June 21, 2020 / 3:54 PM / 24 days ago

Hungarian protesters fear government control in arts university's overhaul

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hundreds of Hungarians protested on Sunday against the planned reform of the prestigious University of Theatre and Film Arts which they fear will bring the school further under government control.

People dance as students attend a protest against threats to academic freedom in Budapest, Hungary, June 21, 2020. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

The protesters, many of them university students and staff, actors and writers, carried placards and made speeches in front of the main building denouncing the planned changes.

“The government has already damaged Hungarian culture a great deal and we have to raise our voice against what they are planning to do now,” said Jozsef Mate, a theatre fan at the protest.

A bill introduced in parliament on May 26 would transfer the ownership of the state-run institution, which goes back 155 years, to a private foundation.

The government argues the new structure will make the country’s most important institution for training theatre and movie directors and actors more flexible and efficient and help the school access more finances.

The government has already reshaped Corvinus University, a major school of economics, in such a way and the reorganisation of seven other schools is in progress.

The fact that the universities in question will be governed by a board of trustees “not only diminishes the state’s influence on these schools but completely eliminates it”, Gergely Gulyas, the prime minister’s chief of staff, said on Thursday.

But critics say the trustees will be appointed by the government and given the right to appoint the head of the school in a non-transparent manner, without consulting faculty or students.

The institution is “going to be managed by a foundation, through which the government can exercise total control over the university”, a petition initiated by students says.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has extended his influence over most walks of life in the central European country during his decade-long rule.

The European Union has long criticised him for policies it says threaten the rule of law by imposing party control over the judiciary, media and academic institutions.

Reporting by Anita Komuves, Krisztina Fenyo and Balazs Kaufmann; editing by Nick Macfie

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