Yesterday afternoon, a peaceful demonstration was held in Budapest against proposed legislation targeting the Central European University (CEU). According to event organizers and several news outlets, around ten thousand people attended the protest.
The demonstration, entitled “Today it is CEU, tomorrow it Might Be You,” began in front of Corvinus University, next to Budapest’s Szabadság (Liberty) Bridge.
Under a sign emblazoned with the slogan “Freedom for Education” in both Hungarian and English, protesters made their way past ELTE University, to CEU’s main campus on Nádor street, before ultimately gathering in front of the Hungarian Parliament building to protest legislation that Corvinus University professor Dániel Deák decried as unacceptable, telling those assembled that “political tyranny puts the future of our children at stake.”
As we have previously written, last week Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Resources, submitted a bill to the Hungarian Parliament based on claims of “irregularities” found in the operation of foreign-based universities. And while it is not specifically named, it has been widely noted that the legislation seems to target one institution in particular: The Central European University (CEU).
In front of CEU’s main building, Gáspar Békés, representative in the Independent Student Parliament, told demonstrators that the Fidesz-KDNP ruling coalition’s proposed amendment was, in reality, “determined attack against one of the best Hungarian universities.” He compared this attack on academic freedom to similar moves made by Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoyan in Russia and Turkey respectively, and said that such a thing should not happen in Hungary.
In a similar vein, Daria Dovka addressed the crowd in front of the Parliament building, where she discussed the Putin regime’s ongoing attack on the European University at Saint Petersburg. In addition, a letter from Turkish academics in support of CEU was read out to the crowd as well (These attacks on academic freedom were also mentioned in an article in the New York Times penned by CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff, which you can read here).
Also in front of the parliament, Katalin Törley of the teachers’ movement Tanitanék said that the government destroys the future of Hungary and its youth by corrupting education. Törley told the crowd that government leaders either withhold human and financial resources or destroy the legal and institutional environment, and laid the blame for this crisis at the feet of r Zoltán Balog and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Worldwide Support for CEU
In addition to the protest, politicians, universities, and academic institutions around the world have reacted to the Orbán government’s proposed legislation, criticizing what has been described as a brazen attack on academic freedom.
Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education Culture, Youth and Sport, who is himself a member of Fidesz, has spoken out in support of CEU; today, in a written statement to Hungarian news site Index, Navracsics explained that
Central European University is one of the most important higher education institutions not only in Hungary, but also in the European Higher Education Area. Therefore, I think it’s important that after the correction of possible irregularities, it can continue to operate in Budapest undisturbed.
Navracsics’ support has been echoed by thousands worldwide, including László Lovasz, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who expressed his view that “it’s important for CEU to stay” in a statement last Friday. Lovasz added that “CEU is a very important scientific center and international institution of higher education. It is highly important to keep the community of researchers and faculty, the workshops, the research institutions and the scientific life together.”
The President of Princeton University has described the Hungarian government’s proposed “Lex CEU” legislation as “an unconscionable attack upon academic freedom, and all friends of free speech and civil society should recognize and oppose it as such.” His sentiments were echoed by 500 prominent European and American academics, in an open letter whose co-signers included 17 Nobel laureates. The letter emphasized the positive impact CEU has had on Hungary, and asks “in the strongest possible terms” that the Hungarian government withdraw the legislation.
The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences also sent a letter to Hungarian Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog in support of CEU, as 100 ethnic Hungarian scientists and researchers from Romania. These Transylvanian academics wrote that “it is vital for Hungarians to remain in the lifeblood of international research,” and described CEU as “an important center of international scientific life.”
Likewise, former President of the Republic of Hungary László Sólyom expressed his support for CEU, as did Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson. Dr. Richardson also joined CEU’s Board of Trustees.
CEU Letter to MPs
CEU also sent a memorandum to Hungarian MPs today, telling them that, if the bill passes, it would be impossible for the university to continue its operations in Hungary.
The memorandum said that the bill would place disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of academic life, freedom to teach and the right to education, and added that the proposed law was a violation of the Hungarian constitution’s prohibition of discrimination, since that the bill before parliament was directed at specific institutions.
The university emphasized its important role in Hungary, writing in the memo that that it had paid more than 5.9 billion forint (19 million euro) in taxes in Hungary in 2015; it also spent 3.5 billion forint (11.3 million euro) in the same period.
The school added that if the bill becomes law, and the university is forced to leave Budapest, 823 jobs, the Hungarian state would lose out on nearly 6 billion forint (19.4 million euro) in tax revenue, and CEU would end up spending some 3 billion forint (9.7 million euro) in another country. They also pointed out that hundreds of Hungarian students would leave the country.
Hungarian Government Response
In a fresh development, today the Hungarian parliament, at the urging of Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, voted to accelerate the time table for the “Lex CEU” bill, meaning that it will be voted on tomorrow.
In an expedited procedure, parliament could vote on and accept the bill on the same day. An expedited procedure proposal is accepted with a simple majority. Semjén claimed that this acceleration was necessitated by “government interests.”
Via MTI, ceu.edu, index.hu, 444.hu, 24.hu, and the New York Times
Images via MTI