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

29 Mar 2017 | News

A proposed amendment “is a direct and fundamental threat” to the Budapest-based Central European University, says president and rector Michael Ignatieff

An amendment to the Hungarian higher education law tabled on Tuesday evening includes provisions that will prevent the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), from delivering programmes and issuing degrees. If passed, it could force the university to move from Hungary, according to the rector Michael Ignatieff.

“The legislation tabled suddenly last night is a threat to our existence in Hungary,” Ignatieff told a press conference in Budapest on Wednesday.

The proposed changes target 28 universities in Hungary, of which CEU and six others have international founders. “However, the proposed administrative changes discriminate only [against] CEU,” former Hungarian MEP Edit Herczog told Science|Business.

There have been rumours circulating about changes to the higher education legislation in Hungary, but Ignatieff was not able to secure meetings with education minister László Palkovics, or other government representatives, to clarify the situation. “I’ve been trying to get a meeting with him for two or three weeks,” Ignatieff said. Palkovics finally agreed to a meeting on Wednesday evening.

After the meeting with Palkovics, CEU said it remains concerned the government does not yet fully realise the implications of the proposed legislation. “I call on the government to enter into negotiations with us to find a satisfactory way forward that allows CEU to continue in Budapest and to maintain the academic freedoms essential to its operation,” Ignatieff said, adding, “We are willing to remain in dialogue with the government but cannot accept the tabled legislation as a basis for discussion.”

Ignatieff is going to Washington D.C. on Sunday to make the CEU’s case to US lawmakers and media.

In a statement published on 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 to “urge the Government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.”

In an interview on state radio, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that, by issuing both US and Hungarian degrees without having any operations in the US, CEU has been “cheating”. "Not even a billionaire can stand above the law, therefore this university must also obey the law," Orbán said.

On Friday, CEU released another statement to reject the Prime Minister’s “false allegations”.

“We have been lawful partners in Hungarian higher education for 25 years and any statement to the contrary is false,” the statement reads.

Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the European University Association (EUA) says the amendments would make it very difficult for CEU to continue its operations. “We are very concerned about this situation which we only learned about early [on Wednesday],” Wilson told Science|Business.

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

The Hungarian government spokesperson has not responded to a request for comment submitted by Science|Business.

Legal entanglement   

At its foundation in 1991 by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, CEU offered US-accredited programmes only, but in 2004 the Hungarian government and the State of New York reached a deal that allowed CEU to offer both Hungarian and US-accredited Masters and PhD qualifications.

The Hungarian government officially recognised Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE), which literally translates to Central European University, as an institution of higher education, authorised to issue Hungarian-accredited degrees.

Until now, CEU/KEE’s double identity has enabled the university to comply with both Hungarian and US laws and award Hungarian and US-accredited degrees. This franchise system is based on legislation that allows university programmes and degrees from all OECD countries, including the US, to function through joint Hungarian entities, as CEU/KEE currently does.

If the amendment is passed, Hungarian universities will be able to have this kind of cooperation only with universities based in the EU, which will directly affect the US-Hungary franchise system put in place in 2004, according to Zsolt Enyedi, CEU’s Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs.

The amendment also eliminates a waiver that currently allows academic staff from non-EU countries to work at CEU without a work permit. This will create further barriers to hiring and recruitment for a university that recruits 397 faculty from 46 countries, 583 administrative staff from 31 countries, and 1,440 students from 104 countries. 

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 said in a statement published on Tuesday evening, shortly after the amendment was tabled in the Hungarian Parliament.

Excellence threatened

CEU is a beacon of excellence in Central and Eastern Europe in the fields of humanities and social sciences. Between 2011 and 2016, the university was awarded €6,955,221 in European Research Council (ERC) grants, and between 2016 and 2022 the university will receive €14,988,163 in ERC grants. “University receives more ERC grants than any other university in Hungary, but also in the region,” said Ignatieff.  

“Forcing CEU, or any other university to leave Hungary would be opposite to Hungarian and European interest. It would hinder education, competitiveness, and trust in the future,” said Herczog.

Ignatieff warned that fundamental academic freedoms are under threat. “Freedom is not an abstraction here folks,” Ignatieff told a meeting of students, faculty and staff streamed online. 

The university is ready for dialogues, but the only acceptable deal for CEU would be for the government to pull back the amendment. “I can’t negotiate away the academic freedom of this institution,” Ignatieff said.  “An attack on us is an attack on all academic institutions in this country.”

Ignatieff will be seeking assurances from the Hungarian government that CEU will be able to keep its “academic freedom and perpetuity,” and warned that he is not willing to accept a compromise deal. “The tabled amendments must be withdrawn.”  

Orbán v. Soros

Hungarian-born Soros’ Open Society Foundation, together with other non-governmental organisations funded by the foundation, has been the target of a recent crack-down by the Hungarian government.

Orbán was the first European leader to support Donald Trump’s run for the White House and the two share similar views about the international network of NGOs that Soros backs.

During his campaign, Trump said of Soros that he built “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”  

Ignatieff would not comment on Orbán’s battle with Soros. “I am not going to comment on the [prime minister’s] ideological battles, my concern is to protect CEU,” he said.

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