Central European University moves all new students to Vienna

Liberal institution has been left in legal limbo for 18 months by Viktor Orbán’s government

October 25, 2018
michael-ignatieff
Source: Getty

The Central European University has said that it will enrol all new students at its Vienna campus from next year because of the Hungarian government’s continuing refusal to rubber-stamp a deal allowing the institution to stay in Budapest.

The move comes after restrictions on overseas universities operating in Hungary – perceived as a politically motivated attack by Viktor Orbán’s administration on the CEU’s liberal democratic mission – left the institution in legal limbo for 18 months.

From 2019-20, all first-year students at the postgraduate-only CEU will begin their courses at its new campus in Vienna. Continuing students may remain in Budapest to complete their degrees, but CEU president Michael Ignatieff warned that restrictions that would force all courses to be moved to the Austrian capital could come into effect as soon as 1 December.

Speaking at a press conference on 25 October, Professor Ignatieff said that the CEU had taken “all the necessary legal actions in order to comply” with new Hungarian legislation.

“We have waited as long as we possibly can,” Professor Ignatieff said. “But it would be irresponsible for us not to pursue arrangements to secure the CEU’s future. Unfortunately, we have been forced into this decision by the unwillingness of the Hungarian government to offer an acceptable solution.”

The so-called Lex CEU created a requirement for overseas universities operating in Hungary to maintain a campus in their home country. Last year, the CEU signed a memorandum of understanding with Bard College that would see it deliver “educational activities” in New York, creating what the university called “the basis for an agreement” with Mr Orbán’s government.

But Professor Ignatieff said that ministers were still refusing to sign the deal.

He refused to be drawn on whether he thought it was likely that the CEU would be forced to move all its courses to Vienna permanently, stating that the institution remained committed to maintaining as much research and educational activity in the city as possible.

There was “still time for a solution”, Professor Ignatieff said.

“If the government thinks it can get rid of the CEU, it’s got another thing coming,” he added. “We want to stay here. The problem is we can’t legally operate.”

The latest development follows accusations that the Hungarian government has suppressed academic freedom in the country by banning the teaching of gender studies, forcing the suspension of research relating to migration and seeking to reduce the independence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

In September, the European Parliament voted for the first time to initiate so-called Article 7 proceedings – the highest form of sanction possible – against Hungary in protest at its slide into authoritarianism.

But it does not appear to have been enough to force Mr Orbán to change course.

Liviu Matei, the CEU’s rector, said that moving new courses to Vienna would come “at a huge cost” to the institution.

“We are talking about a few thousand people who are forced to move out of Hungary,” he said, “and it comes from…cynicism.”

Further decisions on the potential relocation of staff would be made in consultation with employees, the CEU said.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This is a sad state of affairs and my thoughts go to the Hungarian staff at CEU and the Hungarian students who are potentially going to lose out on local jobs and a local opportunity to study respectively. This will also have an impact on the cultural life of the (mostly liberal) city of Budapest, but it would seem that Orban is willing to ignore the economic and cultural consequences of his agenda.

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