You do not need a degree to have dignity, and it does not come with one either

Authors of the Week: Hungary

Photo by Marjeta Marinčič

The history of the Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Arts (SzFE) dates back to 156 years. Throughout this time, the university has operated in several different institutional forms and survived several political systems. Its leaders, teachers, staff, and students have included the innovators of the Hungarian theatrical and cinematic life, the most significant professionals, and figures of international fame. The Ódry Stage opened its doors in 1958 in the institution’s building on Vas utca in Budapest, the central, best-known place of education, which thus also became the symbolic venue of the 2020 university occupation and independence movement. The public was first informed last spring that the Hungarian government’s violent and unprofessional university transformation efforts would also affect SzFE, seriously jeopardising the institution’s professional independence, integrity, and spirituality. In an absurd way, the government has been planning to gain significant influence in the functioning of several universities by removing them from the state’s authority and entrusting seemingly independent foundations with their management. The universities would then be controlled by the foundations’s own agents, thus circumventing and disregarding traditional universities’ guarantee of autonomy that had been in effect for essentially many hundreds of years. A significant proportion of university teachers and students did not consider the new leaders, appointed through politics, to be legitimate from the beginning, and insisted on maintaining the traditional form of operation. The original, legitimate senate leading the university resigned, several faculty members left, and the students started a resistance movement. The best-known event of this movement was the university resolution of 1st September 2020 and the establishment of the “student republic”, following which the citizens of the university protected the institution’s buildings for 70 days and ensured education and independent university life throughout the semester. In almost two and a half months, the most renown representatives of Hungarian cultural public life, former students of SzFE, important figures in film, theatre, and literature, as well as internationally known stars demonstrated for the university’s independence. Unprecedented social support arose, and the red-and-white ribbon, the yellow Freeszfe mask, and the university building on Vas utca also became symbols of opposition to the current political system, in a way that the movement could remain independent from political parties and trends, and has essentially been able to rise above the daily political struggles. The abandonment of university buildings was ultimately brought about by epidemiological measures, and it could be known that students who did not want to give up would have nowhere to return after the winter break. Some of the university’s citizens are currently working on the launch of a new and independent educational institution in the form of an association, which has already been registered as the Freeszfe Association. To use cinematic or dramaturgical jargon, the plot has since then unfolded on three different threads, but these are barely connected anymore.

1. By the second semester, the university’s new management, made up of political appointees, has filled vacancies with new lecturers at an astonishing speed ; it has announced new admissions for new students, is preparing new infrastructure investments, and, following a good old local tradition, it is in the process of erasing the past.

2. The government’s nationalisation model, disguised as privatisation, has been put to the test in the face of very serious forms of resistance. So further university restructuring is unlikely to cause any problems, and may even have little news value, while the method is now being extended to state art institutions.

3. Meanwhile, the Freeszfe Association is looking for a home, and in the absence of official university accreditation, foreign universities are providing degrees for students who have lost their institution. After the 70-day university occupation, another 70 days have passed, and almost 70 more. Since then, both sides have seen that winning is not the only way to win. The university’s new management, made up of political appointees, could only occupy empty buildings and an empty institution. The students and teachers who have left have regained their freedom precisely by giving up what they had been fighting for. There are many types of victories, and many interpretations for each ofthem. But there is only one type of dignity. You do not need a degree to have dignity, and it does not come with one either.