Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 20
8 November 1999

Catherine Lovatt R O M A N I A:
A Hungarian University in Transylvania

Catherine Lovatt

Ethnicity and education are inextricably bound together in Romania. Minority rights have become a priority for the government, reversing the Communist policy of "Romanianisation". As a result, the acceptance of ethnic differences has become one of the identifying features of the new Romania. Education is one method of increasing the social acceptance of minority groups whilst continuing to recognise different languages, cultures and religions. But how far should the Romanian authorities go? The debate about the re-creation of the Hungarian "Bolyai" University began in 1997, raising issues of national identity, ethnicity and minority rights.

The Ausgleich (compromise) of 1867 split the Hapsburg Empire into two administrative centres, the Austrian and the Hungarian. The Hungarian side of the Empire included the regions of Transylvania, Croatia, Slovakia, Bosnia and was made up of several minorities: Magyars, Romanians, Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Ruthenes. In order to make these widely differing ethnic groups into a cohesive whole the Magyar majority enforced a policy of Magyarisation: only Hungarian language, religion and culture were officially permitted as the Hungarians attempted to assimilate the different ethnic groups into their own. To a large extent they failed, but after the break up of the Empire the legacy of Magyarisation remained in the successor states. The remnants of this legacy are still apparent today, not only geographically but also in the mentality of the different ethnic groups.

In the newly created Romania, which includes a large part of Transylvania, the obvious reaction against this historical legacy was to reverse the policy of Magyarisation and enforce a policy of "Romanianisation". This policy continued throughout the Communist period, prolonging anti-Hungarian attitudes and leaving a negative impression in the minds of both Hungarians and Romanians.

Ten years after the collapse of Communism a more liberal attitude towards and perception of minority groups exists in Romania. However, historical experiences continue to be represented in the different cultures and remain part of different ethnic identities. This is particularly evident in the argument for the re-establishment of a separate Hungarian University. The Babes Bolyai University in Cluj Napoca / Kolosvar, Romania, was established as a Hungarian University at the time of the Magyarisation policy. In 1959 it was closed by the Communists in response to the 1956 anti-Communist Hungarian revolution. Today, Hungarians in Romania are campaigning for the re-opening of a Hungarian University.

Until September of this year, Hungarian demands had more or less been ignored as the Education Law did not allow minority groups to be taught in their own language within the Higher Education system. In 1997, Hungarian students, backed by the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), began to campaign for the re-creation of the Hungarian Bolyai University. As members of the ruling coalition, the DAHR stated that the removal of prohibitions on mother-tongue education was part of the government programme. Their plan was to create an independent Hungarian department within the Babes Bolyai University until a separate institution could be established. However, the other members of the ruling coalition were reluctant to implement the education programme. The government's emergency ordinance altering the Education Law was not passed by the House of Representatives (the second house of parliament) and this prevented the re-establishment of a Hungarian University.

In September 1999, the Education Law was amended to allow state universities the right to organise groups, sections, colleges and faculties in minority languages. It also allowed the foundation of multicultural universities with the permission of the Minister of National Education. Even so, it did not permit the creation of separate Hungarian State Universities.

This acceptance of multicultural universities means that minority groups can now be taught in their native languages. For example, the beginning of the academic year saw the opening of a multicultural university at Cernauti, with two faculties teaching in four languages: Romanian, Ukrainian, German and Hebrew. Although this institution does not use the Hungarian language, there is a real prospect that lessons in Hungarian could take place. Hungarian officials in Budapest appreciate the fact that the new education law provides a framework within which Magyar culture can be promoted and accept the possibility of a multicultural Magyar university with at least one Romanian faculty.

Instead of singling out the Hungarian minority as privileged or in some way special, the Romanian authorities have conferred equal educational rights on all minorities (with the possible exception of the Roma). Allowing a separate Hungarian University could have led to demands for a separate German or Jewish University, which in turn would categorise ethnic groups and intensify distinctions. Separating out ethnic groups at the various educational stages would almost certainly have detrimental consequences for future generations. The multicultural universities recognise differences without prejudicial separation; they enable the exploration of distinct cultures without removing the possibility of mixed association.

Romanian state education has moved forward, but at present Hungarian demands for an independent Hungarian University can only be realised in the private sector. With support from the Magyar Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR) and with funding from the Hungarian government, a private Hungarian University is to be established in Cluj, with branches in Oradea, Tirgu Mures, Brasov, St. Gheorghe, Timisoara and other Transylvanian towns. Despite this, calls for a Hungarian state university will not be retracted.

The new Education Law has made concessions to minority groups wishing to be educated in their own language. Why, then, do many Hungarians in Romania continue to demand a separate Hungarian state university? One possibility is that in Transylvania the various ethnic identities are converging: Hungarians are beginning to find that they have more in common with their Romanian neighbours than their fellow Hungarians in Hungary, and as a result they face a crisis of identity - an identity linked both to their dominant Hungarian past and to their experiences as members of the Romanian nation. In order to draw clear distinctions in the confusion of merging identities it is a reasonable assumption that some Hungarians feel the need to assert their Hungarian identity. The re-establishment of a Hungarian university would emphasise their history as a potent force in the region whist also helping to distinguish Hungarians from Romanians.

Although a separate state Hungarian University has not been guaranteed in Romania, the new Education Law provides for minority groups to be taught in their native languages; the Romanian authorities have met the Hungarians half way. The multicultural universities not only recognise Hungarian ethnicity but also the identity of other minority groups. No preferential treatment has been given. Despite this, Hungarian demands persist, possibly in the belief that their history and identity have been undermined. Perhaps the Hungarian concerns are not about equal standards in education but about their own ethnic and national identity.

Catherine Lovatt, 4 November 1999



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Sam Vaknin:
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Penderecki Discovery

Music Shop


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