Global pushback against Orban’s university bill is rebuffed

Despite a massive show of solidarity, the parliament has approved new conditions for foreign universities operating in Hungary that are seen as directly targeting CEU

Thousands of people marched in Budapest on Sunday calling for the proposal to be withdrawn

The Hungarian National Assembly today (April 4) voted to pass amendments to education law that are seen as threatening the Central European University’s (CEU) freedom to operate in the country and undermining academic independence overall, after an emergency parliamentary procedure was triggered on Monday to rush the initiative through parliament.

The move to bring forward the vote came after CEU received astonishing support from scientists and academic institutions around the world after the amendments, which will bar the university from issuing US-accredited degrees and require it to open a campus in the US, were tabled last week.

The new legislation would pose, “a threat to [CEU’s] existence in Hungary,” CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said when the proposals were published.

The amendments would, “Mark the first time that a member of the European Union dared to legislate an attack on the academic freedom of a university,” Ignatieff said in an opinion piece published by the New York Times on Monday.

Thousands of people, including CEU students and alumni, marched in Budapest on Sunday calling for the proposal to be withdrawn.

As many as 90,000 academics and private citizens, including 20 Nobel laureates, have shown their support for CEU by signing more than 1,000 letters to the government asking for withdrawal of the proposed amendments. An online petition gathered more than 35,000 signatures. 

One  letter, signed by over 1,000 scientists from 30 countries, including professors from Harvard, Yale, MIT, New York University, University of California and directors of the Max Planck Institute, read, “We respectfully ask that you preserve CEU’s ability to act as a centre of leadership and innovation in Hungary and the world by withdrawing this legislation.”

The legislation will make it effectively impossible for CEU to continue to occupy its current position as one of the foremost scientific institutions internationally, the letter says.

The EU commissioner for education, Hungarian-born Tibor Navracsics, who is a member of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party sided with CEU, telling the Hungarian news website, “It’s important that after the correction of possible irregularities, [CEU] can continue to operate in Budapest undisturbed."

The Commissioner praised the university as one of the most important higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area.

Adding to the swell of international support, on Monday Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of Oxford University joined CEU’s board of trustees and sent a letter to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, urging him to safeguard the academic freedom of the US-Hungarian university. “[The amendments] would set a dangerous precedent by curtailing the indispensable condition of academic freedom and independence,” she said.

Ash Amin, Foreign Secretary and Vice President of the British Academy for the Social Sciences and Humanities sent a letter to Zoltan Balog, the Hungarian minister of Human Capacities, who is responsible for education. “The flourishing of the Central European University in Hungary has been an exceptional success story for Hungarian and international academia and one which we would very much regret if it came to an end,” Amin’s letter reads.

The European University Association (EUA) issued a statement calling on European governments to, “refrain from interference in university autonomy” and warned against “the increasing tendency of national governments to interfere in university autonomy and academic freedom.” 

Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the EUA told Science|Business that the amendments would make it very difficult for CEU to continue its operations. “We are very concerned about this situation,” Wilson said.

The EUA has contacted the national Rectors’ Conference in Budapest which is organising a meeting to discuss the amendments. “We very much hope that a way will be found to resolve these difficulties,” said Wilson.

Hungarian support

Members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences signed a petition  calling for leaders of universities and research institutes in Hungary to defend the academic independence of CEU and other institutions in Hungary by all means available, saying, “We expect Hungarian legislation to continue to ensure the Budapest-based operation of the Central European University.”

The leaders of Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest issued a statement saying that CEU “is an irreplaceable part of [Hungarian higher education], and it has to stay that way.”

Laszlo Solyom, president of Hungary from 2005 to 2010 said, “It is in our fundamental interest that [CEU] continues its activities. It is in our fundamental interest as well that the legal regulation of higher education conforms to the Constitution.”

Despite the surge of support for CEU, Orban pressed ahead with the amendments, arguing that CEU has unfair advantages and the updated law will ensure that all international universities operating in Hungary have to comply with the same rules. Orbán claims that by issuing both US and Hungarian degrees without having any operations in the US, CEU has been “cheating”.

US political support

In a statement published last Wednesday, David Kostelancik, chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Budapest, said, “The US opposes any effort that threatens the independence or the operation of the university.”

The US Department of State also issued a statement urging the government of Hungary, “To avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.”

US Senator Ben Cardin spoke out in support of CEU and warned that the proposed legislation will take Hungary “a step down an isolationist path”.

 In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, CEU’s rector emeritus John Shattuck argues that academic freedom in Europe and the US is fragile and warns against the threats posed by “nationalist authoritarian politics” that is sweeping both sides of the Atlantic.

This week, Ignatieff is travelling to Washington D.C. to make the CEU’s case to US lawmakers and media.

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Related subjects: Europe, Academic freedom, Central European University