Can autocracies cope with international universities?

Autocrats dislike independent, internationally oriented, autonomous universities free of corruption and hence they attack them. In order to add the appearance of legitimacy to their purely political actions, autocratic regimes use the legal field to advance their goals. That is why their favourite tools are the legislature and courts. This might be the case with both the European University at St Petersburg in Russia and the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, both harassed by the respective ruling political regimes.

Unlike many Russian universities, the European University at St Petersburg or EUSP, a graduate degree-granting higher education institution focused on social sciences and humanities, introduces Russians to the Western curriculum and places a heavy emphasis on research. Moreover, this research attempts to reach the best Western standards which is so atypical in Russia. Needless to say, corruption, so widespread in Russian institutions of higher learning, is nowhere to be found at EUSP.

All of that may be good for the university if it existed in a vacuum, but it exists in Russia, surrounded by bureaucracy, corruption, intolerance and political oppression. It is no surprise then that state bureaucrats are attempting to close the university.

The Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science, the government watchdog for education quality, known as Rosobrnadzor, says that the university’s political science and sociology department does not have a sufficient number of full-time faculty members whose primary specialisation is applied and practical work in the field and that faculty on fixed-term employment contracts have not been properly certified.

Rosobrnadzor also complained that the university did not have an athletic facility for students; nor did it have medical staff on duty. Quite a few other minor violations are cited. While the university administration works on addressing these issues, the state agency is continuing its offensive against the university.

No licence to teach

The struggle for the European University at St Petersburg that started in 2016 has continued for many months. First, it was stripped of accreditation, which means that the university will no longer be able to award state-approved degrees. Second, state bureaucrats took away its licence, which means that the university will no longer be able to conduct educational activities. The university continues its scholarly life, but, without teaching facilities, it will no longer be a university.

Its name and official status will have to be changed. Finally, the city authorities now want their building back so the university may be homeless. It turns out that the university installed new plastic windows in parts of the old building, which contradict the city’s architectural ordinance. Given the uncertainty about the litigation it is facing, long-term planning and development have been put on hold.

The university leadership is trying to appear optimistic and the school itself is not paralysed, but it has certainly been left in limbo.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic ruler of almost two decades, is afraid of protest movements. His fears are based on expectations of events similar to the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan happening in Russia. Such events would be a grave danger on the eve of the 2018 presidential elections.

The presidential campaign of 2018 has begun and has already been marked by massive anti-corruption protests throughout Russia. In response, the ruling regime has prosecuted its opponents, arrested protesters en masse and sought to silence the media. Although the European University at St Petersburg was never an outspoken critic of the ruling autocratic regime, it is considered a good idea to silence the institution, or better yet, to get rid of it altogether.

Central European University

As the case continues, there is now another bigger threat to academic freedom taking shape in Budapest. The Central European University or CEU, located in the Hungarian capital, faces an uncertain future.

Endowed and funded generously by the world renowned financier and philanthropist George Soros, the university boasts some of the top doctoral programmes in humanities and social sciences in Eastern Europe and the wider region.

Often regarded as one of Soros’ most advanced outposts in the East, the CEU guarantees its faculty and students intellectual freedom and high standards of academic integrity. These are the ingredients of a successful research university that irritate the autocrats and their corrupt academic supporters so much.

In late March, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who regards Vladimir Putin as a role model, introduced a draft bill targeting foreign-funded universities and allegedly aimed specifically at the CEU. The bill was passed on 4 April, awaiting sign-off by the President.

The bill tightens regulations on non-European Union universities operating in Hungary, forcing them to close if there is no bilateral agreement with their home countries. The CEU is accredited both in the state of New York and in Hungary and does not have such an agreement. The bill would also require the CEU to have a campus in the United States.

The President of the CEU, Michael Ignatieff, regards the bill as a direct threat to the university’s continued existence in Hungary and states that “this is an institution that doesn’t bow to intimidation or force”.

It would be naive to think that Orban introduced proposals for legislative changes without anticipating a swift and negative reaction, including harsh critiques of his move. On the contrary, he might be seeking confrontation with Soros and the liberal Western community in general, making the CEU a scapegoat and helping him to advance his far-reaching political ambitions.

In fact, he has already received his fair share of negative coverage in the world media. There is no doubt that there will be a further response from George Soros and the US authorities to unfriendly moves toward the CEU. But there should be a broader response too, primarily from the international academic community. If politicians cannot find common ground, why should their faculty and students suffer?

Ararat L Osipian holds a PhD in education and human development from Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, USA. He is a Pontica Magna Fellow at the New Europe Foundation, Bucharest, Romania, and spent over three years conducting fieldwork on corruption, hybrid war and the failed state in Ukraine.