SZFE leadership shuts down ongoing semester, protesting students called to vacate campus
November 07. 2020. – 11:30 AM
The new leadership of the University of Theatre and Cinematic Arts (SZFE) has decided to suspend the ongoing semester and close the campus, as the university's chancellor Gábor Szarka and deputy rector Emil Novák have informed protesting students occupying the university's building about the decision in their formal notice shortly before 6:30 on Friday.
The letter reiterates that for more than a month, the new leadership was given no access to university premises, therefore they have no oversight on its operation, and they can only make decisions on a limited amount of matters. They claim that the students and professors have rejected their offers to negotiate about consolidating university life.
Students have been occupying the campus since shortly before the start of the academic year in August, protesting the new structure the university will operate under, as they believe it abolishes the university's autonomy. The law submitted by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén and passed by the Parliament in July hands the formerly state-funded university over to a foundation lead by Attila Vidnyánszky, the director of the National Theatre, who maintains a good relationship with the government and has criticised SZFE on several occasions. Under this new structure, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees decides on all important university matters.
The Government says that the change in the university's model and the simultaneously increased budget serves its autonomy, given that it will no longer be owned by the state but a foundation that provides “unprecedented independence” from the government. However, the university's Senate was stripped of all powers: they can no longer decide on the rules of operation, the budget, developments, head teachers, and they no longer elect the Rector. In response, all members of the university's leadership and members of its Senate had resigned, students and professors have been protesting for weeks, culminating in the largest demonstration of recent times on the 23 October national holiday with several thousand people attending.
In Friday's letter, the new leaders of the university write: “The Foundation for Theatre and Cinematic Arts, as the financier of SZFE, has made the following decisions, about which they simultaneously inform the Education Bureau. The Foundation's Board of Trustees has assessed that under the present circumstances, education, the protection and exercise of students' rights, an appropriate and safe work environment, and the autonomy of the University cannot be ensured," declaring:
"The academic year of 2020/2021 may resume on 1 February 2021, until that date, no form of education is permitted at the university."
Credits for classes students enrolled this year will not be accepted, but the Board of Trustees has requested the university's leaders to lengthen the academic year to enable completing the fall semester's classes.
The Foundation also writes that the financer's decisions have no effect on the students' status, they do not result in the suspension or termination of any students' enrollment at the university, and neither do they affect employment contracts or student loans, and students will receive their social and academic scholarships.
"The University's premises will be closed for educational or accommodational purposes between 9 November 2020 and 1 February 2021."
Those students who live in the dorms and "can temporarily find no other solution to their living situation may individually request the Chancellor to provide them with placement." Students will not have to pay tuition fees until 1 February, their completed payments may either be refunded or accepted for the upcoming semester.
So far, it's unclear whether this letter from the new leadership means that the students would actually have to vacate the dorms, or what happens if they fail to move out. At the last attempt to empty the building in October, when Szarka instructed students to leave the building for the autumn break, officials took written records when students refused to leave their rooms. Students then filed for a possessory interdict at the District VIII. Municipality.
Mihály Csernai, the President of the Student Union told Telex that they are in the process of interpreting the notice and forming a position, they will soon send their response.
One of the students, Panna Szurdi told Telex later that as far as they are concerned, education will continue on Monday as usual. "For us, learning is the most important, and we have all the necessary documentation at hand to prove that education did indeed go on in the university. They cannot curb our right to education without any justification." The students are also consulting attorneys. On whether or not the new leadership is planning any maneuvres for the weekend, Szurdi said: "They already tried to throw us out of here once, since then, we became pretty familiar with this system," adding that they will continue to guard the university buildings and classrooms.The function of the blockade has shifted: "it's no longer only for keeping people out, but also for making sure that we can go in, otherwise we would get locked out," she explained.
The Student Union recently posted on Facebook that they have invited the Minister of Innovation and Technology, who is in charge of higher education, to the Ódry Stage. Minister Imre Palkovics responded on Friday evening, writing that "the Government is trying to achieve professional, and not political goals by providing the necessary funds for high-level theatre and cinematic arts education. The Government wishes not to influence the current conflicted situation to any further extent."
Education was already suspended once, but it resumed anyways
On 29 October, a student told Telex that classes are being held in the attic, the cafeteria, the staircases, an in the main lobby of SZFE ever since students took hold of several classroom keys and refused to comply with Chancellor Szarka's direction to leave the campus and dorms due to an early autumn break necessary for the building's deep cleaning and disinfection. Earlier, Szarka said:
"I will go as far as possible in order to end this kind of internal anarchy."
The chancellor gave that a shot not long afterwards when the financier's Board of Trustees addressed a letter signed by Zoltán Rátóti, the Chairman of the Board, to the professors and students in which they suspended education following the autumn break and invited them to negotiate on 2 November.
On 1 November however, it became apparent that education would not stop at SZFE and the blockade stays in place. The position students and professors expressed in their response that education progressed properly since the beginning of the academic year, and they have all the necessary documentation to support that claim. They added that they had compiled the data necessary for the Bureau of Education's supervisory procedure in due time, but the Chancellor had been refusing to forward them to the Bureau for weeks.