Central European University: bill highlights EU ‘weakness’

Global academic leaders have found themselves powerless against Hungary’s government

April 11, 2017
A man holds up a sign with the text 'Don't close CEU, Orban in to the jail" as students and teachers of the Central European University protest. Hungary
Source: Getty

Hungary’s president has signed into law a bill that could force the country’s top-ranked university to leave the country, despite an unprecedented international academic outcry.

Budapest’s Central European University has said it will use legal channels to fight on against the government’s move, which requires the institution to obtain a new agreement between the US and Hungarian authorities to enshrine its status. The legislation, seen as the latest attack on organisations supported by the philanthropist George Soros, would also force CEU to open a campus in New York and prevent it from issuing US degrees.

But the Hungarian government’s refusal thus far to back down highlights the weak tools available to the European Union and global academia when confronting authoritarian governments intent on snuffing out academic dissent.

European commissioners were due to meet on 12 April to discuss the situation; Carlos Moedas, the commissioner for research, science and innovation, has said there will be a “full and thorough analysis of this law and its respect of EU rules”.

Lesley Wilson, secretary general of the European Universities Association, said that the EU had limited options at its disposal, as education is a national competence in the EU, meaning Brussels cannot pass laws to bring member states’ policies into line.

“In the end, all we can do is try to communicate and publicise what’s happening,” she said. “We can’t put pressure [on the Hungarian government] because universities are a national business. That’s basically the issue.”

It is a “really worrying precedent”, Ms Wilson added, that despite an unprecedented mobilisation of academics – with CEU receiving support from scores of universities and academic groups across the world, and Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, joining its board in solidarity – the protests appear to have made little difference. Nor have appeals from leading politicians in the US, Germany and France had any apparent effect.

However, street protests in Budapest against the closure of CEU were “the first really major expression of discontent in Hungary since [Hungarian prime minister Viktor] Orbán’s rule began, and it’s come from the universities and it’s come from the academic community, with huge support worldwide for CEU,” Ms Wilson said. “It’s very galling for our friends in CEU...but maybe this will give impetus to other groups [of academics] who find themselves in similar situations.”

Politically, the row over CEU has exacerbated tensions in the European People’s Party, the largest group in the European parliament, which includes Orbán’s Fidesz party alongside mainstream conservative parties such as Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

Manfred Weber, the EPP’s chair, has said he expects the Hungarian government to comply with the European Commission’s assessment of the CEU law. But it is unclear whether the EPP would expel Fidesz if the Hungarian government refuses to back down over CEU.

Other MEPs have taken a tougher line. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, although a much smaller grouping than the EPP, has accused the Orbán government of trying to “silence all critical voices and strengthen its grip on power”.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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