Weekly newsletter

CEU in Hungary- A Story Cut Short

Ábrahám Vass 2018.12.04.

On Monday, Michael Ignatieff rector of the Central European University (CEU) declared that since no compromise has been reached with the Hungarian government, CEU is moving to Vienna. “Dark day for freedom,” says the rector, “political bluff,” says the government. Anyhow, Hungary lost an important part of a prestigious institution with a number of world-class professors.

It all began with the government’s battle against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. In the Hungarian government’s communication, Soros has become the main enemy who, being a globalist, is allegedly in favor of mass and illegal immigration, open borders and whose aim is to undermine Europe’s security, culture and identity. Accordingly, Orbán’s government has recently launched several controversial campaigns to “inform residents” about Soros and his alleged plan.

Therefore, most suspected that CEU, a university founded by Soros, could become the subject of the government’s ire. And indeed, on March 28, 2017,  an important amendment dubbed “Lex CEU” was submitted to the Higher Education Act. On one hand, this modification was welcomed as something that would finally put a stop to fake foreign universities awarding fake degrees. Likewise, many agreed with Fidesz-KDNP’s idea that CEU enjoyed a ‘special’ status within the Hungarian educational system (for example it had no campus in its native country but could provide a US degree), which should be regulated somehow.

On the other hand, however, the legislation was widely seen as being targeted at CEU in particular: according to the most controversial condition, it required foreign universities to operate on the basis of an interstate agreement.

CEU leadership appeared willing to compromise in order to meet the legal requirements and soon opened a campus at Bard College (BC) in New York, which was certified by all required U.S. authorities and eventually visited by delegates from the Hungarian government in April. In addition, U.S. and State of New York officials had begun negotiations with Hungarian government officials to reach a compromise and sign an agreement guaranteeing CEU’s continued existence. Meanwhile, a number of demonstrations were underway aimed at swaying the government. However, despite international pressure and the intervention of the U.S. ambassador, the government continued to procrastinate, gradually making it clear that—no matter what CEU did—it would not sign the agreement.

At last, CEU gave the Hungarian government until 1 December to sign an agreement giving it a legal basis to operate in Hungary. During Monday’s press conference, Michael Ignatieff announced that over the course of 20 months, the university had taken all necessary steps to comply with Hungarian legislation, including launching educational activities in the U.S. that were certified by U.S. authorities, and despite all of this, the Hungarian government made it clear that it had no intention of signing the agreement. “CEU has been forced out. This is unprecedented. A U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU,” wrote Ignatieff.

Government spokesperson István Hollik insisted that CEU’s recent announcement is a “political bluff the government doesn’t want to deal with” as, according to him, the majority of CEU’s activity remains in Budapest.

CEU was regularly ranked among the top universities in Hungary, often making it onto prestigious international lists as well. For now, faculties accredited to Hungary will remain in Budapest. Ignatieff, however, insists that those staying account for less than one-fifth of CEU’s degrees. Meanwhile, those who give out US-accredited degrees accepted all over the world—which made CEU attractive in the first place—will move to Vienna.