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BUDAPEST – On a green hill in Budapest, a small educational foundation in an aging, former communist police building has bold plans to train a conservative future elite. It is building a colossal campus, recruiting conservative intellectuals into the faculty, and expanding its programs to educate 10,000 students across Hungary and elsewhere in Europe.
The prize is expected to be many millions of dollars, but money is not a problem: the privately run Mathias Corvinus Collegium Foundation, or MCC for short, recently received more than $ 1.7 billion in state money and assets from a powerful donor: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Mr Orban, a hero of the far right in Europe, says he wants to revise education and transform his country’s society towards more nationalistic, conservative politics. But its critics argue that the donation is legalized theft that is being used to bolster Mr Orban’s power by transferring public funds to foundations run by political allies.
Even for Mr Orban, who has persistently violated democratic norms, this is a brazen step, especially since Hungary’s health system is underfunded and is collapsing under the burden of Covid-19. The $ 1.7 billion transfer to the Education Foundation is roughly one percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The foundation now controls assets that exceed the annual budget of the entire higher education system in the country.
“This is not about Hungarian higher education,” said Istvan Hiller, a member of the opposition Socialist Party and former education minister who is now deputy speaker of parliament. “This is about laying a foundation to consolidate power.”
Mr Orban has dominated Hungarian politics for more than a decade, moving on a delicate line with the leaders of the European Union, who have largely condoned his excesses. But he’s now under increasing pressure in Europe, where a leader has openly questioned whether Hungary should stay in the bloc, and in Hungary, where his popularity has suffered from his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Orban is expected to seek a fifth term in 2022 to face a newly united opposition and the possibility that his ruling party, Fidesz, could lose power or at least its two-thirds “super majority” in parliament. Fidesz has used the super majority to channel once public wealth to loyalists, and critics say the possibility of election losses next year will accelerate this trend.
Bernadett Szel, an opposition lawmaker, said Mr Orban and his allies would create “an insurance policy for themselves” should they lose power by transferring public funds to “an ideologically restricted circle”.
“They pretend they are doing a public good,” said Ms. Szel, “but they are actually stealing from the public.”
Mr Orban has already cracked down on private media in Hungary and has hailed the consolidation of nearly 500 in 2018 owned by a single foundation controlled by his allies. But in late April, Mr. Orban oversaw one of the most comprehensive systemic changes to date, putting all but five public universities under the control of privately owned foundations.
Universities joined a growing ecosystem of 32 foundations and mostly conservative, government-affiliated think tanks that received around $ 3.5 billion in public money last year, according to K-Monitor, an independent nonprofit organization. These interlocking foundations are actually privately owned and control public parks, a cinema, concert halls, a boarding school and much more.
Mr Orban, an advocate of what he calls illiberal democracy, has spoken about his ambition to combine conservative politics with culture and science. His government has banned gender studies, and he now personally controls the appointment of the chief administrator of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. (His government also forced the Central European University, founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, to move to Austria.)
When the government went to privatize universities in April, the biggest beneficiary was the MCC Foundation, which bought $ 1.3 billion in government shares in two companies, injected funds worth $ 462 million, and $ 9 million. Dollars in real estate, including a luxury estate and a marina on Lake Balaton in western Hungary.
The incestuous character of the foundation structure becomes clear in its advisory boards. Members are appointed for life and only they can elect new members. There is no woman sitting on any of them.
The chairman of the MCC main board is Balazs Orban (no relation to the prime minister), who has a dual role. As State Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office, he played a leading role in shaping the transfer of assets to the Foundation. And as chairman, he oversees the recently privatized assets. Another board member is Zoltan Szalai, who also runs a shiny, pro-government weekly called Mandiner. One coffee shop he owns recently received a $ 2 million donation from once public money for use as an event space. Café Scruton is named after the conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton.
The MCC is not an independent university, but a residential college. It offers special seminars and a dormitory for students who are selected after a series of IQ and other tests who are then given scholarships, networking opportunities, and exclusive scholarships. Orban critics have described the foundation as an institution designed to produce right-wing intellectuals.
In an interview with the New York Times, Balazs Orban said that the MCC project was crucial for a small country like Hungary, with its history of foreign occupation.
“It’s very important to We need to have our own agenda, have our own way of thinking, have our own independence and culture, ”he said. “We always have to fight for that.”
He insisted that promoting “patriotism” be a top priority for the next generation of Hungarian leaders.
“Ideology is not important. Patriotism is, ”he said.
But recent articles and podcasts produced by MCC have discussed reading lists or intellectual lines that support the government’s anti-globalist message, such as patriotism in an era of globalism, or whether political correctness is tolerance or oppression.
Mr Orban’s government is not the only one targeting higher education. In Poland, a think tank with close ties to the right-wing government recently founded the Collegium Intermarium, a university that seeks to promote a conservative Christian elite.
Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, said that the changes in Hungary seem to be mostly about money and power. He noted, however, that leaders in Hungary and Poland viewed universities as important battlefields in their quest to maintain power.
“There is a very strong fear that universities will be completely lost to the conservative side, that they will be completely dominated by left-wing liberals, and that control of the universities will become a high priority for these governments,” said Krastev.
Balazs Orban plans to use the wealth of the MCC to expand programs for high school and elementary school students with the aim of welcoming 10,000 students in 35 European cities with large Hungarian populations, mainly in neighboring countries, over the next three years.
MCC was founded in 1996 with private money from a Fidesz supporter with the aim of training a post-communist elite. It was known to be more conservative than other residential colleges, but was respected for delivering high-profile independent programs. While the views of many professors closely follow the Fidesz line, some are independent or apolitical.
In interviews, some students wondered if the influx of cash and government attention would force a more partisan course of study. Others praised the institution for its quality and low student-to-faculty ratio, and for providing exceptional access to academics and policy makers.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” said Viktor Lazar, a third-year business student at the MCC
“Most of the time, we only get lectures at the university,” he said. “Here at the MCC it’s always so easy to ask a question because we’re in small groups.”
While there are some conservative students at the MCC, many do not necessarily support the Orban government. Some privately worried that there might be stigma attached to their education after MCC received so much media attention.
Even if the opposition comes to power next year, it is unclear whether they could dismantle the educational foundations or restore the universities to their old status. A future parliament could not change the rules for foundations of public interest without a two-thirds majority.
Elections lose their meaning when a “deep state with powers, assets and revenues to Fidesz” retains control, no matter who wins, said Balint Magyar, a sociologist and former two-time education minister concerned with post-communist governments.
Hiller, the former socialist education minister, said the debate on the higher education system would deepen polarization in Hungary, no matter who triumphs in the April vote.
“The whole system is built on this ideological shift,” he said. “The effect will last for decades.”
David Mihalyi contributed to the coverage.