MPs pass law that threatens to close top university

The Hungarian parliament has passed a controversial amendment to its national law on higher education, changing the regulations for foreign universities, which threatens the continuing operation of the country’s leading university, the Central European University or CEU, founded by billionaire George Soros.

The Central European University has condemned the change, which it says is targeted at the institution and “puts at risk the academic freedom not only of CEU but of other Hungarian research and academic institutions”.

It has received support from leading academics, Nobel laureates and university presidents in Hungary and internationally.

The bill passed a vote in Hungary’s parliament on Tuesday, with 123 MPs voting for and 38 MPs voting in opposition of the legislative amendments to the National Higher Education Act, and is expected to be signed by Hungary’s President János Áder in the next few days.

It will require CEU to open a new campus in the United States, mandate that CEU change the name under which it operates, and eliminate an agreement that allows faculty and staff from non-European Union countries to work at CEU without work permits.

CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff has previously said such targeted measures would be administratively and financially prohibitive, threatening CEU’s ability to continue operating.

“We will contest the constitutionality of this legislation,” he said after the vote. “In the meantime, we call on the government to enter into dialogue to see whether an agreement can be reached to resolve the issue. Such an international binding agreement must allow CEU to continue its operations in Budapest and safeguard its academic freedom.”

The bill requires the governments of the US and Hungary to agree on new terms for the university's operations within the next few months. Otherwise CEU would be prohibited from enrolling new students after 1 January next year and would have to cease educational activities by 2021.

CEU said the deadlines imposed in the final form of the legislation are even more punitive than earlier versions and the requirement that foreign institutions like CEU receive authorisation from US federal authorities appears not to understand the US Constitution, because US law clearly gives authority for higher education to the states.

“We have operated since 2004 on just such an agreement between the governor of the state of New York and the then prime minister of Hungary,” the university said in a statement posted on its website.

CEU also regards the new legislation as a violation of constitutional provisions in Hungary’s basic law that protect the freedom of scientific research.

‘Political hysteria’

At a press briefing last Monday, Hungarian cabinet chief János Lázár, criticised the “political hysteria” over the amendments to the bill. He said the bill sought to tighten rules governing foreign higher education institutions operating in Hungary after a review by the Education Office found “pitiful” problems in 27 of the 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary, relating to operational licences, course accreditations and “their cooperation with the state”.

To increase transparency, foreign universities would be required to operate under an international agreement concluded between the university’s home country and the Hungarian state, he said.

“I don’t see which of these requirements can be regarded as being politically sensitive or compromising anybody’s interests.”

He said foreign universities would be required to sign the international agreements over the coming year and said the government would “fairly examine any petition for cooperation and will assess their courses fairly”, Hungary Today reported.

Highest ranked university

Established in 1991 with the support of financier and philanthropist George Soros – a supporter of open democracy – CEU is accredited to award Hungarian and US degrees, is a leading liberal higher education institution in the region and is the highest ranked Hungarian university globally.

Eight of its social sciences and humanities programmes rank among the world’s top 200 in international rankings by discipline and it is home to scholars and students from 108 countries.

Reacting to the new law, Rector Ignatieff said: “This legislation has been rammed through parliament in a single week following a tide of defamatory attacks on the university and its degrees. These attacks have not succeeded. We are deeply grateful for the support we have received from Hungarian faculty, students and institutions of learning."

CEU has called the government’s attention to the “wave of support” for CEU and for academic freedom received from noted academics in Hungary, Nobel laureates, university presidents, the US Department of State, academic organisations, student groups and ordinary citizens in Hungary and around the world.

CEU said it will continue to maintain the integrity and continuity of its academic programmes throughout this period and assures all current and prospective students that CEU will remain in continuous operation whatever the circumstances.

According to CEU, there have been widespread expressions of support for the university and condemnation of the legislation, including from:
  • • 17 Nobel Prize winners and more than 500 European and American academics
  • • More than 1,000 cognitive scientists including 2 Nobel laureates
  • • Princeton University President Christopher L Eisgruber
  • • The United States Department of State
  • • Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
  • • Hungarian National Conference of Student Unions
  • • Eötvös Loránd University
  • • University of Szeged
  • • University of Pecs, Faculty of Business and Economics
  • • Andrássy University Budapest
  • • Academia Europaea
  • • 18 Hungarian Colleges of Excellence
  • • The British Academy for the humanities and social sciences
  • • The Regius Professors of Oxford and Cambridge universities
  • • University of Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson, recently elected to CEU’s Board of Trustees
  • • Cambridge University European Society
  • • The Canadian Association of University Teachers
  • • European University Association
  • • Indian Academy of Sciences
  • • Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • • And many others.
The German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressing the European parliament on Tuesday, said: “If we want to be a lighthouse in the world for the rule of law and for human rights, then we cannot ignore when these foundations are shaken in the midst of Europe. Europe, then, must not be silent when civil society, even academia – as now at Central European University, Budapest – are deprived of the air to breathe”.

The European University Association or EUA said in a statement: "The bill was passed in spite of CEU’s long record in successfully educating generations of students, promoting critical thinking and advancing research in Hungary. This demonstrates a complete lack of respect for university autonomy and academic freedom, which EUA strongly condemns."

The EUA said autonomous institutions should be left to govern themselves free of state interference and oppression and called on Hungarian President Ader not to sign the new legislation.

The New York-based Scholars at Risk network has written to the Hungarian authorities voicing its concern about the negative impact the proposed amendments would have on the ability of CEU and all Hungarian higher education institutions to “operate freely and to engage with the global higher education community”.

Mass demonstration

On Sunday a mass demonstration was held in Budapest in protest against the government bill. Demonstrators met at Corvinus University and marched under a banner, “Freedom for Education”, to the CEU and on to Kossuth Square in front of parliament, Daily News Hungary reported.

The move against CEU comes amid growing tension between right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Soros, whose Open Society Foundations Orbán has criticised, even though Orbán himself studied at the University of Oxford supported by a Soros fellowship.

Orbán, a right-wing populist, who openly seeks the establishment of an 'illiberal state', said recently that “George Soros’s university” had broken regulations and “not even a billionaire can be above the law”.

However, opposition MP István Szávy has noted that the planned legislation could put at risk the operation of Hungarian universities in Romania, because Hungarian universities in Transylvania, which are part-funded by the Hungarian government, are not operating under an interstate agreement either, Daily News Hungary reported.

Cas Mudde, a former CEU professor – now an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia in the US and researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo – said in an article in the Guardian that the university’s relationship with Orbán has been “contentious” and the attempt to force it out of Hungary is “not that surprising, as CEU is everything Orbán detests: it is critical, global, independent and multicultural”.

He said the struggle over CEU is not just about that institution, “it is about all universities and it is about liberal democracy. If we don’t take a stand now, we will be fighting similar measures in Poland and other countries soon”.