Rector Michael Ignatieff says the decision is ‘a dark day for academic freedom’ in Hungary and decries the lack of tougher response from Brussels and EU capitals
Budapest-based Central European University (CEU) is to move all of its US-accredited degrees – accounting for 80 per cent of its courses - to Vienna after talks with the Hungarian government failed.
“It is a dark day for academic freedom,” said rector Michael Ignatieff announcing the decision in Budapest on Monday.
The decision has not been taken lightly, and CEU officials, faculty, staff and students, many of whom are Hungarian nationals, have repeatedly voiced their hope that university would be able to stay in Budapest.
The university was forced into the decision after 20 months of legal limbo that was sparked by an amendment to Hungary’s higher education legislation, requiring foreign universities to maintain a campus in their home country. The legislation was widely interpreted as a direct move against CEU, an institution founded by Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, former mentor, but now a foe to prime minister Viktor Orban and his self-styled ‘illiberal democracy’.
CEU has jumped through hoops to try and satisfy the requirement. In September 2017 it signed a memorandum of understanding with New York State’s Bard College to offer courses and degrees from a US-based campus. However, the Hungarian government has refused to sign the agreement, with its chief spokesman saying recently that CEU’s building in the state of New York is nothing more than a “shack” and the university could not have established educational activities in such a place.
All possible avenues are exhausted. “We can’t continue to play these games,” Ignatieff said. “We have a university that we want to move to a country where rule of law and respect for institutions still mean something.”
CEU is now registered in Austria to issue US-accredited degrees and it will welcome all incoming students to Vienna in September 2019. Students who are already enrolled will complete their studies in Budapest.
For now, the university retains its accreditation as a Hungarian university and aims to continue teaching and research activity in Budapest as long as possible, but three fifths of its programmes will move to Vienna. “Of all CEU degree programmes, only one fifth are accredited in Hungary,” said Zsolt Enyedi, pro rector for Hungarian affairs.
For Ignatieff, by forcing CEU to move most of its activities out of Budapest, “the government has done an injustice toward its own citizens, the hundreds of Hungarians who work and study at CEU, and thousands of Hungarian alumni and their families.”
Leon Botstein, chairman of CEU’s board of trustees said the Vienna campus was necessary step to preserve the continuity of CEU as American institution abroad. “We hope that in the long term we will find ourselves in both countries,” he said. “The city of Vienna and the federal government of Austria have welcomed us with open arms as part of their commitment to academic freedom and research.”
Legal challenges overdue
CEU’s case has been forwarded to Hungary’s Constitutional Court and to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but the university does not have the luxury of waiting for legal decisions. Ignatieff said that the ECJ has not held any hearings on CEU’s case. “We can’t wait,” he said. “We have to recruit students for next September.”
Earlier this year the European Parliament voted in favour of a report by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini to pursue action against Hungary over perceived threats to academic freedom, the judiciary, free speech, and minority and refugee rights in Hungary.
The vote did not rein in Orban’s populist government. Speaking last week, Sargentini accused the government of deliberately ruining a highly regarded university. “I am outraged, not only at the Hungarian government, but also at 27 member states that still have not found the courage to correct a fellow member,” she said.
Ignatieff too, voiced dismay at the lack of tougher response from Brussels and EU capitals. “No leverage has been exerted on the Hungarian government from the outside,” he said. “That is why we have to move this institution to a location where there is rule of law. Academic freedom and the rule of law are inseparable.”
Academic freedom under threat
The case of CEU is the most egregious example of a broader attack on the independence of research and higher education institutions in Hungary.
Earlier this year the government proposed changes to its research funding system, which will see a newly formed Ministry for Innovation and Technology put in charge of deciding what research is funded.
There was a further international backlash when a minister in the prime minister’s office, Gergely Gulyás, announced that as of September 2019 the government will not fund or accredit gender studies courses. “The state does not wish to finance [these] educational activities,” he said.
In addition, CEU was forced to “temporarily suspend” an EU-funded research project on migration worth €134,000. This followed a new law that came into effect on August 24, which puts a 25 per cent tax on any activities related to immigration.
The suspended research project, funded through a Marie Curie grant won by CEU researcher Celine Cantat, aims to “explore how refugees and refugee solidarity groups relate to and enact European citizenship” along the route taken by refugees through the Balkans to reach western Europe.
Universities and academic associations across Europe and the US have hit back against the various attacks, arguing that the government should keep universities independent from political, religious and ideological interests, and leave students and researchers to decide what and where to study.
CEU is a beacon of academic and research excellence in central and eastern Europe. In Budapest, it has the largest English-language library for the humanities and social sciences.
The university is also the most successful applicant for EU research grants in the region, winning more than €19 million for the 2018-2026 period.