Academic freedom at risk: The Hungarian government vs. the Central European University

The Entrance of Budapest’s Central European University. Picture: wikimedia user Gphgrd01, CC BY-SA 3.0.

With less than 1,500 students enrolled, a small private university situated in Budapest was placed under the spotlight in recent days, and not by choice. Founded in 1991 by George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire, the Central European University (aka- CEU) is now facing a potential shutdown. Although the CEU was born as part of Soros’ vision to promote democratic ideas and values, mainly in formerly communist countries, it was long considered a breeding-ground for liberals and a stalking horse for the opposition by the Hungarian Fidesz party currently in power, and by Prime minister Viktor Orban.

On April 4th, Orban fast-tracked an amendment to the Hungarian national law on higher education, requiring foreign-accredited universities situated in Hungary to have a base in their home country. Not an anti-CEU law per se, it will certainly make the operation of foreign universities in Hungary difficult or in some cases-impossible. The amendment necessitates the American/Hungarian CEU to establish an American campus by February 2018- a burdensome and expensive task. Moreover, in order to be able to issue degrees accredited in the US, the CEU now needs to have an accord with the federal government at home (the state of New York), which practically means having Trump sign the CEU’s operating permit. University officials’ declared the amendment unconstitutional, as it violates the academic freedom guaranteed by the Hungarian constitution, and vowed to fight the punitive legislation.

Prime minister Orban, who ironically was granted a scholarship by Soros to study abroad (Britain) in the past, clearly articulated his wish for an illiberal Hungary already in 2014. The recent legislation was not done in political isolation – As winds of change blow throughout global politics, one can’t help but wonder whether it’s Trump’s victory, Brexit or the venerable impotence of the domestic opposition which resulted in Orban’s latest move. But Orban is not specifically targeting foreign universities; he is also said to have planned imposing limitations on foreign-funded NGOs active within Hungarian borders. Also, at the European People’s party congress, which took place in Malta last week, Orban delivered a speech in which he blasted migration into Europe as a “Trojan horse of terrorism” and referred to Syrian refugees as “ants”.

Several marches and demonstrations attended by thousands reported in Budapest in recent days, supported university officials’ request to Janos Ader, the Hungarian president, to veto the law. The university found further support among academics and world leaders, as well as among a handful of Hungarian and EU officials.

Despite its limited relevance to the average Hungarian or to the average European, the true meaning of the amendment should not be diminished or ignored. To the Hungarians, it is but a testimony of Orbans’ corrupt autocracy, as it’s not only the CEU, other Hungarian research or academic institutions which are under attack, nor is it a mere attack against academic freedom, but a strike against liberalism, tolerance and progressive thought. As such, this unfortunate turn of events should concern Hungarians and non-Hungarians as one.

In addition, despite Trump’s occasional statements in support of illiberal nationalism, the potential closure of an American accredited university is “disappointing”, quoting David Kostelancik, a top-ranking American diplomat in Budapest.

Though public support can be found in the EU as well as in Germany (the head of the socialist group in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella was cited saying: “Orbán is assailing the foundations of democracy in Hungary” and Ulrike Demmer, Merkel’s deputy spokeswoman stated that “Freedom, democracy, rule of law and human rights are not up for debate in Europe”. In addition, Ska Keller, German co-leader of the Green party in the German parliament was quoted saying “Orbán needs to be stopped”). However, both Germany and the EU will surely keep watch, but are not likely to interfere.

It is not too late for moderate voices in Hungary to conquer- the Hungarian president should veto the amendment, though in doing so, President Ader may only be sticking his finger in the dam.

If legal means will prove futile in fighting the recent amendment, the CEU may be forced to rethink its’ current place of residence. Luckily for their students, the CEU possess the resources to move to a different European Capital (Vienna?) in which its’ students, academic staff, wealth and academic independence will be welcomed. In such a case, the CEU will likely to take apart the fancy classrooms, pack up the massive plasma screens, chic black leather sofas and one of the most extensive libraries in central and Eastern Europe and say “viszontlátásra” to Hungary. It will not be the end of the CEU, but will it mark the beginning of the end for academic liberalism in Hungary?

About the author

Maya Hadar is a PhD candidate of the school of decision sciences in the university of Konstanz, Germany; a lawyer specialized in international law and an intern in the IFK (Institute for conflict research) in Vienna.