Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), a school founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, has announced that it is being forced to relocate most of its programmes to the Austrian capital Vienna.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president and rector, said the school’s board has finalised the decision to move out of Hungary and it will become effective by December 1, leaving time for a possible agreement.
The Hungarian government passed a law popularly called “Lex CEU” in 2017 that required foreign-registered universities operating in Hungary to also offer courses in any country where their courses and diplomas are accredited.
CEU offers diplomas accredited in both the US and Hungary, but did not offer courses in the US at the time the law was passed.
The school began offering courses in New York’s Bard College campus this year.
A number of Hungarian officials, led by former Secretary for Education Laszlo Palkovics, visited CEU’s New York facilities in April 2018.
Still, “the Hungarian government informed the United States ambassador that they will neither sign nor ratify the agreement that they themselves required of us and that they themselves negotiated,” Ignatieff said.
“This means we cannot operate legally in Hungary as a free US-accredited institution. We are being forced out of the country that has been our home for 26 years.”
CEU announced in March that it planned to open a satellite campus in Vienna.
Now, it appears the campus will become home for the university’s US-accredited courses.
It “would be irresponsible for us not to pursue arrangements to secure CEU’s future”, Ignatieff said. “We have waited as long as we possibly can”.
The Hungarian government, however, has dismissed the CEU’s announcement as yet another Soros ploy.
“The announcement by CEU is a Soros-style political ploy. Up to now, CEU has operated here, it does so now, and we think that it will continue to do so in the future. The relocation to Vienna of the issuing body for its US degrees is simply part of that political ploy,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said on Twitter.
‘Attack on academic freedom’
The Hungarian government’s refusal to cooperate with CEU is the latest in a slew of attacks against civil society and academic freedom by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has personally gone after institutions run by Hungarian-born democracy advocate Soros.
“From the information that we have it really appears to be the decision of one man and that decision rests with him solely,” Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera, speaking of Orban.
“To see one of the most prestigious universities close because of one man is really unacceptable. It’s a blatant attack on academic freedom and has no business occurring in the European Union.”
In May, Soros’s Open Society Foundations announced it would withdraw from Hungary and relocate to Berlin, citing an increasingly repressive political environment and security concerns for its personnel.
A month later, the Hungarian parliament targeted NGOs and rights groups by passing a package of legislation called the “Stop Soros” bill, which allows for the imprisonment of anybody aiding undocumented migrants.
Petra Bard, an expert on EU constitutional law and EU criminal justice and visiting professor of CEU, said that Hungary’s unwillingness to work with the university is an unprecedented attack on the educational institutions in the EU even if it is not the first after Orban moved ban gender studies programmes earlier this month.
“There were also smaller universities that required accreditation and the government hasn’t had a problem signing the necessary agreements, so make no mistake this is an attack on CEU,” she said, adding that most programs including hers would be affected.
“Even if the agreement were signed it would have been a very hostile environment for the CEU in Hungary,” she said.