For three nights students in Budapest have blockaded themselves inside their university in protest at what they say is a takeover by Hungary’s nationalist government.
The students, from the University of Theatre and Film, fear the new board led by a staunch ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban will wreck its autonomy. Attila Vidnyanszky is director of Hungary’s National Theatre.
There was no consultation and five leading staff have quit in protest. This is the seventh state university in a row to be transferred to the control of private foundations, and where the board of directors is then hand-picked by the government.
The aim is to make universities financially independent of the state and more competitive, the government says. In front of the university building in Vas street the atmosphere in the early morning was relaxed. Students who slept the night inside emerged for coffee and pastries on the steps or on armchairs, behind the red and white hazard tape that sealed off the main entrance.
The tape reproduced on social media, has emerged as the main icon of the protest. Above it, one student arranges a spray-painted hardboard showing the number of nights of the occupation.
“We don’t want to avoid our classes and we want to invite our teachers into the blockaded building,” says Panni Szurdi, a second-year student and one of the co-ordinators of the protest.
“Orban isn’t interested in the protests of writers or any other intellectuals, he’s only afraid of the young,” wrote former National Theatre director Robert Alfoldi in a Facebook post. “This is their chance to prove he has something to be afraid of.”
Panni Szurdi grins uncomfortably at the suggestion. “We just want to show that we want to study, in this building, democratically. And we just want to show what we are capable of. We don’t want to scare anyone, even the prime minister.”
The students have issued a list of 13 demands, starting with the restoration of autonomy at the university and including the resignation of the new board. They have also appealed to students at other universities to back their stand.
Zoltan Kiszelly, a political analyst close to the government, sees the wrangle partly as a sort of competition between conservative and liberal values. “It’s not a war,” he insists.
“It’s a bad heritage of East-Central Europe that every government wants to influence all parts of society. But people are used to this in Hungary, and I don’t think any government will succeed in that.”
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