Last night, 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).
The human resources ministry claimed that the legislation was needed after a government probe supposedly found violations and shortfalls at the “majority” of foreign colleges and universities that offer instruction in Hungary. The ministry added that the proposed amendment will force universities outside of the European Union to operate in Hungary only on the basis of an international agreement.
In addition, an article on right-wing Hungarian news site Origo claimed that CEU, which they described as “the Soros University,” is operating with “serious violations of the law.”
CEU said provisions in the draft bill are specifically meant to damage the university. They include “an obligation for CEU to open a campus in New York state, where it is also accredited, allowing it to award degrees accepted both in Hungary and the U.S.”
The proposed legislation would also force CEU to change its name, and would eliminate a waiver that allows academic staff from non-EU nations to work at the university without a work permit.
In an official statement, the university wrote that
CEU celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. It has no other desire than to remain in Budapest. It is deeply embedded in Hungarian academic life, collaborating with other institutions of academic excellence in Hungary from ELTE to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, sharing research projects, teaching, knowledge, and enabling student exchanges. Of the nearly 1,800 students CEU educates each year, Hungarians make up the largest group. The majority of CEU staff and nearly half the faculty are Hungarian.
Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of Central European University (Photo: CEU).
Already last night, CEU officials responded to both the proposed legislation and to the Origo article. In press releases, the university officially expressed “its opposition to proposed amendments to Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education… after careful legal study, CEU has concluded that these amendments would make it impossible for the University to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Budapest, CEU’s home for 25 years.”
The university pointed out that it “has a has a reputation which should make Hungarians proud…. We are proud of our reputation, proud of our contribution to Hungarian academic life for the past 25 years and we will defend our achievements vigorously against anyone who seeks to defame our work in the eyes of the Hungarian people.”
CEU also reacted to yesterday’s Origo article, describing its claims of fraud on the part of the university as “libel,” and demanding that “Origo publish a full retraction of these outrageous falsehoods, on pain of legal penalties.”
And today, in a press conference CEU Rector Ignatieff further elaborated the university’s position. He described the government’s attack on the “academic freedom of CEU” as “not just a national or Hungarian issue” but also “a matter of international concern.”
He noted the presence of representatives of the US, German, Swedish, Canadian, Norwegian, Romanian, and Dutch embassies, as well as the US government’s sharp criticism of the government’s proposed legislation.
Ignatieff described the legislation as “targeted and discriminatory” and added that it “must be withdrawn.” He called the Hungarian government’s move an outright attack on the intellectual freedom not only of the university, but “an assault to academic freedom in Hungary in general.”
The university’s Rector added that
We will never close this university…We have no other home than Budapest. Budapest has been good to us, and we have been good to Budapest.
US Government Reacts
In a statement sent to the Budapest Business Journal, David Kostelancik, Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of the United States in Hungary, said that he was “very concerned about the legislation proposed by the Hungarian Government yesterday that would severely impact the operations of the Central European University in Budapest.”
The head of the US Embassy added that
The Central European University is accredited in the United States and Hungary, and it has employed and educated thousands of Hungarians. It is a premier academic institution with an excellent reputation in Hungary and around the world, and it stands as an important center of academic freedom in the region…Moreover, the university is an important success story in the U.S.-Hungarian relationship, and it enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Government. The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University.
Hungarian Opposition Parties React
Hungarian Opposition parties slammed the government for what they described as threat to close the university.
The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) called CEU is a national treasure, and described the Orbán governement’s “threat” to close it down as tantamount to “treason”. They added that the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition “is always looking for new enemies” in order to distract public attention from its own crimes and transgressions. The party said that, after attacks on NGOs and the European Union, the government has now launched an attack on the university.
CEU is among Hungary’s top-ranking universities each year and several Hungarian leaders have been among its graduates, including ruling Fidesz government members and one of the party’s MEPs, the Socialists said.
At a press conference, Ágnes Vádai, deputy leader of the left-wing Democratic Coalition (DK) opposition party, described the higher education bill as “unacceptable.” She further added that, in her party’s view, the bill is an “underhand, ideologically based” attack on CEU, which, she pointed out, is the highest-ranking university in Hungary.
Vádai also said that “any normal government” would strive to support such an important institution, and work to help it benefit as many people as possible.
The Együtt (Together) party criticized the government’s “xenophobic campaign which paints George Soros as the devil”, which they further described as an attempt to discredit CEU. In a press conference, the party also called on the government to “take its hands off Hungarian higher education and respect its autonomy”.
LMP, Hungary’s green party, said in a statement that this new law “clearly points in the direction of undermining” higher education in Hungary. If CEU were pushed out of Hungary, it would be “a shameful milestone in the history of [Hungarian] education and culture,” the party added.
LMP’s statement also emphasized that it was “scandalous” that universities could be the victims of a political attack in Hungary.
State Secretary for Education László Palkovics (Hirado.hu)
At a press briefing earlier today, State secretary for education László Palkovics said that foreign institutions would only be allowed to award degrees in Hungary if their work here is regulated by an inter-state agreement. Universities are audited every five years and the recent audit had uncovered irregularities at several foreign universities, he said.
Palkovics said that these universities must comply with the new regulations by February 2018. Those failing to adjust will be allowed to finish running courses but would be barred from launching new ones from September 2018, he added.
Palkovics claimed that the new law does not target CEU, but rather “aims to apply Hungarian law to all the 28 higher-education institutions operating in the country.”
The state secretary and CEU leadership are set to meet this afternoon.
Via MTI, CEU, the BBC, the Washington Post, Index, Budapest Business Journal, and Origo
Images via CEU and