The Ailing European Academic Accreditation System Hacked by Illiberal ‘Polypore Science’ – An Interview with Hungarian Gender Studies Professor Andrea Pető


The internationally renowned Hungarian academic Andrea Pető, Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, resigned from the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC) after being pressured by the president of the Committee to withdraw a paragraph from her double peer-reviewed and published article entitled “The Illiberal Academic Authority: An Oxymoron?”.

portrait of Andrea Pető

The internationally renowned Hungarian academic Andrea Pető, Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, was pressured by the president  of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, a Hungarian scientific quality assurance institution, to withdraw a paragraph from her double peer-reviewed article entitled “The Illiberal Academic Authority: An Oxymoron?” published in the November 2021 issue no. 4 of Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte /History of Science and Humanities. The professor refused to do so and resigned from the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC), which is a member of the Brussel-based European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA).

Pető’s article claimed that academic authorisation is especially suited to spearheading illiberalisation efforts and criticised the European scientific authorisation process, ENQA in particular, for its failure to counterbalance this in Hungary when “CEU was forced into exile and the two-year Master's program in gender studies was struck from the accredited study list”. Academic accreditation therefore also serves the illiberal “polypore” state, a term coined by Andrea Pető and Weronika Grzebalska, by authorising academic institutions that are often without real scientific value which, in return, then ensure academic positions to the state’s faithful cadres and silence their critics, Ms Pető recently told Klubrádió. As they earlier defined it in their article in the Huffington Post: “A polypore is a parasitic fungus that feeds on rotting trees, contributing to their decay. In the same way, the governments of Poland and Hungary feed on the vital resources of their liberal predecessors, and produce a fully dependent state structure in return. This style of government involves appropriating the institutions, mechanisms and funding channels of the European liberal democratic project.”


Anna Frenyo: Professor Pető, the letter that HAC President Valéria Csépe wrote to you, which has been published in English translation on the Democracy Seminar website and in which she urges you to change your article, is patronising and intimidating. Does this reveal a patriarchal system in which emotional blackmailing is a way of reacting to academic criticism?

Andrea Pető: Well, yes. In illiberal states, every policy issue immediately becomes personal instead of an opportunity to analyse a structure that is defective. Certain colleagues from HAC have been sending me emails telling me that it was me who has misinterpreted the letter. Yet what is at stake is not what I personally feel or think, but the fact that the quality assurance system in Hungarian higher education has been hacked by the illiberal state, which is taking advantage of a non-functioning European quality assurance system.

AF: Valéria Csépe requests in her letter “that the conclusion, which portrays a cause-and-effect relationship between Lex CEU and the abolition of the accreditation of the gender studies program, be immediately withdrawn or corrected.” Then she lists dates of laws and events to support her statement. One might feel quite puzzled as a reader, as if the goal was to create confusion so the reader loses track of what actually was going on.

AP: This is a typical example of using Orwellian Newspeak to meet the requirements of those in power.[1] She states[2] that each university had equal opportunities, but she is referring to Lex CEU, which discriminatively targeted Central European University and finally forced it to move its campus to Vienna. What she writes implies that CEU could have chosen to comply with the amended legal requirements, and she is thereby camouflaging the very conscious, government-run, fear-mongering campaign against the CEU and the demonisation of its founder, philanthropist George Soros, making it seem like a procedure that, according to her, was legal. In doing so, she simply ignores the European Court of Justice judgment condemning Lex CEU.[3] In reality, the war against CEU and gender studies is a part of the ‘Kulturkampf’, the struggle for ‘cultural hegemony’ in the sense of Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, attempting to eliminate science and academic work as we know it and to reverse the Enlightenment and its values, such as objectivity and critical thinking.

AF: I wonder whether someone like the author of this letter, the head of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, really believes what she says, or if she is knowingly distorting the facts?

AP: This is Newspeak.

AF: So no argumentative debate is possible?

AP: Nope. Dr Csépe in her letter delegimitises me as ignorant because I do not think what she thinks I should be thinking.  

AF: You also received a letter from the Chair of HAC’s Committee on Humanities, drawing your attention to your obligation to maintain confidentiality. How did you know that now was the time to react, to quit the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, to breach that confidentiality, and to write your open letter?

