Erasmus of Hungary – a test of Orbán’s power

Ema Polívková

Studentka FSV UK

The European Union has stopped paying for Hungary’s student exchange. But the Erasmus project was very popular with young people, will this shake Viktor Orbán’s power?


Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has faced constant criticism for limiting the rule of law and democracy in the country. These criticisms, including in the context of Hungary’s evasive stance on the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, have been taken up by the European Union. At the end of last year, the European Commission decided on new sanctions, and among them was the suspension of funding for the Erasmus project at 21 Hungarian universities. This decision will mainly affect Hungarian university students, who will not be able to take part in student exchanges abroad.


Viktor Orbán’s government has been trying to interfere in academia for several years. The European Union explains the current move to cut most Hungarian universities out of the Erasmus project as an attempt to prevent Hungary from dealing with European funding in a non-transparent manner. The distribution of money to most universities in Hungary is now managed by state foundations, of which top politicians can become members. The European Union has ruled that this is a case of undermining academic independence and has expressed concern about how the funding earmarked for the Erasmus project is being handled.


Although the EU announced the move last December, Viktor Orbán’s government managed to keep its decision under wraps for another month and the public only found out about it in January. The sanctions currently affect 21 universities managed by the aforementioned foundations, in fact, virtually all the country’s major universities. However, the punishment for Hungary does not mean the permanent cancellation of membership of the Erasmus project; for the time being, it is only a suspension until the schools are no longer managed by the state endowment funds.


While criticism about the systematic erosion of the sovereignty of academia in Hungary is justified, the exclusion from Erasmus will have its downsides. The idea of an interconnected Europe that builds its values on tolerance and openness was behind the student exchange project at the outset. Several-month stays at foreign universities help to promote this idea. Young people meet their peers from other countries and experience living in a foreign environment. Last but not least, it is also about study enrichment and, above all, understanding another country and gaining foreign contacts. As Erasmus trips are almost entirely paid for by the European Union, the opportunity to live abroad is not just for the rich. All of this helps to develop a generation that will be built on tolerance of others, rejection of racism and learning new things and being inspired from abroad.


Hungarian students will now lose all these opportunities. The country, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, is increasingly moving towards intolerance between people and xenophobia. Does not Hungary need a young generation right now that will move away from this and want to return to a pro-European democratic development? Not only is the European Commission’s decision punishing university students in particular, it is also lowering the prestige of most Hungarian universities. One wonders whether this will affect young people’s interest in higher education, and an educated society is one of the prerequisites for an open society.


Another problematic aspect may be the opening of imaginary social scissors between the poor and the rich. If students from the 21 excluded colleges now want to study abroad, they will have to do so at their own expense, which will close off the option for a large number of them. The Orbán government promised last week to compensate financially for the EU’s decision. But this would put universities even further under state influence and destroy what little independence they have had so far.


EU officials hope the measure will force the Hungarian government to remove universities from the state foundations under which they currently fall by law. However, it is possible that this will in turn strengthen the state’s influence, and that young Hungarians will be the ones to pay the most. On the other hand: the Erasmus project has been very popular in Hungary, and the current situation could encourage society to realise that the growing influence of the populist at the head of the country must be prevented, for example, by guaranteeing transparent funding for universities that are supposed to have a positive influence on the country’s future.


The fact that the government kept the European Commission’s decision secret for almost a month shows that Orbán was afraid of the public reaction. If this move helped to galvanise Hungarian civil society or attempt to return to a pro-European direction, it would be a sign that the EU sanctions are working. Unfortunately, there is still the possibility that the situation at the universities will not change, but rather that the situation will become even more entrenched and the government will protect its influence.

This article was translated from the original published in magazine Přítomnost.

published: 30. 1. 2023

Datum publikace:
30. 1. 2023
Autor článku:
Ema Polívková