On April 10, 2017, Hungary’s president signed an amendment to the national higher education law that could force the closure of the Central European University (CEU), a university founded in 1990 by philanthropist George Soros to promote democratic ideals.
Established just after the end of the Cold War, CEU was founded as a United States-accredited university, operating in Budapest but chartered in the State of New York. It was accredited under Hungarian law in 2004, through a joint declaration between the governments of the State of New York and Hungary. This model of foreign and/or joint accreditation is commonly utilized by international universities, allowing for significant international scientific and academic exchange.
On April 4, 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed amendments — proposed just a week earlier — to the National Higher Education law, which among other things require that any foreign-accredited university maintain a physical campus in the country where it is accredited. Although the amendments did not explicitly refer to CEU, the combined effect of their provisions appeared to target CEU, imposing financially prohibitive burdens, which would likely lead to the university’s closure. Just six days after the amendments were passed, Hungarian President Viktor Orban signed them into law.
While Hungarian officials claim that the amendments do not target CEU specifically, CEU and its supporters have charged that the amendments impact CEU uniquely, and do so by design, targeting the liberal values that both CEU and its founder, Mr. Soros, represent.
Following a widespread, negative response to the amendments, Hungarian officials agreed to enter in to talks with the university about possible resolutions that would allow it to remain open. As of this report, officials from Hungary and the State of New York have entered negotiations over terms that might allow CEU’s continued operation in Budapest.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about legislative efforts apparently aimed at closing a higher education institution. While State authorities have a right to impose administrative regulations on the higher education space, such actions must comply with States’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, due process, the right to education, and academic freedom, which are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hungary is a party. Closures of higher education institutions, particularly when they are based on perceived political views, have a profoundly chilling effect on academic freedom, undermine democratic society generally, and may represent a grave threat to higher education on a national scale.
UPDATE: On December 3, 2018, CEU officials released a statement declaring that the university had been forced to move its operations out of Budapest and into Vienna, Austria. According to the statement, Hungarian authorities had yet to sign an agreement negotiated in 2017 that would have allowed CEU to continue its operations in Hungary. CEU established a degree program at Bard College, in New York State, which would have satisfied the new Hungarian requirement that foreign-accredited universities conduct educational programming in their “home” countries. Hungarian authorities, however, have declined to acknowledge the joint-program at Bard College. As of January 1, 2019, CEU will no longer be able to admit new students to its Budapest campus unless Hungarian authorities sign the agreement negotiated with CEU.