International university ‘in danger’, Ignatieff warns

A leading international university could be forced to shut down or leave the country after the government tabled a proposal to force foreign-funded universities to meet tough new conditions, including having campuses and offering a similar course in their home country.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government tabled an amendment to higher education legislation in Parliament on 28 March. Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics said the proposed amendment followed a review of 28 foreign universities operating in the country, the BBC reported, and the government has issued a statement saying: “No university can stand above Hungarian law.”

But Michael Ignatieff, rector of the Central European University or CEU, said the move is “targeted at one institution only” and would make it impossible for CEU, located in Budapest for the past 25 years, to continue to operate as a higher education institution authorised to grant degrees in both Hungary and the United States.

CEU is a “proud Hungarian institution, a university whose freedom is in danger”, he said.

Sources at the university say they fear the government will try to pass the amendment as early as Wednesday, 5 April. The United States embassy has issued a statement of concern. Ignatieff has appealed for international support and is travelling to the US over the weekend to present the CEU's case to lawmakers and the media.

Media reports suggest the amendment is part of a wider push-back against organisations linked to George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist, who founded the CEU. Orban has reportedly accused Soros of supporting anti-Hungarian groups and interfering in the country's politics.

In an interview on state radio on Friday, Orban said the university has “cheated” and is operating illegally by issuing diplomas recognised both in Hungary and the US, because CEU operates only in Hungary and has no campus in the United States.

"Not even a billionaire can stand above the law, therefore this university must also obey the law," he added, saying changes could only be resolved via bilateral agreements between Hungary and the United States.

But Central European University said it is operating lawfully and is accredited to award Hungarian and US degrees and “utterly rejects” Orban’s “false allegations that CEU is ‘cheating’”.

Supporting intellectual freedom

The university, a private, independent institution, was established in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc to resuscitate and support intellectual freedom in parts of Europe that had lived for decades under totalitarian rule and has become one of central Europe’s leading universities for social sciences and humanities.

A 2004 joint declaration between the Hungarian government and the State of New York confirmed their joint agreement to support CEU's goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation, while at the same time maintaining its status as an accredited American university.

But the proposed amendment prevents Hungarian universities from delivering programmes or issuing degrees from non-European universities on behalf of CEU.

This is a change from current legislation, which allows for university programmes and degrees from OECD countries – including the US – to function through joint Hungarian entities, as CEU does. Hungary has been a member of the OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – since 1996.

The legislation also removes a good-faith waiver that currently allows academic staff from non-European Union countries to work at CEU without requiring a work permit, which CEU says would create ”unnecessary barriers to hiring and recruitment” in an institution that relies particularly on professors from outside of the EU.

In an open letter to students, staff and alumni, Ignatieff said: “As we see it, this is legislation targeted at one institution and one institution only. It is discriminatory. It strikes at the heart of what we have been doing at CEU for over two decades. We are in full conformity with Hungarian law and have been for more than two decades.”

Ignatieff, the Canadian author, academic and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, said CEU is a university that “provides added value to its students by awarding US-accredited degrees as well as Hungarian-accredited degrees. A university that is private and independent, funded by a generous endowment but independent in its academic activities. A university that contributes over HUF1 billion [US$3.5 million] annually to the Hungarian economy in taxes.”

Worldwide concern

Professor Simon Marginson, director of the ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education, University College London or UCL, said the threatened closure of CEU will be of great concern to universities worldwide.

“It looks likely to be the second international university to be made a victim of the new ‘closed’ brand of nationalism epitomised by Brexit, the Trump policies, and the Le Pen agenda, unless the threat can be headed off. This follows [Vladimir] Putin’s closure of the European University at Saint Petersburg. The legislation concerning the Central European University is in draft and much will depend on international reaction,” he told University World News.

He said CEU is a truly wonderful university – a great post-Soviet open society initiative that has been transformative in central Europe.

“It provides high quality postgraduate and doctoral education to many students with good academic credentials who lack the means to pay high fees in North America or the UK. It has played an especially important role for Roma people currently under pressure from the Hungarian government, and many of its graduates have gone on to fine careers elsewhere in the higher education world.”

Disadvantaged groups

Dr Aniko Horvath, a researcher at the UCL Centre for Global Higher Education who earned a PhD from CEU, said that it would be hard to overestimate the social, cultural and economic importance of CEU, both in Hungary and globally, over the past 25 years.

She told University World News that CEU has been a “unique meeting place for outstanding students and academics from every part of the world” and it has been among the last few international graduate universities that made it their explicit mission not to have tuition fees and give generous MA and PhD study grants for large numbers of people coming from poorer backgrounds and from 'structurally disadvantaged' countries, including former communist countries, Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.

“With its Roma Access study programmes, and most recently its programmes for refugees, CEU actively helped two of the most disadvantaged and prejudiced-against groups of people in Europe to get access to higher education,” she said.

“It is just unthinkable and tragic that a truly great institution that was such an integral and important part of Hungary’s academic and cultural life could cease to exist or would need to move to another country.”

Of the nearly 1,800 students CEU educates each year, Hungarians make up the largest group. The majority of CEU staff and nearly half the faculty are Hungarian.

According to CEU, many of its degree programmes in the social sciences and humanities rank in the world’s top 200, many in the top 100, and some in the top 50.

CEU faculty are successful in earning research grant funding from the European Union and other grant-making organisations in competitive tenders across Europe or across the globe. From 2011-16, CEU received €6,955,221 (about US$7.5 million) in European Research Council or ERC grants. For 2017-22, the university will receive €14,988,163 (about US$16 million) in ERC grants.

The university employs more than 600 Hungarians and enrols, on average, 400 Hungarian students per year – the largest national group among its students.

Ignatieff said: “Any legislation that would make it difficult for CEU to operate in Hungary would destroy this fabric of cooperation with Hungarian institutions and the Hungarian public and would damage Hungary's long-held reputation as a centre of innovation, academic excellence and scientific inquiry.”