Lessons for universities facing authoritarian pressure

When the Central European University (CEU) was being forced out of Hungary in 2018, it relocated its main teaching and research to Vienna, in Austria. The move has not been easy, according to CEU’s first woman president and rector, Shalini Randeria. But she believes CEU’s experience with Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary could hold lessons for universities under authoritarian pressure.

In December 2018, the private research university founded in 1991 by billionaire philanthropist George Soros as an independent international university, announced it would close down its Budapest campus after a long battle with the Hungarian government under Orbán, and said it would relocate to Vienna.

The shift from Budapest under politically fraught circumstances “has been a difficult transition, as you can imagine, and a rather prolonged one”, Randeria told University World News in a wide-ranging interview, adding that “it’s difficult to build a community in a new city under a pandemic”.

A lot of the university’s administration is still in Budapest and many faculty members continue to live in Budapest for personal reasons and commute to Vienna.

The university temporarily moved to bank building in Vienna while a permanent purpose-built campus is planned. They had to wait for the bank building to be refurbished but then “we hardly taught for one semester in these temporary buildings when we were faced with the pandemic, so this compounded the difficulty of the transition”, she said.

“A lot of people who had just moved from Budapest, who were unfamiliar with the city and had to make a new home here, were immediately sent off into home offices. And then there were quite severe lockdowns in Vienna. We were constantly forced to go into virtual teaching mode.

“Then, just when we thought things could return to normal, the Russian aggression against Ukraine hit us very badly, because our largest group of alumni, staff and students is Ukrainian – we have over a thousand of them,” she said.

Yet despite the tough situation in Ukraine, “the university remains functional for students affected by war on all sides,” Randeria said.

However, many students were affected financially as neither Ukrainian nor Russian students could get financial support from home. Russian bank accounts were frozen due to Western sanctions, while many Ukrainian families no longer had a proper livelihood because of the war.

“So we gave tuition waivers – full scholarships – to all of those students who were affected by the war,” she said, adding that the money for this was raised from donors and alumni.

“We were very much at the centre of the war effort. We had a massive campaign to collect medicines and fluids, etc, and send them not just to Poland to the refugees but send them inside Ukraine. But then we also took in 200 Ukrainian refugee families into our Budapest student dormitory. These were friends or families of our alumni who were fleeing Ukraine.”

Dealing with different immigration rules

Even without these disruptions, an unexpected challenge was that residence permits and visas in Austria can be more restrictive than Hungary.

Perhaps ironically, given its nationalist government under Orbán, “Hungary was rather generous in granting visas and residence permits for students, probably because they assume these third country [non-EU] nationals are unlikely to want to settle down in Hungary,” said Randeria, pointing to a local language that is difficult to master.

“Whereas Austria is of the opinion that it’s the entry door into the Austrian labour market and the EU, so their visa policies are extremely restrictive and very, very cumbersome,” she noted, adding that it took a long time to process after the university sent students offer letters around April.

At the beginning of October, “of our 700-odd new incoming students this year, almost 100 had still not received their visas. About half of our incoming students are so-called third-state [non-EU] nationals – about 300-350 students every year,” she said.

It was particularly problematic for students in the Global South who were not living in capital cities near embassies. But also because bureaucracies were understaffed everywhere due to the pandemic.

The delays caused some student distress, often aired on social media. The university administration had to deal with frustrated, angry students, some of whom felt they had suffered discrimination at the hands of the Austrian immigration authorities.

“But we really spent a lot of time and effort in easing these conditions as much as we could,” Randeria said. “In the past two years, CEU has used a relocation agency, which helps every student personally through the process with documentation support.”

“We have lost a few students. But I don’t think we’ve lost a large number because of this, because gaining entry into the US or UK is also not much easier, let’s be honest.”

She is hoping the bottlenecks will ease. But the onerous regulations are passed by Austria’s parliament and cannot be changed. Nonetheless, she said she was pushing to have the process speeded up.

“I was speaking to the [Austrian] foreign minister in person and the general secretary of the Foreign Ministry just a month ago, and they were extremely helpful with some of the visa issues which were very complicated, such as in Russia, for example, because of the partial mobilisation, [in order] to get our students out of there, which helped enormously,” said Randeria, pointing to Russia’s “partial mobilisation” of military reservists announced by President Vladimir Putin on 21 September.

Despite this, the Austrian authorities had been extremely supportive, she noted, particularly in the case of CEU masters student, Ahmed Samir Santawy, jailed in Egypt for “spreading false news”.

Randeria said: “Thanks to the concerted efforts of the foreign ministry, the Austrian ambassador to Egypt in Cairo and the Austrian president who wrote to [Egypt’s] President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi to obtain a presidential pardon for him, we were able to get him out of jail.

