German deal could allow CEU to stay in Hungary

Threatened university says it needs ‘definitive legal certainty’ over its future

March 17, 2019
Source: Getty

The leader of the conservative group in the European Parliament is attempting to broker a deal that could allow the Central European University to stay in Budapest.

The plan would see the Technical University of Munich partner with CEU, which confirmed in December that it would have to enrol all its new students at a new campus in Vienna from this September, in the face of long-running hostility from the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán.

Mr Orbán introduced new rules requiring overseas universities operating in Hungary to maintain a campus in their home country. Although CEU signed a memorandum of understanding with Bard College that would see it deliver “educational activities” in New York, Hungarian ministers have still refused to allow the institution to stay.

Under the proposed partnership, which is backed by the Bavarian government, TUM would serve as the “home” campus for CEU.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Peopleʼs Party in the European Parliament and its candidate for European Commission president, visited Budapest on 12 March to discuss the plan with Mr Orbán and CEU president Michael Ignatieff.

There may be a political motive, in part at least: whether Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party should be allowed to stay in the EPP grouping is being debated by MEPs in the run-up to Mayʼs European elections.

However, to offer American-accredited degrees, CEU would still need to partner with a US institution.

Ulrich Marsch, director of corporate communications at TUM, told Times Higher Education that CEU and TUM were looking for a “prestigious” US partner but that this was yet to be finalised. Being able to issue US-accredited degrees was an important part of the plan, Dr Marsch said, because it was a “unique selling point” in Europe.

The support for CEU from TUM would include three professorships in political science, two funded by the Bavarian government and one through a donation from German car manufacturer BMW.

Dr Marsch said that TUM was “sincere” in its offer to CEU. “We see it as a bridge to unite people through the freedom of science and the exchange of ideas, particularly for young people,” he said.

In a statement, the CEU said that while the university welcomed the developments “and the possibility it opens of reversing CEU’s ouster from Budapest”, the collaboration could proceed only if Mr Orbán “provides an authoritative political commitment to his European partners that CEU will be allowed to remain in Budapest, as a free institution, offering American- and European-accredited degrees”.

This commitment must be backed by legislation that provides legally binding authorisation for all of CEU’s operations in Budapest, the university said. “No partnership between CEU and TUM is possible without definitive legal certainty about the long-term status of CEU in Hungary,” the universities said.

The boards of both universities will meet in early April to discuss the plans further.

Michael Gaebel, director of higher education at the European University Association, said it was “welcome that the EPP [was addressing] the issue with its Hungarian member” but said that the group “should have done so months ago, not only now in view of the European elections”.

“It remains to be seen whether the Hungarian government will accept the offer, and whether this would really help solve the issue. There has been no indication that the Hungarian government will change its general attitude and respect…fundamental rights, including academic freedom,” Mr Gaebel said.

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