AP: Sometimes a moment arrives in life when you have to decide what to do: act, or remain silent. The decision was pretty easy in this case. Not only had I been asked to censor my own article, but also to keep this to myself.

AF: The Guardian reports that your resignation from HAC was also preceded by a ‘very stormy discussion’ on academic responsibility over a government plan to cut teacher training by one year. You thought that HAC should have intervened against the plan.

AP: During that row, Valéria Csépe claimed she had proceeded according to the law, which is a typical “Mitläufer” attitude - the Germans have this expressive term to describe someone who ”goes with the flow”, who does not actively collaborate, but just subserviently, silently does his or her job. Such people can always come up with the excuse, accompanied by a shrug, that they had no other choice but to “follow orders”.

AF: In your open letter, you called such a demeanour “subservient” and you referred to your analysis of the history of dictatorships, to how an institution and those running it would gradually become servants of the system.[4] This is eerie. Is the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education also subservient? Are they Mitläufer too?

AP: Look at their reaction to The Guardian’s question: they fail to take any responsibility for restrictions of academic freedom in Hungary.[5] How could they not bear responsibility for the fact that faculty in Hungary are afraid to speak out? They are threatened, they are afraid of losing their jobs.

AF: Where exactly does this take place?

AP: Everywhere. Look, my colleagues in Hungary are scared to voice their opinions publicly. What the Government calls ‘model change’ in Hungarian tertiary education is the privatisation of Hungarian universities in actual fact. The ownership of nearly the entire higher education system has been given to private foundations led by loyal FIDESZ cadres with possibly lifelong, extremely well-paying positions. This means every other academic has lost the job security of a tenure-track position, i.e. a permanent contract, and decisions in academic matters are being taken by these cadres. University faculty are now employed just like tram drivers. If a tramline is cancelled or someone dislikes the driver’s face, that employee can be removed within seconds. They won’t be able to pay their mortgage, they’ll be academically destroyed for a lifetime, their spouse will lose their civil servant job: the existential threat is always present. This was the last chance for ENQA to say something, and they missed it.[6]

AF: The process of curtailing academic freedom has been ongoing since the alliance of FIDESZ and the Christian Democratic Party won a landslide victory in 2010 that secured a two-thirds parliamentary majority of the Government. The transformation of the higher education system began a year later, shifting to a more centralised, direct governance model by introducing chancellors at universities appointed by the prime minister. Is ‘model change’ a further step in the decreasing of institutional autonomy?

AP: What we tend to forget is that higher education is a business that yields profit. The ‘model change’ started with Corvinus University of Budapest in 2019. Now the illiberal polypore state will not let the coins clink into anyone else’s pockets apart from those of its own loyal servants. Like a vacuum cleaner, it hoovers up all the resources of the system and channels it to those who are ideologically apt and loyal. This is what happened to Corvinus University too.

AF: As you wrote in Report from the trenches: The debate around teaching gender studies in Hungary[7], gender studies has already become a pop-science, yet is deemed the enemy by the Government, triggering fierce reactions, such as that of the undersecretary of the Ministry of Human Resources, Bence Rétvári, who compared gender studies to Marxism-Leninism, or that of the Alliance of Young Christian Democrats, who labelled it “fake science” and “the product of the gay lobby”. Where does all this hate against gender studies come from?

AP: Definitely not from Bence Rétvári. He did not wake up one day with this new vocabulary and political agenda, he is simply applying the terms and concepts presented by international actors to Hungary. The same vocabulary and concepts are used by different illiberal actors from Brazil to Sweden. The illiberal attacks against gender, against equality, have become the main battlefield of this new cold war. The goal is to create uncertainty and animosity. As we wrote in “Gender as symbolic glue: how ‘gender’ became an umbrella term for the rejection of the (neo)liberal order”[8], the concept of gender, “gender ideology”, and opposition to gender politics connects a broad range of societal and political actors whose goal is to create an alternative against the current neoliberal order. This is not a geographical war, but a process of constant ‘othering’, defining The Other as the enemy. What is happening in Hungary is just a tiny episode in this global war, but Hungary hit the international headlines by striking the two-year Master's program in gender studies from the accredited study list, thus breaking a taboo that no one had broken before. Government intrusion into academic freedom, into accreditation processes, the Government deciding what should or should not be taught by academics: this is a line that democratic governments do not cross.

