George Soros-backed university ‘forced out’ of Hungary

George Soros, Central European University, Hungary
George Soros

A university backed by George Soros is being “forced out” of Hungary as the country’s government refused to sign an agreement allowing it to stay.

The Central European University has confirmed it will move its US-accredited degree programmes from the Hungarian capital of Budapest to Vienna next September.

The institution’s president and rector Michael Ignatieff called it an “unprecedented” act against an American university by a Nato ally and against a European university by a member of the European Union.

The EU’s executive commission last year referred Hungary to court in the CEU case, saying that amendments Hungary made to its higher education law – some of which clearly targeted CEU – were counter to academic freedom and other EU rights. The law has also been challenged at Hungary’s Constitutional Court.

Mr Ignatieff said while CEU had “a pretty good (legal) case” at those courts, he would not speculate about their outcomes. The university said it would retain “accreditation as a Hungarian university and … continue teaching and research activity in Budapest as long as possible”.

“The move to Vienna is a permanent move,” Mr Ignatieff said.

While the agreement for CEU to remain in Budapest has to be signed and ratified by Parliament by December 31, the university set a December 1 deadline for its decision on the move to Vienna to still have time to recruit students for the 2019-2020 academic year.

CEU’s ouster is part of populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ideological battle against Hungarian-American philanthropist and CEU founder Mr Soros and his “open society” model.

It is also part of a wider crackdown on academic freedom, including tighter budgetary and research controls over Hungarian universities and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

In October, for example, Hungary eliminated gender study programmes at public universities.

The US State Department issued a statement saying the US government was “disappointed” that no agreement had been concluded between Mr Orban’s government and CEU, which has an enrolment of over 1,400 students from 118 countries, as well as nearly 400 permanent or visiting faculty.

“The departure of these US-accredited programmes from Hungary will be a loss for the CEU community, for the United States, and for Hungary,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

Despite repeated statements to the contrary by CEU and New York state, where CEU is also accredited, Hungarian officials maintain that CEU has failed to meet the new rules for higher education and prove it is conducting educational activities in New York.

The government has called the university’s decision to move to Vienna a “political bluff”. Still, it has long been clear that the CEU matter is a political issue, not an academic or legal one.

In 2017, Mr Orban’s then-chief of staff, Janos Lazar, said the education conflict was tied to Mr Soros’ advocacy for migration and refugees.

“We, CEU and Fidesz, peacefully coexisted side by side in the past years,” Mr Lazar said. “The changes came about when George Soros announced a programme about having to open Europe’s borders and call in a million immigrants a year.”

Fidesz is Mr Orban’s governing party.

In April, Mr Orban won a third consecutive term – and fourth overall – with an electoral programme based on opposing migration. In June, MPs approved the “Stop Soros” law, which allows criminal penalties of up to a year in prison for those convicted of aiding asylum seekers.