Illiberal political actors around Europe have made education and culture top items on their agenda in order to induce lasting changes in political values, attitudes, and tastes. Still, few of them had several governmental terms to implement them. We focus on the examples of the illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland, with potential implications for illiberal actors that are currently in opposition elsewhere.
Péter Radó and Bálint Mikola
January 31, 2024
As part of the broader work on the policies adopted by illiberal actors in government, our paper takes stock of the most important policy initiatives of illiberal political parties in Europe in the field of education and culture, with a focus on Hungary and Poland as the two countries where such forces (Fidesz, and Law and Justice [PiS], respectively) were in power for sustained periods of time. However, to also get a sense of whether being in power or in opposition makes a difference to the content of illiberal parties’ policy proposals, we also include an overview of what educational and cultural policies other European parties with an illiberal agenda have advocated for in their manifestos: the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) and Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) in Czechia, the National Front/Rally (FN/RN) in France, and Brothers of Italy (FdI) and Lega in Italy.
The Ideological Roots of Illiberal Education and Cultural Policies
We first identify overarching ideological frameworks whose elements were used by each of the actors we are interested in. We find that conservatism, nationalism, religiosity, majoritarianism/anti-pluralism, authoritarianism, and paternalism were the core ideological motives that determined policy proposals. Even though the parties covered in our study mostly represent the far right of the ideological spectrum, a left-wing variant of these motives (except conservatism) is conceivable, even if it is yet to materialize on the European political landscape.
As our main analytical framework, we distinguish overt from hidden policy agendas. By overt agendas we mean initiatives and aspirations in educational or cultural policy that were driven by the values and social or economic goals openly represented by illiberal political parties, regardless of the extent to which these were accepted in the mainstream international discourse. Hidden agendas refer to initiatives and policies serving purposes that cannot be openly represented because they contradict widely accepted ethical norms or constitutional principles. Examples of such hidden objectives include the concentration of state power for the sake of maintaining political power, various forms of corruption, the making of political alliances, or the elimination of political opponents.
While conservatism and nationalism are omnipresent in the relevant policy proposals of illiberal parties, different variations emerge along the other dimensions. For instance, while the FPÖ uses religiosity as a proxy to positively discriminate in favor of non-Muslim minorities, the National Rally instrumentalizes secularism (laïcité) to serve the same purpose. Illiberal parties are also divided on the role of the state in regulating and managing cultural activities, with a higher emphasis on private-sector involvement in Austria, Italy, and France than in post-communist countries.
Education Policies in Hungary and Poland
In terms of education policies in the two countries with a long tenure of illiberal parties in power (Hungary since 2010 and Poland between 2015 and 2023), we find similar patterns in terms of the ideological goals of education reforms. However, there were considerable differences in the outcomes due to a significantly lower level of centralization in Poland.
In Hungary, education policy under Fidesz can be divided into three periods. Between 2011 and 2015, the government enacted legislation on primary and secondary education, vocational training, and higher education. However, the mismanagement that characterized the implementation of these systemic changes, including a massive effort to concentrate public educational institutions under the newly established Klebelsberg School Maintaining Authority (KLIK), led to perpetual chaos. This was followed by non-governance between 2016 and 2022, which was the result of large-scale resistance movement by teachers for several months. During this period, the number of government initiatives was minimal. The focus of educational policy interventions shifted from systemic changes to ideological agendas and to higher education. Further policy shifts after 2022 were a reaction to the renewed resistance of teachers and students, whose protests were fueled by the appalling devaluation of teachers’ salaries, high workloads, the worsening shortage of teachers, and the further erosion of quality in education. The government responded to demonstrations with ever more repressive measures (for example, by firing protesting teachers) and restrictive regulations (for example, the de facto abolition of teachers’ right to strike and the new law on the employment status of teachers).
Overall, the main purpose of the majority of the changes was power concentration. The extreme centralization of the governance of the school system; the complete abolition of institutional autonomy of schools, universities, and research and development institutions; and the exclusion of autonomous actors from education and their replacement with mechanisms of bureaucratic administrative control all served this goal. Additionally, incremental changes in the national curriculum in 2012 and in 2020 transformed the teaching of subjects like history and literature in a nationalistic and conservative direction.
