CEU to open Vienna campus to bypass Orbán restrictions

Central European University (CEU) says it can wait no longer for the Orbán government to sign a deal enabling it to operate with academic freedom and is switching the location of study for incoming students for its United States-accredited masters and doctoral programmes to a new campus in Vienna, Austria, from the start of the next academic year, 2019-20.

The Board of Trustees of CEU has authorised the opening of the Vienna campus because the Hungarian government has not concluded an agreement allowing CEU to operate in freedom in Hungary as a US institution chartered in New York State, according to a statement posted on CEU’s website on 25 October.

The higher education law was amended in April 2017 – a change referred to as ‘Lex CEU’ because it exclusively affects CEU – to require that any foreign-funded university institution in Hungary can only operate in the country once the government of the source country and Hungary have signed an intergovernmental agreement, while the legislation also specifies that the given university must have operations in its source country.

"We have taken all necessary actions in order to comply with Lex CEU. We have repeatedly indicated our openness to find a solution that guarantees our institutional integrity and academic freedom. We have waited as long as we possibly can," said CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff.

"But it would be irresponsible for us not to pursue arrangements to secure CEU's future. Unfortunately, we have been forced into this decision by the unwillingness of the Hungarian government to offer an acceptable solution."

The decision comes in the face of the Hungarian government's crackdown on academic freedom, including a government ban on gender studies programmes, the forced suspension of research related to migration, an unusually high tax on programmes for refugees and asylum seekers and the intimidation of academics in the Hungarian media.

The European University Association, in a statement published on 26 October, said it is dismayed by the latest developments in Hungary involving attacks on university autonomy and academic freedom, which are “unprecedented in the European Union”.

Furthermore, on 12 September 2018, the European Parliament invoked Article 7, triggering a procedure to determine if Viktor Orbán’s government has systematically breached the EU’s core values, including academic freedom.

The EUA called on the Hungarian government to be mindful that freedom from political intervention and pressure is a condition sine qua non in enabling universities to fulfil their critical role in our societies.

“For over 25 years, CEU has played a crucial role in educating young people and fostering critical thinking and its move away from Budapest will inflict significant damage on academic excellence in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s actions are not only damaging the country’s reputation and standing, but they have worrying implications for research and higher education, both in Hungary and in Europe as a whole.”

CEU has sought to remain in operation in Budapest. But the Hungarian government has kept CEU in legal limbo since it introduced Lex CEU in April 2017, the university said.

The restrictions, dropped on CEU without warning, will effectively not allow CEU to exist in Hungary as a stand-alone institution – it has to be a branch.

The change caused an international outcry and accusations that the law was specifically targeting CEU, which was founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American philanthropist and financier George Soros, a strong critic of the Orbán government.

"For 18 months, we have defended our right to remain as a US degree-granting institution in Budapest, but we are unable to secure the guarantees we need from the Hungarian government to preserve our academic freedom," said Ignatieff.

"CEU remains committed to Budapest and will continue to enhance the intellectual and cultural life of the city," added Ignatieff. "We will maintain as much research and educational activity in Budapest as possible."

Law ’not compatible with academic freedom’

The European Commission assessed Lex CEU as “not compatible with the fundamental internal market freedoms, notably the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment but also with the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business as provided by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as with the Union’s legal obligations under international trade law”.

CEU says that since Lex CEU was introduced the university has worked to find a solution that would guarantee its academic freedom. The State of New York successfully negotiated an agreement with Hungary allowing CEU to retain its American accreditation. CEU is in full compliance with the conditions required by the government.

CEU established educational programmes with its partner institution, Bard College. In compliance with that draft agreement, Hungarian authorities inspected these programmes and the New York State Department of Education confirmed to the Hungarian authorities that CEU was in compliance with the agreement by offering educational activity in the State of New York, CEU said.

Nevertheless, the Hungarian authorities have since indicated that they would not sign the New York State agreement. All attempts to find a solution that would enable CEU to remain as a US degree-granting institution in Budapest have failed, CEU said in its statement.

“CEU has received a warm welcome from both the City of Vienna and the Government of Austria for which we are deeply grateful,” said Leon Botstein, chair of the CEU Board of Trustees. “We look forward to offering students from more than 90 countries the opportunity to study in another great Central European capital.”

Multiple campuses

He said the move signals CEU’s return to its original vision of multiple campuses.

In the statement, the CEU Board of Trustees and President and Rector Ignatieff recognised the efforts of US Ambassador David Cornstein to defend CEU, along with the US Department of State and the US Congress, the Office of the Governor of the State of New York, and the New York State Education Department.

They also thanked the “tens of thousands of supporters from around the world, including several dozen Nobel Prize winners, the late [former UN secretary general] Kofi Annan, university leadership from Oxford to Columbia to Stanford, and thousands of Hungarian academics and individuals”.

“We will never forget your support and your friendship," Ignatieff said.

In 2019-20, first-year students will start in Vienna, and will receive US–accredited degrees. Already enrolled students may remain in Budapest to complete their degrees. Further decisions on locations for staff and faculty will be made in consultation within the CEU community, the university said.