Fearing for its autonomy, university holds protest against privatization plan

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Students, professors and sympathizers held a demonstration on Sunday in defense of the independence of the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in Budapest.

The demonstrators oppose a government plan to privatize the university and place its control under a foundation, the board members of which will be appointed by the Innovation and Technology Ministry. The plan has already been executed at six universities, including Corvinus University, and a total of eight universities are expected to be drawn under the model by the end of the year. Only SZFE has expressed serious resistance to the measures.

Demonstrators at the protest voiced their concerns that the plan would force the university under political control. Numerous artists attended the demonstration in solidarity, and letters of support from award-winning filmmakers Ildikó Enyedi and Béla Tarr were read aloud. In her letter, Enyedi, an SZFE professor, wrote, "What is part of our culture is not decided in ministry offices. There were already unfortunate attempts in the twentieth century to control the hands of poets, painters and artists from offices. They even created works. They are not remembered."

Several students gave speeches expressing fear that speaking out for the university's autonomy would result in retaliation. One SZFE student wondered, "Am I doing harm to my family, my friends, my classmates, my teachers and my university? That young university students in 2020 have to think about this when getting on stage to give their opinions is very wrong."

Demonstrators at the Sunday protest.Fotó: Gerencsér Anna/Színház- és Filmművészeti Egyetem HÖK

Earlier signs of government intentions to transform the university gave a basis to the demonstrators' concerns. SZFE and its professors have been frequently attacked in pro-government media, and earlier this month, Fidesz communications director István Hollik indicated that the government considers the university to be an opponent in a culture war.

"This institution hasn't been touched in 30 years," Hollik said in Parliament on June 4. "It operates in an unchanged form, and I think that in this situation it cannot adequately contribute to the strengthening and passing on of national identity."

Under the new higher education model, privatized universities will continue to receive funding from the state, but some observers predict that this will result in further state divestment from higher education while reducing the universities' autonomy. 

Last week, the Innovation and Technology Ministry released a list of board members of the foundations which will run six of the universities. Most of the names are ministers in the Orbán government, Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary representatives, or governing party mayors. Justice Minister Judit Varga was appointed chairman of the board of Miskolc University's governing foundation.

In an open letter, SZFE students invited Innovation and Technology Minister László Palkovics to a public consultation on the plans. The students "find it unacceptable that professional consultations are taking place behind our backs. Neither [university] leadership nor we know the reason for the tight timeframe of the model change." The students said they've received no guarantees that their academic freedom would be preserved.

Innovation and Technology Minister László PalkovicsFotó: Szigetváry Zsolt/MTI/MTVA

On Wednesday, Palkovics met with students who presented him with five demands they believe would preserve the university's autonomy. The minister did not sign the statement, and later criticized the students' demands, saying that the consultation had "become a political event".  

Index CEO resigns after concerns over a shake up 

CEO of media company Index Zrt. András Pusztay resigned from the firm on Tuesday after news of a shake-up at Hungary's largest news site Index.hu.

As we reported earlier this week, leaders and journalists at Index expressed urgent concerns over the site's independence after an advisor thought to be connected to upper levels of the government proposed outsourcing much of its editorial work to outside companies. Around 100 staff members joined editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull in signing a letter warning readers that the outlet was in "grave danger".

Pusztay's resignation came after Dull, the editor-in-chief, was suspended from the company's board of directors at a Monday assembly. László Bodolai, chairman of the board of the foundation which owns Index, said Dull's suspension was because he had leaked the news of the planned shake up to news site 24.hu.

At the Monday assembly, Pusztay and Bodolai tried to calm tensions at the outlet, assuring staff that the proposal would no longer be considered and that Gábor Gerényi, the advisor who made the proposal, had been dismissed. 

On Tuesday, Bodolai announced he had accepted Pusztay's resignation. Bodolai asked his friend Zsolt Ződi, a senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Legal Studies, to be Pusztay's successor. 

"My goal is for Index to retain its current value and market-leading position, which makes Index what it is. I look forward to cooperating with the editorial board, and they can count on my experience and support," Ződi wrote in a statement after accepting the invitation to become CEO.

Government purchased 16,000 ventilators, twice as many as projected for worst case scenario

At the end of April, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that 5,000 ventilators would likely be sufficient to handle Hungary's coronavirus patients, but that the government would purchase additional machines to place the country's stockpile at 8,000. 

"Then anything can happen, that would be enough for a time of war," Orbán said.

But on Wednesday, state secretary Tamás Menczer told HírTV that the government had ordered 16,000 ventilators, primarily from China, at a total cost of Ft 300 billion (€847 million). In explaining the high number of orders, Menczer explained that the government hoped to receive 10,000 ventilators but competition in acquiring the machines was high during the first wave of the pandemic, and there was no guarantee all orders would arrive.

Protective equipment arrives to Budapest Liszt Ferenc Airport on April 24, 2020.Fotó: Koszticsák Szilárd/MTI/MTVA

The highest number of patients on ventilators at the peak of the pandemic was 80, while the average was 60. Before the pandemic, Hungary had some 1,500-2,000 machines in its stockpile.

Menczer said that the excess ventilators would be sold, and that parties in Africa and Asia had already expressed interest. He added that two types of ventilator are currently being manufactured in Hungary, and more than 1,000 machines will be ready for use by the end of summer.

Economic researcher predicts 6% drop in GDP for 2020

GKI Economic Research Co. is predicting a 6 percent decline in Hungarian GDP for this year, exceeding the most optimistic predictions made in March. The researcher projects a 15 percent decline in the second quarter, followed by 5 percent increases in the next half year.

Hungary's GDP will only recover to 2019 levels by 2022 at the earliest, according to the projections.

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic has also affected earnings. While wages in March were up 9.1 percent year on year, they grew only 5.5 percent in April. 

Investments are also predicted to decline by up to 10 percent this year as companies delay them in the face of uncertain future revenues.

Gulyás: State will pay compensation to segregated Roma 

At a government press conference on Thursday, the prime minister's chief of staff Gergely Gulyás announced that the state would pay Ft 99 million (€280,000) in court-ordered compensation to Roma victims of institutional segregation in the town of Gyöngyöspata.

GyöngyöspataFotó: Dimény András/Képszerkesztőség

As we reported in February, the government earlier insisted it would not make the payments as directed by Hungarian courts. A National Consultation was announced in February on the matter, but was later cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In January, the Hungarian Bar Association criticized the government for refusing to comply with court orders, saying it had damaged confidence in the rule of law, and Roma-led protests later erupted demanding the government make the payments and respect judicial independence.

Gulyás said the state would "naturally" comply with the court order, even though it disagrees with the ruling. "We consider this damaging to the winners of the lawsuit, to the people of Gyöngyöspata, and to the entire functioning of the state," he said.

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