“Of course, for 18 months every month and every day is too much in a prison. But we were able to get a four-year sentence commuted and he [Santawy] got a presidential pardon. So the Austrian authorities have been extraordinarily supportive and helpful – and particularly as he was not an Austrian citizen, he was an Egyptian.”

Authoritarian governments’ toolbox

The day-to-day travails and general disruption of the move to Vienna can sometimes cloud the bigger picture. CEU’s battle with the Orbán regime is often seen as a textbook example of how to defend university autonomy, academic freedom and uphold democracy under an authoritarian or soft-authoritarian government, particularly given the university’s strong mission emphasis on democracy, social justice, equity, academic freedom, rule of law and open society.

Randeria, who hosts the university’s ‘Democracy in Question’ podcast series is quite vocal on this. “The university is a rather fragile institution in an authoritarian and soft authoritarian context. Its power is the power of criticism, of voice, of the freedom of speech. If you deny that, then you are basically stifling the voice of the university.

“We are a textbook case because what we need to realise is that all of these ‘soft authoritarian’ regimes, as I call them, are learning from one another. There is a playbook they are carefully watching to see what works in one case or another.

“We need to study this carefully to see there is a certain toolbox they’re using, and no university is safe.”

According to Randeria, Orbán’s tactic was to push ahead and cross the red line. “He waits to see the reaction and how serious a pushback there is from other governments, from Western European governments, from the EU. It’s three steps forward then it’s half a step back, one and a half steps back. Then [he] pushes forward the next time, testing these boundaries continuously.”

Supporting universities

“Globally, I think it’s very, very important that universities support one another,” she said, noting that CEU received “massive support internationally” when the so-called Lex-CEU bill introducing new regulations for foreign-operated universities in Hungary was passed and CEU was forced out.

“Even within Hungary there were very large street demonstrations of their public university students and faculty in Hungary, including the rectors of the public universities who wrote in support of CEU,” she pointed out.

“The universities themselves can try to resist as much of the pressure as they can from within,” but the total closing of the civil society space in Hungary, with media ownership highly concentrated in the hands of Fidesz party supporters, left few areas to air grievances and get support, she said.

However, “demonstrations were allowed, and people did demonstrate extremely vociferously in support of the CEU. Our students were out in the streets and our faculty too”.

“From the universities, we received enormous support, and yet that was not enough against a government which was using the law against us,” she said. “We have to realise it is a long fight.”

CEU took the government to court in Hungary. “But since the [Hungarian] Constitutional Court had been packed by Fidesz – Orbán’s party – with its own supporters, we knew that we probably wouldn’t have a chance there, which we didn’t. But we won our case in the European Court of Justice, but, alas, that was four years later when we’d already been forced to relocate to Vienna.”

For universities, keeping a close eye on how academic freedom is violated on a day-to-day basis could give a better sense of whether red lines are crossed under authoritarian regimes and allow for swifter action, she believes.

In CEU’s case, “everybody woke up too late when too many red lines had already been crossed. Then it becomes much more difficult to recover that space which has been lost. Whereas in many cases, we are seeing that process in motion and there’s still time to do something.”

She points to Iran in its fifth week of protests. “School, girls and university students have been at the forefront of the protests and are being dealt with very violently. And the question is, are we doing enough to speak out in support?”

Leverage against authoritarian regimes

“The question is, what kinds of leverage can be used to put pressure on these governments and protect the spaces which remain,” said Randeria.

“If the European Union had put greater pressure on Hungary, especially fiscal pressure on the Orbán government by saying that they would not have access to the COVID-19 recovery funds unless they complied with certain provisions of European law in principle – that’s something they didn’t do that would have been a more powerful tool to use against the Orbán government.”

But she notes that in many cases authoritarian attacks are not against universities per se but individual professors. “So the first thing universities must do is protect the freedom of speech and academic freedom of all their members.” Pointing to the case of the CEU student jailed in Egypt, she added that “academic freedom is just not a matter of faculty, but it’s also students”.

“We need to be prepared for the fact that many of our students could be arrested in countries from which they come. One needs to be really vigilant. If it can happen within the EU, then we really need to sit up and take notice.

“Throwing the university out, like the CEU, is a very extreme form. It starts with targeting faculty, it starts with targeting students, it starts with curriculum and what you may teach what you may not teach. For example, you are not allowed to teach gender studies in Hungary or in Poland. CEU was the first department of gender studies in the entire region,” she said.

“We need to work more on a declaration on academic freedom, laying down carefully what we are defining and enshrining it in international human rights documents,” Randeria said. “But it would also make a difference if the rankings were to reflect how much universities are internally protecting academic freedom.”