AF: What is the relation between gender studies and illiberalism?

AP: Gender studies is a science that analyses the current situation critically, providing knowledge and a language through which a better, fairer, more equal world can be created. Losing its academic authorisation in Hungary has downgraded it, but that has not eliminated it; on the contrary, there is more interest in gender studies now than ever. The same courses are being taught in different universities by the same people. Maybe the title of the course has been changed to divert the attention of the scared university administrators, but the content remains the same. Yet by undermining its academic authorisation, the illiberal state undermines any such collective reflection on our future.  Illiberal spin doctors recognise that tertiary education is vital, as this is what offers academic authorisation. It has a certain weight if somebody is a professor or an associate professor. However, the illiberal state turns higher education institutions into mere imitations or simulacra of the original institutions, using them for its own purposes. Hence, it “hacks” the quality assurance and accreditation system, via the accreditation committees, as well as neoliberal think-tank culture, mimicking its scientific evaluation system of indices and creating illiberal institutions with taxpayer money. In our recent article entitled “‘Unfettered Freedom’ Revisited: Hungarian Historical Journals between 1989 and 2018”[9], my colleague Ildikó Barna and myself describe how parallel institutions in the field of history have been created outside the quality assurance system, thus nurturing the emergence of ‘dilettantish or propaganda-oriented interpretations of the past’ by quasi-historians from quasi-scientific institutes and journals.[10] Illiberalism relativises academic performance while creating its own system through which it gives its own people the academic authorisation to fill high positions. Anybody can become anyone with political support – this devalues the academic ranking of those who have worked hard to obtain their academic titles. This is how an ailing European academic accreditation system ends up serving conquest by illiberalism


[1] Newspeak is a controlled language with a simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary constructed to meet the ideological requirements of the totalitarian superstate Oceania, ‘designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought’, as described in the appendix of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

[2] Extract from the letter of Valéria Csépe “* Law XXV of 2017, which has become known as the “Lex CEU,” amending the National Higher Education Law of 2011, was promulgated on April 17, 2017. This law, which also affected the Central European University (CEU) foreign higher-education institution possessing a headquarters in Hungary, entered into force on December 31, 2017, giving all foreign higher-education institutions operating in Hungary the opportunity to comply with the amended legal requirements.” (Highlighted by the editor.)

[3] The European Court of Justice ruled that ‘lex CEU’ violates Hungary’s commitments under the World Trade Organisation, and infringes the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union relating to academic freedom”, as published by CEU in autumn 2020.

[4] “While analysing the history of dictatorships, I have learned that there were no written instructions about the kind of subservient behaviour that was expected from subjects. There is no written track of when and how an institution and those running it become servants of the dictatorship.”

[5] In the article they claim that “the ENQA review process assesses the agency itself (its policies and practices) and not the education system of the country in which it operates.”

[6] As Andrea Pető wrote in the open letter, “the institution responsible for quality assurance in European higher education is totally unprepared to evaluate the higher education of the illiberal state, whereas HAC benefits from this unpreparedness, because it is not held accountable for the positions it took – or failed to take.”

[7] Published by Henrich Böll Stiftung

[8] Also published in German as Gender als symbolischer Kitt - Warum das Konzept genutzt werden kann, um progressive Politiken zu delegitimieren”, In: Luxemburg. Gesellschaftsanalyse und linke Praxis, 2018/2, 14-19.

[9] Published online by Cambridge University Press on 19 July 2021

[10] Under the section ‘Founding Parallel Institutions’ of The Illiberal Academic Authority: An Oxymoron?:

In the past decade, these illiberal polypore countries have founded several new colleges of advanced studies, research institutions, museums, and universities with the same profiles as the already existing museums and universities. In the field of historiography alone, for example, the Hungarian state has created and funded six new historical research institutes since the early 2010s, including the Veritas Institute, the Committee of National Remembrance (NEB), the Clio Institute, the Research Institute and Archives for the History of Regime Change (RETÖRKI), the Institute for Hungarian Studies, and the Rubicon Institute. These institutes simulate quality assurance by functioning without adherence to generally accepted scientific standards.