Council of Europe calls on Hungary to redraw higher education law

Team sent to investigate rule changes that could close Budapest’s Central European University finds that they were made ‘without very strong reasons’

August 15, 2017
Hungarian parliament, Budapest

A new higher education law in Hungary that could force the country’s top-ranked university to close has been described as “highly problematic” by a fact-finding mission sent by the Council of Europe.

The mission’s preliminary report calls on Hungary’s government, which has been accused of deliberately targeting the Budapest-based Central European University as part of a broader campaign against independent civil society groups, to exempt already established universities from the new law.

The new law, passed in April this year, requires foreign universities to teach in their home countries, bans them from using identical names in different languages – a rule that “appears unjustified”, the report says, and only affects CEU – and also require them to secure a new international agreement to continue operating.

These “stringent rules” introduced “without very strong reasons” create “strict deadlines and severe legal consequences” for “foreign universities that are already established in Hungary and have been lawfully operating there for many years”, according to the Venice Commission, which advises the Council, the Strasbourg-based body that enforces the European Convention on Human Rights.

The law is therefore “highly problematic from the standpoint of rule of law and fundamental rights principles and guarantees”, concludes the mission’s report, released at the end of last week. 

When the law was proposed, the Hungarian government said that it was a response to an audit of foreign universities, and the law makes no specific reference to CEU.

But the university and critics of the government have argued that the law deliberately targets the CEU, and the commission appears to agree, concluding that it is “doubtful whether the law responds to a genuine need in respect of universities that are already active in Hungary”, drawing attention to the wider “socio-political context surrounding its adoption”.

The law itself was passed a few days after being presented to parliament, with no consultation, the mission says. “The reason given for using the expedited procedure was that it was urgent to adopt the law to allow it to enter into force before the next academic year. This reason does not seem very convincing since there was no urgent need to change the applicable rules,” it finds.

However, it does conclude that the new rules are “in line with existing practices” in the rest of Europe and may be “legitimately” applied to new foreign universities that want to set up in Hungary. Its concern lies instead with how the law affects existing universities, such as CEU.

Meanwhile, opposition MPs have triggered a debate on the new law in parliament later this month.

The Hungarian government is also in dispute with the European Union over the new law. In response to its objections, Pál Völner, Hungary's parliamentary state secretary of the Ministry of Justice said that “it’s hardly our fault that these restrictions are contrary to György Soros’s interests”, referring to George Soros, the Hungary-born philanthropist whose donation set up the CEU, and who has repeatedly been attacked by the Hungarian government.

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