Hungary's parliament overhauls higher education amid outcry

FILE - In this Thursday, April 1, 2021 file photo, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban speaks during a press conference in Budapest, Hungary. Hungarys parliament on Tuesday, April 27 voted to transfer state assets worth billions of dollars into foundations that will control many of the countrys public universities and cultural institutions. Opposition figures have decried the move as a theft of public funds, and the latest step in what critics call a takeover of Hungarys higher education system by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.(AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh, file)
FILE - In this Thursday, April 1, 2021 file photo, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban speaks during a press conference in Budapest, Hungary. Hungarys parliament on Tuesday, April 27 voted to transfer state assets worth billions of dollars into foundations that will control many of the countrys public universities and cultural institutions. Opposition figures have decried the move as a theft of public funds, and the latest step in what critics call a takeover of Hungarys higher education system by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.(AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh, file) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BUDAPEST – Hungary's parliament on Tuesday voted to transfer state assets worth billions of dollars into foundations that will control many of the country's public universities and cultural institutions, a move opposition figures have decried as a theft of public funds.

Passed by the governing coalition's two-thirds majority in parliament, the decision placed 11 universities under the control of public foundations led by government-appointed boards of trustees, the latest step in what critics have called a takeover of Hungary's higher education system by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party.

The foundations were granted endowments worth billions of dollars in public assets, including valuable real estate, a palace, a harbor and shares of partially state-owned companies like energy company MOL and pharmaceutical firm Gideon Richter, leading to accusations of a mass transfer of public wealth into the hands of government loyalists.

“This is a very dangerous move. Many speculate this is the creation of a deep state,” said Miklos Ligeti, legal director of anti-corruption group Transparency International Hungary.

Hungary’s government insists the reforms are necessary to modernize higher education, and that the new model represents “a rethinking of the role of the state” where foundations will conduct public tasks normally carried out by the government.

It denies that public assets are endangered by their transfer to the foundations, and says the universities were given the choice of whether to be included in the reforms.

“We are talking here about public interest foundations ... so all the assets that these foundations have can only be used for public purposes, for the activities of higher education, and they do not become private property in any form,” the government’s international communications office told The Associated Press in an email.

Yet critics say the universities were coerced into adopting the new model, and haven't received any guarantees ensuring their academic autonomy.