Social Science literature. Because in recent decades these concepts were part of a Liberal political project, which never included realistic chances of significant social emancipation for the majority, the neoliberal neo-traditionalists had an open path towards the reconfiguration of these concepts.
Coming back to your original question, I agree that the CEU issue and the ban on gender studies are currently the most visible issues related to Hungarian higher education in the international press. In reality, the ongoing restructuring of the Hungarian higher education sector is just as alarming, if not more. The matter has a long history, as successive Hungarian governments (not just Orbán’s) have set higher education on a neoliberal track.
However, it is true that neoliberalizing tendencies have gained momentum in recent years. Thus, four years ago, so-called chancellors were appointed by the government to be responsible for the financial control of individual universities. Three years ago, several social science, arts and humanities programs, like Social Studies BA, Andragogy MA, were shut down allegedly because of not being marketable and profitable. Several other threatened programs, like International Studies, escaped the axe due to their popularity but state-funded places for these disliked specialties were practically reduced to zero. Formerly public universities are being converted into private universities with tuition fees. This will simply result in a social mobility freeze. Students are already work full-time on top of their studies to cover their fees, and there is a shortage of dormitory places. Even dormitory fees have increased, and students are affected by growing rental prices. IT and engineering programs are supported by the government over other fields in the name of labour market demand. If you take assistant lecturers’ and assistant professors’ salaries, faculty wages at public universities are below the national average. Faculty workloads are increasing as hiring processes have been frozen in the name of austerity. A lot of administrative jobs cannot be filled because of the unattractive salaries. These are just a few of the problems that have affected the entirety of higher education.
Could you describe in more detail the current situation at your university? What issue raises the most concern? How do faculty and students relate to what is happening?
On November 14, a so-called “information and solidarity strike day” was organized at ELTE Faculty of Social Sciences-the school which ran the only Hungarian language Gender Studies MA program in the country before the government dis-accredited the speciality. The program was accredited two and a half years ago without any concerns, but kicked off last year amid negative campaigns from the government. As the banning of the ELTE Gender Studies programs at ELTE and CEU was the main trigger, the November 14 event focused mostly on women’s rights and social inequalities between men and women. Issues of “university autonomy” and democratic rights were also addressed in a marked way.
On that occasion, I spoke to Chemistry students studying in the same building. One was a particularly interesting conversation and highlighted the weakness of these protests. Gender MA students had set up a strike info point in one of the busiest corridors and were handing out leaflets about the strike to everyone walking by. Three male students, who—it turned out later—happened to study chemistry stopped, took the leaflets, read them and immediately posed a question: “is it a problem that we are white, Christian, Hungarian, heterosexual men?” Their knowledge about gender covered the recognition markers rooted in victimhood culture. We started a conversation, and within fifteen minutes we were aware of the common roots of the problems they suffer (and which some lectures of the MA program problematize). We agreed that state withdrawal from higher education leads to low quality education, meagre stipends, no places in the dormitory, no chemicals (!) for experiments in labs (not a joke: lecturers verbally explain to ELTE Biology students what they would see if they had the necessary substances [link in Hungarian]), crowded tiny little labs with up to 16 (!) students, and, for example, the fact that the amounts for the universal child care allowance and family allowance have not increased for ten years despite 33% inflation, causing serious problems for women.
I do not say that those Chemistry students became huge supporters of “gender studies”, but at least they felt their problems were also acknowledged. We did not compete with them about who is being oppressed more, did not tell them off for not being tolerant enough, but instead worked to show the connection between their situation and that of many women. So, what is really missing is the highlighting of the commonalities between different, seemingly scattered problems people face in different levels and different spheres of higher education. Furthermore, these problems also appear in public education, health care, welfare provisions, and now in the case of the “slavery law”.
How does the academic and student community at your university relate to struggles at other universities? Have there been attempts to do something together and what are the advances and challenges?
Until lately, most of the protests have focused on the terms I mentioned are becoming part of the association chain related to democratic rights: “autonomy of higher education”, “freedom of education” etc. However, following the new round of restructurings, some students problematized issues of social mobility and questioned governmental proposals that liken universities to factories meant to produce students with knowledge and skills that are of value to the labour market. Opposing students claim “universities are not factories”. While this is true, one can see that this statement fails to problematize the existing conditions in the factories themselves, it just does not want those conditions in the sphere of universities. Fortunately, more recently, students are taking steps towards overcoming the distance and hierarchy between universities and factories. Students and workers seem to approach each other. It is very promising that a new student organization has labelled itself a “Student Trade Union”, in opposition to the already existing “Student Self-Government”. Their system- critical approach targets the structural problems of not just the Hungarian higher education system. Protesters expressed their solidarity with workers affected by the new “slavery law” and participated with banners in several protests held recently in Budapest. These new and unusual coalitions highlight the common roots of seemingly different problems.
In turbulent times, labour rights are often silenced and a logic of urgency takes over. What is the current situation in that respect at your university? Do you have a union (or unions) and how does it respond to the current situation? Are other unions collaborating for the current protests against the introduction of 400 hours of overtime work per year, ie the “Slave Law”?
Instead of the logic of urgency, I would call it the logic of resources. To put it in a simple way: only those issues that are mostly in the interest of certain social groups, with enough social, economic etc resources, will be visible in public. Workers’ rights do not belong to this category. In Hungary, only 9% of all employees are members of a labour union. The unionization ratio has been steadily decreasing throughout the economic transition of the 1990s. The December 2018 introduction of the “Slavery Law” cries for a general strike. But unions are weak and some of them are openly loyal to the government, and financially supported by it. (Some unions are closer to the government then others, see the concept of “polypore state”.) Since the government represents the interest of the employers, be they Hungarian or foreign, the situation seems hopeless. Collective issues, among which: the destruction of the welfare state, the individualization of social risks, the introduction of an extreme overtime act, the underfinancing of health care and social care, the defunding of public and higher education, the favouring of upper-middle class and upper-class families in family policy etc., would serve the goal of demonstrating how fragmentation is spurious. Currently, separately, these issues serve the goal of putting these different groups in a situation where they compete against each other for shrinking resources. Everyone’s structural problems should be acknowledged, and redistributive welfare services should be strengthened and prioritized. Of course, a captured state relying on foreign resources in order to maintain the status quo cannot fulfil this role.
There have been a lot of petitions, calls for international solidarity, and in some cases media attention to what is happening to your university and Hungarian universities in general. To what extent do you see this as effective? Is there anything you would like to see more or less of from the international community in solidarity with your struggle?
Institutional authorities on one’s side and access to the necessary resources are important components of solidarity with those in need. The question is if we can broaden the view about who is in need and with whom we are walking in the same shoes. We should not organize ourselves only when our house is burning. What about the others?
Anikó Gregor was in charge of organizing the Gender Studies MA program at ELTE. She holds a PhD in Sociology (2015, ELTE) and an MA in Gender Studies (2011, CEU). Currently she works as an assistant professor at ELTE University, Faculty of Social Sciences (Budapest), where she teaches quantitative and qualitative research methodology courses. In her research, she focuses on the relations of neoliberalism, feminism and the system of gender inequalities, especially in an East Central Europe.