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EU launches probe into Hungary’s controversial education bill

Investigation into the proposal - widely seen as an attempt to close the Central European University - could eventually see Hungary taken before Europe’s highest court and fined

EU Commission's Frans Timmermans launches probe
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The European Commission is launching an investigation into a new higher education law in Hungary widely seen as an attempt to close down the Central European University (CEU).

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the Commission and second-in-command to President Jean-Claude Juncker, said the new law, which requires foreign universities to maintain a campus in their home countries, is “troubling many people in Europe” and may conflict with fundamental EU rules and values.

“{We} today agreed that where the new law may touch on EU competences, we need to quickly complete a thorough legal assessment of its compatibility with free movement of services and the freedom of establishment, as well as EU rules on admission of third country researchers,” he told journalists in Brussels on Wednesday.

The investigation could eventually see Hungary being taken to Europe’s highest court and fined for failing to uphold EU law. Timmermans said an initial assessment would be complete by the end of April.

In parallel, CEU has vowed to challenge the legality of the bill. 

Last week, Hungarian President Janos Ader decided to sign the amendments to the national higher education legislation, despite massive protests in Hungary and broad international support for CEU. The university had hoped that Ader would return the bill to parliament or demand the Constitutional Court examines its legality. 

According to Zsolt Enyedi, CEU’s pro-rector for Hungarian affairs, the university intends to contest the law directly in the Constitutional Court.

Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for research and innovation expressed his deep concern with developments in Hungary in a statement last Wednesday. The Commissioner urged the Hungarian government to refrain from making any decision that restricts the academic freedom of universities and pledged to start “a full and thorough analysis of this law and its respect of EU rules.”

According to Moedas, the bill is at odds with the freedom of scientific research and European values of openness. It will set “an unwelcome precedent for the autonomy of academic institutions in Hungary,” he said.

Although the bill applies to all foreign universities operating in Hungary, its terms are seen as singling out CEU. Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orbán argues that CEU has unfair advantages and the updated law will ensure that all international universities in the country have to comply with the same rules. By issuing both US and Hungarian degrees without having any operations in the US, CEU has been “cheating”, Orbán says.

Hungarian MEP Tibor Szanyi wrote a letter of protest to Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European People’s Party, (EPP) group in the European Parliament, which includes Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party amongst its members.

Confronting the EPP for its reticence to comment on Fidesz’ leader, Orbán, the architect of the amendment, Szanyi said, “[He] is building his illiberal democracy as a member of EPP. Do you stand with Fidesz or do you stand with CEU?” he asked Weber.

Weber has said that the Hungarian government will have to comply with the Commission’s investigation. “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity,” Weber said.

Gabi Zimmer, the president of Confederal Group of the European United Left sent a letter to urge the Commission to take legal action against the Hungarian government. “Enough is enough,” the letter said. Citing “sustained attacks on refugees and migrants, NGOs, civil liberties, and media and academic freedom,” Zimmer said Hungary’s attack on the CEU should be a last straw for the Commission, which ought to trigger an infringement procedure against the country. 

Cecilia Malmström‏, EU Commissioner for trade backed Moedas’ statement on Twitter saying the law “goes against the freedom of scientific research as well as common EU values.”

Even though education is a national prerogative in the EU, Ignatieff is travelling this week to Berlin and Brussels to consolidate European support. The Commission and Parliament “will give a platform for the rector to speak in Brussels,” said Enyedi.

The bill is worse than the proposal

The bill passed in an emergency session last Tuesday introduced more punitive conditions than the draft published a week earlier. The timeframe for compliance is shortened by eight months to 1 January 2018. “It’s a punitive timetable,” says Ignatieff.

The bill also requests that any future operation of CEU should proceed on the basis of an agreement with the federal government of the US, despite the fact that only state authorities have jurisdiction in matters of education policy and academic accreditations in the US.

According to CEU’s provost Liviu Matei, the Hungarian government disregarded parliamentary procedures to rush the amendments through. “The government did not consult the Hungarian academy, although it was legally required,” said Matei. 

CEU reassures students, faculty and staff

After hearing about the vote, Ignatieff was joined by Leon Botstein, CEU’s chairman of the board of trustees and president of Bard College, for a video conference with students, faculty and staff to reassure them that the university will continue its operation and maintain the continuity of its programmes.

CEU will not close, “under any circumstances,” Ignatieff told students. Botstein also provided reassurances that courses and research will not be interrupted. “There will be no discontinuity, whatever happens, under all circumstances,” he said.

Both Ignatieff and Botstein encouraged everyone to carry on as usual with teaching and research and reassured CEU’s incoming class of 2017 that the admissions for the upcoming academic year will not be interrupted. “I do not want [the Hungarian government] to win by a siege of erosion,” said Botstein.  “We are going to secure the employment and the education of those students who here now and those who will come in the future.”

CEU’s leadership is also determined to keep the university in Hungary. “Budapest is our home,” said Botstein.

“CEU will not go into exile, we are here to stay,” Matei added.

Further global support

More and more international institutions are joining the astonishing support CEU has received in the past two weeks from scientists and universities around the world.

The European University Association (EUA) has released another statement calling "on Hungarian president to block the legislation targeting Central European University. "EUA continues to stand by CEU," the statement reads.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the resident of Harvard University sent a letter to Orban and the Hungarian ambassador to US urging them to weigh, “the damage such legislation might do to Hungary's well-founded international academic reputation and to its relationships with its European partners and the United States.”

Sierd Cloetingh, president of Academia Europaea, the Pan-European Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Letters wrote to Orban urging the Hungarian government to find “pragmatic solutions to address any existing administrative or legislative anomalies, without targeting individual institutions or putting at risk excellent science.”

The former Governor of New York George Pataki said that CEU is an asset for Hungary and “any attack against its institutional autonomy and academic freedom would be a serious setback for Hungarian higher education and impact future of relations between [the US and Hungary]."

David Kostelancik, chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, said in a statement that “the US will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary.”

This story was updated on April 11 to reflect President Janos Ader’s decision to sign the amendments to the Hungarian education law. 

More on CEU

> EU must not tolerate the threat to academic freedom in Hungary

> Global pushback against Orban’s university bill is rebuffed

> Hungary’s new education law targets US-backed Central European University

> A brief history of CEU

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