Hungarians march to protest Orban’s reach at top university

BUDAPEST (AP) — Thousands of Hungarians marched on the streets of the Hungarian capital Friday to protest government actions that they claim strips one of the country’s most prestigious universities of its independence.

The march, organized on the country’s national holiday commemorating the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956, follows weeks of protests by the students of the University for Theater and Film Arts in Budapest. Their demonstrations have become a symbol of resistance to Orban’s autocratic government, drawing support from universities, theater groups and artists around the world,.

“There is a common set of rules concerning universities in Europe, which has developed over the centuries, and the cornerstone of these rules is institutional autonomy. This is exactly what the government is trying to take away,” Hungarian actor Zoltan Bezeredi, who joined Friday’s march, told The Associated Press.

Legislation passed this summer by the ruling Fidesz party transferred the ownership of the university to a private foundation. The board members proposed by the university’s Senate were rejected by the government, and the new board was populated with officials hand-picked by the government. The university’s Senate and the majority of faculty members resigned in response, claiming the changes impair the university’s autonomy.

In the past few years, Orban’s nationalist, conservative government has transferred several key universities to private foundations ruled by boards of directors loyal to the government. While the Hungarian government says the new structure will increase educational quality and make the institutions financially independent, critics see the reforms as attempts to limit the schools’ autonomy and to bring them ideologically closer to the people running Hungary.

The University for Theater and Film Arts in Budapest counts several Oscar winners among its graduates, including Michael Curtiz, the director of “Casablanca,” and Vilmos Zsigmond, the cinematographer for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

On Friday, the marchers walked silently along a boulevard in central Budapest, carrying torches in remembrance of the 1956 uprising.

“It is very cruel how the government treats this university, I have never seen anything like this happen in Central Europe. I hope they won’t manage to conquer this school," Lili Bisits, 19, said.

The changes at the theater and film college underscore Orban’s ambition to tighten control over Hungary’s academic institutions. An institution of higher education backed by U.S. billionaire George Soros, Central European University, moved the majority of its graduate programs to Vienna in 2018 after the Hungarian Parliament passed legislation that the institution claimed “forced” it out of the country.

Orban also tightened government oversight at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.