Why Strongmen Won't Win Their Wars Against Education

The leaders of Hungary and Turkey are creating a vacuum that their political rivals will inevitably fill.

Time: on his side.

Photographer: Thierry Tronnel/Corbis via Getty Images

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's continuing attack on Central European University, founded by financier George Soros, is the product of a deep political fear. While authoritarian regimes are not big spenders on education, their leaders' recognition of its importance is evident from how jealously they will try to guard it from their political rivals.

In April, Hungary passed a law requiring foreign-funded universities that operate in the country to offer courses on a campus in their country of origin. The measure was clearly directed against CEU as part of Orban's campaign against Soros, who was born in Hungary. Orban considers the billionaire his nemesis and accuses him of having devised a sinister plan to flood Europe with Muslim immigrants. In response, Soros has called Orban's Hungary a "mafia state."

CEU, one of the most prominent centers of Soros's global humanitarian empire, tried to comply with the new rules by signing an agreement with Bard College in New York, but the Hungarian government has dragged its feet on signing its own agreement with the state that would validate the arrangement. Instead, it has given CEU an additional year to comply. The university doesn't want it: The continuing uncertainty can only undermine it by scaring off potential students. That's likely what Orban ultimately wants; ideally, he'd like every trace of Soros out of Hungary. Earlier this year, Hungary also passed legislation that forces non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to disclose it to the government -- all because of what Orban termed "the Soros network, with its mafia-style operation and its agent-like organizations."

This is only a milder form of what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to do to what he's called a "state within a state" built by preacher Fethullah Gulen. Just as Soros was an early supporter of Orban's, Gulen backed Erdogan's push to make Turkey more of an Islamic country. Gulen is the greatest irritant to Erdogan, the man he accuses of organizing an abortive coup against him in 2016, the mirror image of Orban's fixation on Soros.

Immediately after the coup, Erdogan closed 1,043 private schools, 15 universities and 1,229 NGOs in Turkey which he considered linked to Gulen. Academics suspected of loyalty to Gulen, who, like Soros, lives in the U.S., were purged from the universities Erdogan didn't close. The Turkish leader didn't stop at this, launching a diplomatic effort to close Gulenist-run schools worldwide, from the U.S. to the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union.

Orban, as leader of a European Union country, if an openly illiberal one, cannot afford to crack down on educational institutions in this way. But he's fighting the same war for young minds as Erdogan, imagining that his hated enemy is trying to undermine him by teaching economics, history, law and even math in insidious ways. He fights this war, as Erdogan does, by muscle. That, however, is no way to win.

Both Hungary and Turkey are relative laggards in terms of public education spending, although countries with harsher regimes than theirs spend even less.

Less Freedom, Less Money for Schools

Public spending on education as a share of gross domestic product

Source: World Bank, 2015

According to the World Bank's World Development Indicators, in both Turkey and Hungary, public spending per student in tertiary education has gone down sharply in the last 16 years relative to per capita economic output. Such drops are not limited to these countries, but developed nations have kept spending on university education at a higher level. 

Less Spending on Students

Public spending per student in tertiary education as a share of per capita GDP

Source: World Bank

It's understandable why authoritarian regimes underspend on education: A Pew Research survey published this week shows that people with less education tend to be more supportive of the idea of strongman rule. On the other hand, the underspending creates a vacuum. People search for alternatives, and it's fine with many of them if it's Soros or Gulen who provides them. Even if authoritarian leaders' jealousy makes it difficult for the alternatives to function, their enemies will find a way to get to those people. Exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Open Russia foundation is considered an "undesirable organization" in Russia, has set up his Open University out of Russian President Vladimir Putin's reach, as an online-only educational platform run out of London.

Limiting competition in education is a bad strategy. Even authoritarian rulers need to try to be more persuasive, not just stronger, than their exiled enemies trying to play the long game.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at

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    Mike Nizza at

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