The Hungarian Parliament has passed the bill targeting Central European University

Many in the higher education research community have spent the last week following the situation that Central European University is facing in Hungary. In this post, one of Hedda graduates, dr Norbert Sabic who is currently working at CEU, comments on the development.

As brief background, the Central European University is graduate level university in Hungary, founded in 1991 by George Soros. The vision of the university has been to contribute to democratisation in the region, and it is now generally recognized as one of the leading institutions in Central and Eastern Europe when it comes to social sciences, with good results also at the European Research Council. The institution operates as a private institution that is accredited in the US and later also through the Hungarian accreditation system. It has about 1500 students from about 100 countries and its faculty comes from over 30 countries.

On March 28th, the Hungarian Minister of Human Resources who is also responsible for educational issues, Zoltán Balog, presented a new bill to the parliament that directly targets CEU and effecively would close it down due to the new requirements. A BBC article noted that this was an “attack on the CEU is the latest battle in a war against liberalism” that the current prime minister Viktor Orban has been fronting.

The situation with CEU has been covered world wide and has received major criticisms. The European University Association expressed that they were extremely shocked and deeply concerned over this development, and a large number of universities, university leaders, academic associaions, politicians and others have expressed their concerns.

To offer some insights on the recent developments, Dr Norbert Sabic from the Central European University has agreed to share a few brief comments. He is one of the graduates from the joint master programme in higher education (universities in Oslo, Tampere and Aveiro) and later did his PhD in political science at CEU on diversification policies in European higher education. He currently works as Strategic Planning Assistant at the same university. In the following, he shares his insights about the situation and possible ways forward.

Dr. Norbert Sabic (CEU)

For those not well acquainted with the Hungarian context, could you shed some light on the background of why this proposal was put on the table to start with?    

Well, you start with the most difficult question, and I am sure nobody could answer this one. The one thing we can do is speculate about the reasons. The official government argument is also continuously changing. They say there were irregularities in how CEU operated, which a report discovered (the report is publicly available but does not name which university did what, but generally described legal loopholes that foreign universities misuse). So the official argument is that they adopt this law to correct these loopholes. Now the interesting part is that the amendment to the law of HE is written in such a way, that it only affects CEU (hence the name lex CEU) and a couple of institutions which have only very few programs in Hungary. Since then the government didn’t provide any proof of CEU’s misconduct, and the Educational Authority confirmed (upon CEU’s request) that the programs realized by CEU were conducted lawfully.

Now add to all of this the populist arguments from the government (that Soros Gyorgy is the evil who destroys Hungarian values, and uses CEU to assist in this; CEU thinks it can stand above the Hungarian law; CEU was having an unfair advantage because it granted both US and HU degrees over domestic universities; CEU helps immigrants to get into the country; etc.).

What is the current situation and public opinion regarding the issue in Hungary?

The law has been adopted, which would make it almost impossible to CEU to operate in its current form. Without getting into too much technicality, the law requires that both the US federal government (which has no authority over HE issues) sign an agreement with the Hungarian one. Essentially an agreement between Trump and Orban that they mutually agree that spreading liberal education in Eastern Europe is a good idea (and then also one from state of NY).

CEU’s standpoint is clear. It will try to do everything legally possible to stop the bill. Right now it wrote an official letter to the president of Hungary not to sign the bill, but ask the constitutional court to check its legality (mainly challenging the bill based on its discriminatory nature – it only targets CEU). I didn’t think that an international university with international faculty, staff, and students can get much public support in an increasingly nationalist state. The university is against any demonstration, but surprisingly many other Hungarian universities stood up for us and organizing protest even now. So there is a momentum building, and we hope it will last.

You have to know that Hungary recently introduced large changes in higher education governance, whereby the institutions financial autonomy has been reduced significantly (if not entirely).

On the other hand, CEU is not sure what it can gain even if an agreement is reached. The current government can raise another issue within months (they already tried to adopt a law previously that CEU has to have a Hungarian rector – we currently recruit internationally). So its like a broken relationship, and CEU would need very strong guarantees, I think, for it to be reasonable to stay in Hungary (although we just built a new campus).

As the new bill is now passed, what will be the implications of this and what will the next steps at CEU?

According to the new regulation, if Trump and Orban don’t sign an agreement by September, CEU won’t be able to operate legally in Hungary (this is the main and most unreasonable expectation, but there are some more – like offering our study program in the US as well). The final deadline I think is 2021 by which we would have to stop all operations in Hungary.

Of course, CEU will fight it legally, wherever possible. Moreover, we are still trying to mobilize a lot of support both nationally and internationally, and I think what we achieved already is very impressive.

Do you expect that there are options for reversing or stopping the law?

There have been some examples, when the current government withdraw a law it tabled and adopted. The most recent one was the idea to tax Internet usage, for which large demonstrations broke out. So the only option is if Hungarians stand up to defend CEU. There were already two large demonstrations, but I am not sure whether the organizers of these events (CEU is not really involved) will gather enough support.

Currently no other party, except the ruling one, is supporting this law (even the extreme right-wing party is against it – imagine that). I would like to be able to say more, but I frankly don’t know. We hope for the best, but the government is very determined to push this trough (as you saw they tabled the law last week and without any public discussion approved it today in the parliament – even a day before it was originally planned to be).

Thank you for your responses and hope a solution can be found. See also the comments from the CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff, 

#IstandwithCEU has become a slogan for expressing support to CEU. Here are a number of ways you can do this.

Follow also #IstandwithCEU on Twitter and other social media for updates on the situation.