A Liberal Project? Hungarian University Colleges Since Late Socialism
After student protests against the government, in 1970 a handful of Budapest students founded the first self-governing university college (szakkollégium) in Communist Hungary. In doing so they followed Hungarian educational traditions, but simultaneously modelled the colleges on British and French examples. Since then, the colleges have been characterized by student self-government and a largely autonomous status within the university administration. From the very beginning, however, they have also served the attempts to single out a new academic elite. Until today the colleges offer exclusively to highly talented students not only a range of classes and seminars, that go beyond the universities’ regular curriculum, but also affordable accommodation and a familial, even fraternity-like atmosphere. In addition, they have also supported professional networking with alumni since the 1970s, which contributed to their reputation as a training ground for a (counter-)elite.
In the socialist system, students at these colleges established a liberal project which sought to enable them and subsequent generations to explore how to act within a democratic system. In the 1980s, they thus became the source of discourse critical of society and of the regime, and an arena in which tensions between democratization, modernization, and burgeoning nationalist currents appeared. In this process, the students may have considered themselves a counter-elite opposing the Communist party and its youth organisation. The regime, however, hoped for ideas to reform Communism and therefore was tolerant, if not supportive of the colleges.
The dissertation project aims to examine which historical legacies shape the university colleges as well as the discourses of their inhabitants and to explore how they can be located in the transformation from late socialism to post-communism in Hungary. Three thematic areas will receive particular attention: firstly, the familial community and resulting close-knit personal networks; secondly, the hybrid character combining Hungarian and international approaches to educating the elite; thirdly, the emergence of populist and “illiberal” discourse in an originally liberal environment. A closer analysis of student dissidence can thus provide us with new observations and conclusions about the political socialization of a generation that grew up under János Kádár’s relatively liberal and more consumerism-oriented regime. This may also shed light on the inconsistencies in Hungary’s development since the end of state socialism.