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EU must not tolerate the threat to academic freedom in Hungary

As the national assembly gathers to vote on higher education rules that could force the Central European University to close, CEU alumna Zsuzsanna Végh says the EU cannot allow a member state to undermine intellectual freedom and academic autonomy

CEU alumna Zsuzsanna Végh
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One of Europe’s most prestigious universities, the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), is being threatened with closure under new legislative amendments to the law on national higher education tabled by the Hungarian government on March 28, 2017.

The submitted proposals contain a set of requirements aimed toward 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary, and according to the government are necessary to guarantee the quality of education in these institutions. However, some of the requirements actually affect only CEU and pose prohibitive conditions for the university.

CEU’s leadership evaluates that if these amendments were to pass, the university would be forced to close down in Hungary, since the legislative frameworks guaranteeing its operation currently would practically be overruled.

Barely a week after the proposals were published, there is little doubt anymore that the modifications to the law will indeed pass: the National Assembly is scheduled to vote on it midday today (April 4), after an emergency parliamentary procedure had been triggered the day before to rush the initiative through the parliament.

The CEU, as a mission-driven university, was founded in 1991 by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros with the vision of supporting democratic transformation in the region and to contribute to academic excellence especially in the field of social sciences after decades of authoritarian rule. During its brief existence of 26 years, CEU has become - and repeatedly proves itself - to be an institution of excellence. It achieves higher rankings than any other Hungarian universities in its fields, attracts considerable research funding including from the European Research Council, and top professors from all over the world. It has become an integral part of the Hungarian higher education environment through its partnerships with numerous institutions across the country.

Due to its comparably better (financial) situation, CEU can also provide important and otherwise lacking resources to students, researchers and academics in the country, for example, by opening its library, which holds the best English-language collection in the field of social sciences in Central Europe. The closure of CEU in Budapest would mean a tremendous loss to Hungarian academia.

However, the proposed new legislation is certainly about more than a simple domestic dispute concerning higher education regulations in Hungary. On the one hand, under the aegis of building an illiberal state, it falls in line with prime minister Viktor Orbán’s ongoing fight to intimidate and silence dissenting voices, institutions and civil society actors standing for the protection of democratic values and principles. On the other hand, the proposed amendments present an attempt to violate the academic autonomy and freedom of higher education institutions, among them those of CEU, and would result in political interference over their functioning.

Legislating away the autonomy and freedom of universities and cracking down on academics critical of incumbent regimes is certainly not unheard of. We are currently witnessing such attacks in the direct neighborhood of the European Union by authoritarian regimes like Russia or Turkey. However, as CEU’s President and Rector Michael Ignatieff also pointed out, it is unprecedented for a country that is the member of the European Union to take such steps. Respect for values and principles like intellectual freedom and academic autonomy in the EU normally goes without saying, as these stand at the core of a democracy and serve as sources of inspiration and innovation necessary for technological and social progress.

Tolerating the politically motivated breach of these values in Hungary sets a dangerous precedent that holds the risk of crossing this line in the future even more easily, and thus endangering other independent institutions.

Nevertheless, the implications go beyond Hungary. Especially when the European Union is at risk of increasing nationalist populism, allowing such attacks to take place and violations to materialise by the Hungarian government could also set an example to follow for other leaders in Central and Eastern Europe – and eventually potentially also in Western Europe – who regard Viktor Orbán and his ideas of an illiberal state as an inspiration. With the PiS government in Poland, this is already more than a distant worry.

CEU’s closure or departure from Budapest would not only be a painful loss for Hungarian academic life but also a dangerous signal showing that such basic values as academic autonomy and intellectual freedom are no longer sacred even in the West. The European Union cannot allow one of its member states to go down this path. Harming intellectual freedom and academic autonomy cannot be tolerated in the EU – nor anywhere else for that matter.

This article was written on April 4, 2017, before the vote on the new legislation in the National Assembly took place.

Zsuzsanna Végh

The author is a CEU alumna (IRES 2012) and former employee of CEU’s Center for European Neighborhood Studies (2012-2017). The views expressed here are her own, and do not necessarily represent the views of any current or former employer.

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Related subjects: Europe, Central European University