Pensions ‘injustice’ pressures Hungary’s last public universities

Some doubt government will really lavish foundation-governed universities with extra funding it has promised

September 20, 2022
Budapest, HUNGARY - 23 March 2019  Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics, Eötvös Loránd University.
Source: iStock
Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics, Eötvös Loránd University.

The Hungarian government has been accused of using pension rules as a “targeted tool” to apply pressure to the few universities that have rejected having their funding controlled by government-friendly foundations. 

The transfer of assets from most public universities to dedicated foundations headed by party loyalists caused concern and condemnation last year, with critics saying the set-up limits transparency and accountability.

Despite this, they acknowledged that privatisation does bring benefits. It is easier for such universities to hire and pay researchers at their discretion, for example, or to form partnerships with industry.

Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) and Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) are among the few institutions not to adopt the foundation model.

Apart from potentially higher salaries, academics at privatised universities can also draw their pension from the age of 65 while keeping their position, a major lever to influence those sitting in university senates, József Pálinkás, a former Hungarian minister of education and president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, told Times Higher Education

“This is a very targeted tool to convince these people, ‘Don’t make a lot of noise because you can get twice as much as you had before.’ On top of that, they can be fired immediately,” he said. “In this way, people will not exercise their civil rights and they will not participate in political life.” 

“Their [foundation universities’] attraction has grown by enticing highly qualified staff at retirement age to make use of the dual-income option,” said Istvan Kenesei, a professor emeritus at the University of Szeged, referring to foundation universities. “This has been an injustice for quite some time favouring the private, and in particular the denominational universities.”

He said that if budgets and contract terms continued to put non-foundation universities such as ELTE and BME at a disadvantage “the pressure from inside will force the management to follow suit”. 

At the start of September, János Csák, the minister responsible for higher education, said that the government would be spending 2 per cent of Hungary’s gross domestic product on higher education in 2022.

Professor Kenesei described this claim as a “hoax”, and that current national budget figures showed higher education was due to receive 0.76 per cent of GDP this year and 0.84 per cent the next. The Hungarian government was invited to respond to this claim.

He said that privatisation promises made last year, such as investments in new buildings, had not materialised, partly because of a freeze on European Union funding over rule-of-law concerns.

“I am not aware Minister Csák could promise anything to the remaining two major universities,” Professor Kenesei said, referring to ELTE and BME. 

“Increased funding, a more attractive employment status, performance-based promotion, the availability of better infrastructure, higher requirements and higher performance in return for higher pay will lead to an improvement of quality, meaning an improvement in the positions occupied by our universities in the world rankings,” said a Hungarian government spokesperson. 

They said the premise of the foundation model was “decentralisation”, and that universities were free to choose whether to make the change, claiming that 87 per cent of university senate members had backed a switch to the foundation model at their institution.

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