CEU’s Ignatieff: Orbán still has ‘gun to my head’ despite EU vote

Fears that MEPs’ move will make little significant difference to plight of Budapest-based university

September 14, 2018
michael-ignatieff
Source: Getty

The president of the Central European University has warned that the Hungarian government still has a “gun to my head” despite MEPs’ unprecedented move to punish infringements on academic freedom in the country.

On 12 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. 

Encroachments on universities – including what is seen as a politically motivated threat to the Budapest-based CEU – have played a key role in convincing lawmakers to act. But the chances of the vote actually leading to Hungary’s being stripped of its European Union voting rights are seen as slim, and the CEU fears it will not be enough to get the government to change course. 

Aside from legally imperilling the CEU, the Hungarian government has also developed plans to ban the teaching of gender studies; introduced a tax that the CEU says has forced it to stop a refugee education programme and migration research; and sought to reduce the independence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Michael Gaebel, director of higher education at the European University Association, said that the vote was an “important signal” that Hungary’s approach to academic freedom and autonomy would not be tolerated.

Liviu Matei, the CEU’s provost, agreed that the move was “very important”, but added that it would “most likely not” help the CEU “practically”. “The Hungarian government does not appear to be willing to change course,” he said. 

Speaking at the conference of the European Association for International Education, Michael Ignatieff, the CEU’s president, said that the institution was “not out of the woods”.

Hungarian legislation imposed a range of restrictions on overseas universities operating in Hungary, including the need to maintain a campus in their home country. The CEU signed a memorandum of understanding with Bard College that would see the CEU deliver “educational activities” in New York, creating what the university called “the basis for an agreement” with Viktor Orbán’s government.

However, the Hungarian government is yet to sign up to the agreement, having extended the deadline for compliance with the new law until 2019.

“If by January 2019 I don’t get…an agreement with the Hungarian government…I can’t accept new students in Budapest. So I’ve got a gun to my head here,” Professor Ignatieff said.

It will take a unanimous decision by EU member states to actually enact sanctions against Hungary – and Poland, which itself faces investigation under article 7 over its judicial reforms, has vowed to block any such move against Hungary.

At the EAIE conference, Professor Ignatieff argued that “academic freedom is not a partisan political issue”.

“It is not a value of the left. It is not a value of the right,” he said. “It is a European value and it is a universal value and we need to stand and defend it as such and not allow academic freedom to be captured as a political agenda for any political party but to create the coalitions that allow us to defend it together and strengthen our universities together.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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