In Poland, PiS had a more limited room for maneuver to transform education policies due to its weaker position in parliament, compared to Fidesz in Hungary. Still, after 2015, PiS implemented various institutional and policy changes designed to demonstrate a radical break with the educational policies of previous governments. These changes mostly eliminated certain symbolic elements of the reform of 1999. Preschool education from the age of five was no longer obligatory and enrolment in school was put back to the age of seven. The government reversed the most iconic element of the 1999 reform, the shift to a 6+3+3 schooling structure, back to the earlier 8+4 one. All other elements of the 1999 reform and the various follow-up changes between 1999 and 2015 period remained in place. Therefore, the education system, which was characterized by a high degree of decentralization and liberalization, remained unaltered. In contrast to what happened in Hungary, the changes did not have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the education system.
Spending on education in both countries fell below the OECD average, but the quality of education (measured by PISA test results) deteriorated to a much larger extent in Hungary. This signals that the greater decentralization and corresponding institutional autonomy saved Polish schools from some of the more disastrous effects of educational policy reforms.
Cultural Policies in Hungary and Poland
In the cultural sphere, the differences between the policy initiatives in Hungary and Poland were more subtle. In both countries, they aimed simultaneously at instilling a level of ideological indoctrination in key institutions and at replacing established cultural elites while creating alternative institutions to solidify the governments’ dominance.
In Hungary, institutional takeover and elite change permeated all fields of cultural policy, along with a radical reallocation of public resources since 2010. This affected theatres (the National Theatre, the New Theatre), literature (the Petőfi Cultural Agency), and the fine arts (the Hungarian Academy of Arts). Although such motivations are also present in the allocation of grants for filmmaking and popular music, they have been mixed with the genuine intention to improve quality and increase competitiveness. In the film industry, this generated tangible positive results between 2011 and 2019. Spending on cultural services sharply increased during this period, and it averaged 2.74% of the GDP between 2012 and 2022. However, this exceptionally high statistic was in fact mostly due to generous subsidies to sports and religious activities. While spending on public broadcasting also increased sharply, the growing political control over the media resulted in a steep decline of Hungary’s rating in press freedom indices.
In Poland, much of the impetus behind the cultural policy initiatives of PiS was down to memory politics, with a particular focus on reinterpreting the country’s role in the Second World War and the Holocaust, and on relativizing its responsibility for collaboration. The cultural policies of PiS aimed at national identity building through a narrative that portrays Poles as only victims of history and through creating a positive nostalgia for a guilt-free past. All those who thought differently (especially dissident artists) were labelled as enemies or anti-Polish elements. Beyond the symbolic and discursive level, this also materialized in the takeover of specific institutions and the creation of new, alternative ones. Whenever such elite replacement was not politically viable, institutions were created to duplicate the functions of the original ones.
The patterns of cultural consumption in the two countries did not change due to these policies, and neither government succeeded in solidifying a new national canon in the field of culture. However, in Hungary the critical concentration of market share may allow pro-government actors to amplify the illiberal governmental narrative that has the potential of leaving a lasting mark on popular cultural tastes, due to the availability of unprecedented resources.
In sum, our analysis shows that both illiberal governments attempted to centralize educational governance, which was more successful and far-reaching in Hungary whereas in Poland schools retained a degree of autonomy. In the cultural sphere, nominal spending levels and ideological indoctrination increased in the two countries, while public media was subjected to strict political control, and yet autonomous cultural institutions did not lose their relevance. Ideological goals were realized with limited success in both countries, but institutional takeover and elite replacement unfolded at an unprecedented rate. These lessons drawn from Hungary and Poland should inform discussions on illiberal policy agendas in other European countries.
Péter Radó is Research Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute.
Bálint Mikola is Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying working paper entitled “Illiberals in Power: Educational and Cultural Policies” published in the AUTHLIB Working Paper Series.
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