24th Mar 2018

Hungary attempts to stifle Soros-founded university in Budapest

The Central European University, an intellectual hub in Budapest that was founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, has pledged to fight what it says is the Hungarian government's attempt to shut it down.

The top university, founded in 1990, says that a new draft piece of legislation on higher education - tabled on Tuesday evening (28 March) by the government of Viktor Orban - is "discriminatory" and "targets" the Central European Univeristy (CEU) to force them out of Hungary.

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"This is not just a Hungarian issue, it is about international academic freedom", CEU rector and president Michael Ignatieff said at a press conference on Wednesday (29 March).

"We will never close this university, we will maintain the continuity of our academic programs no matter what. [...] This is our home," Ignatieff said.

"CEU will resolve to all available legal remedies if it is passed," he added.

Ignatieff said the draft law has to be scrapped and called for safeguards on the university's legal status.

The Hungarian government said that stricter legislation was needed after it discovered that 28 foreign-linked universities were operating "unlawfully".

Besides CEU, the bill would also effect British, German and French schools in the country.

The draft law would require CEU to open a campus in the US, while it is solely focused on central and eastern Europe, and would bar it from issuing degrees in Hungary, also forcing it to change its name, the university says.

Hungary's human resources minister Zoltan Balog was quoted by Bloomberg as saying that the bill was prompted by "national security considerations" and the needs to ensure that the university courses meet "foreign policy priorities".

CEU operates under an agreement concluded in 2004 between the Hungarian government and New York state, which was then enshrined in a special law. It issues degrees accredited both in Hungary and in the US.

Representatives of the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Romania were present alongside Ignatieff at Wednesday's press conference to show support for the university.

The US embassy in a statement called the university "an important success story" in the US-Hungarian relationship, and said that it enjoys strong bipartisan support in the US government.

"The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the university," the statement said.

Soros crackdown

The Central European University, that has an alumni of 14,000 students from 117 countries, is specialised in humanities and social sciences.

It is a major and symbolic postgraduate institution founded by Soros, who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into central and eastern Europe, after the fall of communism, to promote the idea of an open society, and support the region’s transition from communism to democracy.

The targeting of CEU's is seen as part of a wider crackdown by the Orban government on organisations linked or funded by Hungarian-American financier Soros.

In January, a top official from Orban's ruling party said that NGOs funded by Soros should be "swept out" of the country.

Orban has been pursuing an illiberal form of democracy, championed in Russia as well, a country which has already expelled groups funded by Soros' Open Society Foundation.

If CEU is forced out, it would be a major blow to Hungary's reputation and to higher education in the country.

On Wednesday, the mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Simasius, a CEU graduate himself, has already said in a Facebook post that the capital of Lithuania would welcome CEU if it were to be forced out of Hungary.

European Commission silent

The European Commission has so far been reluctant to criticise the draft bill.

A commission spokeswoman said on Thursday that the issue was raised at the college of commissioners the day before, but added that the EU executive does not comment on "drafts".

According to a source, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans raised the issue, and the Hungarian commissioner responsible for education, Tibor Navracsics, outlined the draft legislation in response.

"We will see how this project will develop," the spokeswoman said on Thursday.

Navracsics, a well-respected university teacher of political sciences is an ally of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban.

Orban received a scholarship in 1989 from Soros to study at Oxford.

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