Hungary's top-ranked university is fighting for its existence after the country’s increasingly authoritarian government tabled legislative changes that would make it impossible for the institution to remain in Budapest.
The Central European University, a graduate institution set up after the fall of communism to defend democracy in Eastern Europe, could be the first international institution to fall victim to ascendant illiberal governments in Europe and the US, according to observers.
It is believed that the government of prime minister Viktor Orbán has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump as US president to move against pro-democracy organisations, particularly those funded by the multibillionaire George Soros, such as the CEU.
Legislative amendments tabled on 28 March would stop the institution from issuing US-accredited degrees; force the CEU to open a campus in New York; change its name; and end an agreement whereby non-EU staff do not need a work permit, the university has said, making it “impossible for the university to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Budapest, the CEU’s home for 25 years”.
Speaking at a press conference in Budapest on 29 March, CEU president Michael Ignatieff called for the amendments to be withdrawn. “We plan to remain here,” he said. But he added that, by tabling them, the Hungarian government had eroded trust so completely that a new international agreement was now needed to make the CEU’s status in the country secure.
A Hungarian government spokesman told Times Higher Education that the amendments were in response to a review of foreign universities operating in the country, which discovered that 28 were operating unlawfully by not complying with regulations. Because of the proposed stricter rules, “universities from outside the EU can only hold courses and issue degrees in Hungary on the basis of an international treaty”, he said.
But the CEU believes it has been deliberately targeted by the amendments. Professor Ignatieff said that the new legislation had “carefully” excluded EU institutions, meaning that it targeted a “very narrow set of international institutions” including the CEU.
The CEU would be the latest pro-democracy organisation funded by Mr Soros to come under attack in Hungary. Mr Orbán has railed against the investor, who was born in Hungary and has poured money into institutions that aim to increase openness and transparency in former communist countries, and support refugees, which Mr Orbán has sought to block from Hungary.
Other Soros-backed groups have been targeted by a proposed new law that would force organisations that received foreign funding to register, Reuters has reported. Even receiving scholarships from Soros-funded organisations has become a political issue in Hungary; last year, it was reported that Mr Orbán would be happy to repay a scholarship he had received from the Soros Foundation to help fund a brief period of study at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1989.
Speaking to THE, Professor Ignatieff said that he thought that the CEU had been targeted because of its support for open, democratic institutions, and the link with Mr Soros. “They are one and the same,” he said.
According to Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education, the CEU “looks likely to be the first international university to be made a victim of the new ‘closed’ brand of nationalism epitomised by Brexit, the Trump policies [and] the Le Pen agenda” unless “the threat can be headed off”.
Several reports have indicated that Mr Trump's election has emboldened the Hungarian government to move against organisations funded by Mr Soros. In January, Szilard Nemeth, a deputy leader of Mr Orbán's governing Fidesz party, said that “these organisations must be repressed by all means and I think they must be culled altogether. I think there is an international opportunity to do that now,” Reuters reported.
However, David Kostelancik, chargé d'affaires at the US embassy in Budapest, said in a statement on 29 March that the US was “very concerned” about the new legislation. “The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the university,” he said.
Professor Ignatieff said that this statement was a sign that the Hungarian government “may have misjudged the situation”.
He added that the CEU had been inundated by a “flood” of offers of help from academics around the world. Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, was to join the CEU board in support, he said.
He also emphasised that the CEU would “continue to operate its academic programmes no matter what”.