What we witness today goes beyond a domestic dispute over higher education legislation
For the past days, Hungarian media have been abuzz with the Orbán government’s proposed amendments to the law on national higher education, and more precisely with how this could affect one of the region’s leading schools, the Central European University (CEU).
Founded after the regime change in 1991 by Hungarian-born George Soros, this small and young university has by today reached higher rankings in its academic fields than even the oldest universities of Hungary or Central Europe. It has proven its academic excellence by attracting a considerable portion of research funding coming to the region as well as professors even from top American universities. CEU’s attractiveness is strengthened by the fact that its MA and PhD programs accredited in the United States provide competitive American diplomas to its students, who have thus chosen to study in Budapest from all over the world.
Truly international, CEU currently has 1,440 students from 108 countries, 397 faculty members from 46 countries, and a 13,887-strong alumni community spread across the globe in 133 countries. Despite its compliance with Hungarian regulations, however, the newly proposed amendments, which have at no point been consulted with the university’s leadership, could force CEU to cease its operation in Budapest.
The proposal tabled on March 28, 2017, set out an array of new, seemingly arbitrary, criteria posed to foreign higher education institutions operating in Hungary under the pretext of providing guarantees to the quality of higher education. While representatives of the government argue that the amendments are not targeted against CEU as they concern 28 schools altogether, some criteria affect only CEU. What’s more, the impact is such that it would undermine the university’s academic freedom as well as its rational and means of operation.
For this reason, CEU’s leadership spoke up against and requested the withdrawal of the amendments, but expressed its openness to engage in dialogue with the government. One of the main requirements under the new rules would be the signing of an intergovernmental agreement between the Hungarian and the home country’s governments by February 15, 2018, in the absence of which the university in question would lose its license to operate in the host country. This would expose CEU – but also any of the other universities – to a political decision by the government(s) and would put political considerations above academic ones with regards to its functioning.
Additionally, the new legislation would only allow foreign universities to function in the host country if they have a campus in their home country, as well. CEU has never had a campus in the United States, and it is not alone with this practice among American universities operating abroad. Finally, the provision which is most directly targeted at CEU would undermine the legal arrangements from 2004 under which the university’s Hungarian legal entity operates the American-accredited programs of CEU and issues its degrees in Hungary.
The proposed legislation is arguably an attempt against the academic freedom and independence of CEU and also that of the other 27 higher education institutions affected by the amendments. However, observers of Hungarian domestic politics can also see this development falling in line with the Orbán government’s ongoing fight against organizations standing up for democratic values, human rights and human dignity. Starting with the investigations against a consortium of NGOs distributing the grants of the Norwegian Civil Fund in 2014, then the demonization of human rights and watchdog organizations throughout and beyond the peak of the refugee and migration crisis in the recent years, followed by the increasing – for now, rhetoric – pressure on non-governmental organizations in Hungary, this legislative proposal is also going after an institution that is a thorn in the side of the government due to its mission and, judging from the governmental communication, due to its founder.
The current communication of governmental representatives leaves no doubt about the lack of any goodwill. Labeling CEU the “Soros university” in public communication after months, if by now not years, of smear campaign against George Soros, as well as alleging that the university is in breach of current legislation clearly show the government’s underlying motivation to discredit CEU. Beyond an attempt against academic freedom, it is hard not to see the current developments as an escalation of the government’s pressure on those standing for democratic values.
Since his infamous speech in Romania in 2014, Prime Minister Orbán is declaredly building an illiberal state in Hungary taking steps which at times worryingly resonate with those of Vladimir Putin in Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and threaten with a gradual march toward authoritarianism. CEU, as a mission-driven university, was founded exactly to help the region of Central and Eastern Europe to overcome the legacy of such regimes and to educate students who are able and willing to think critically, question openly while respecting the diversity of views and opinions, and thus contributing to a thriving and open society in any part of the world.
In this context, what we witness today goes beyond a domestic dispute over higher education legislation. It is also an attack on an institution that is known for standing up for values like freedom of thought, freedom of speech, diversity or inclusion. All that is lacking in Prime Minister Orbán’s vision of an illiberal state, but everything that describes a healthy democracy.
To preserve its academic freedom and for the values it stands for #IstandwithCEU. To support and show solidarity with the Central European University, please, consider signing this petition, and learn more about how you can help, here.
Zsuzsanna Végh is a CEU alumna (IRES 2012) and former employee of CEU’s Center for European Neighborhood Studies (2012-2017). The views expressed here are her own, and do not necessarily represent the views of any current or former employer.
[Photo by Zsuzsanna Végh]