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Explaining Democratic Backsliding in Polish and Hungarian Higher Education

Governance
Interest Groups
Higher Education
Policy-Making
Michael Dobbins
Universität Konstanz
Michael Dobbins
Universität Konstanz
Rafael Pablo Labanino
Universität Konstanz
Rafał Riedel
Uniwersytet Opolski

Abstract

In this paper we examine the manifest trend towards the centralization of Polish and Hungarian higher education, as reflected in much of the recent HE legislation in both countries. These developments are rather puzzling for numerous reasons. First, university autonomy, the restoration of academic freedom and the democratization of university governance were crucial early steps in the post-communist democratization process. Numerous scholars have shown how both countries relatively quickly and effectively reembraced Humboldtian-style structures of academic self-governance after the collapse of communism (Kwiek 2014; Dobbins 2011; Kovats et al 2017). This resulted in numerous institutions and governing bodies to defend the integrity and independence of the academic profession. For a long time period, Polish and Hungarian academia seemed “allergic” to any overzealous state intervention into higher education (even in the name of quality assurance). Drawing on a tradition of student activism (even under communism and in particular while bringing down communism) (Junes 2012), both higher education systems have more recently exhibited a trend towards participative democracy with strong external stakeholdership (Dobbins 2014). This is all the more visible since the Bologna Process, which enabled Central and Eastern European higher education organizations to network with and learn from western counterparts. Despite these factors favourable to academic self-governance and/or stakeholder governance, both countries have recently experienced a striking shift towards re-centralization. In Hungary, the chancellor system, implemented in 2014, severely constrained the financial and academic autonomy of universities. In 2018, the newly created Ministry of Innovation drafted legislation, which takes the research institutions employing 5000 researchers away from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) to implement direct control over basic research. In Poland the so called “New Constitution for Higher Education and Science" has also heralded re-centralization by concentrating more power in the hands of politicians, and gravitating more resources to “flagship” universities at the cost of smaller and more peripheral ones. This paper focusses on the catalytic forces behind these changes. We move beyond simplified explanations that higher education reflects a broader societal trend towards authoritarian nationalism in Poland and Hungary and instead show how changes in the higher education stakeholder landscape have facilitated these changes. Specifically, we draw on power resource theory as a framework to analyze the changing characteristics of stakeholder organizations as well as and changes in interest intermediation structures and steering approaches. We examine the organizational power of higher education interest groups (i.e. number of members), their conflict orientation (i.e. willingness to mobilize members and engage in conflicts) and their outer-parliamentary and peak-level presence. Based on a series of interviews with higher education stakeholders we show how the national conservative governments strategically played with the interests of particular stakeholders and thus transformed the opportunity structures of organizations representing students, the academic profession and university management. In both cases, the governments succeeded in neutralizing most of the opposing voices before they were effectively articulated, thus enabling them to retake control over previously highly autonomous higher education systems.