Budapest, Hungary – A self-imposed deadline by a university founded by American billionaire George Soros to settle a legal dispute with the Hungarian government has passed, raising serious questions on academic freedom in the country.
Saturday marked the end of the embattled Central European University’s (CEU) deadline to remain in Budapest, with the university now set to move its activities and start the 2019-2020 academic year in Vienna.
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The move is seen by students and some European politicians as a serious blow to a liberal bastion in Hungary, led by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party since 2010.
Soros, who promotes liberal causes through his charities, has been the subject of a campaign by Orban.
Earlier this year, his charity Open Society Foundations was forced to leave Hungary.
The conflict with the CEU is part of a wider crackdown by the Hungarian government on academic freedoms, including tighter budgetary and academic controls over its universities.
CEU, chartered in the New York state, was asked to meet the requirements of a law passed last year compelling foreign universities to have a campus in their home country.
The university offers diplomas accredited in both the United States and Hungary, but did not offer courses in the US at the time the law was passed.
The university has since opened a set of courses at Bard College in New York state, which was visited by delegates from the Hungarian government in April this year.
But the Hungarian government refused to sign an agreement with the New York state.
A government spokesperson last week called CEU’s operations at Bard College “something like a Potemkin campus” that fails to satisfy the law.
Academic freedom under attack
According to those involved in the struggle to keep CEU in Budapest, it is the first time an institution of higher education has been forced to leave a European Union (EU) country for political reasons.
But CEU students did not want to leave without a fight.
Last week, a group of students, labelled as Students4CEU, led a demonstration attended by thousands of people to the Kossuth Lajos Square, the seat of the Hungarian parliament.
The protesters set up tents to “occupy” the space and have stayed there since, creating what they call the “Free University”.
The protest involved CEU holding its classes in those tents, while professors and alumni have been seen delivering speeches at the site in English and Hungarian.
The group demanded that the Hungarian government sign the agreement with CEU, end “all censorship” of higher education and ensure accessible, independent and well-funded education and research.
As the December 1 deadline expired, protesters marched with drums to the tent, where they held speeches and laid dirt on a coffin meant to symbolise the death of academic freedom.
The students at the “Free University” seemed resigned to CEU’s fate.
Max de Blank, one of the organisers, told Al Jazeera that the next move is to build a “sustainable coalition” to challenge the government’s policies.
“The December 1 deadline concerns CEU specifically, but the attacks on academic freedom aren’t only restricted to just one university,” De Blank said.
De Blank is enrolled in CEU’s Gender Studies programme, a field of study the Fidesz government effectively banned in October, citing low enrolment numbers and calling it an “ideology, not a science”.
The move forced Eotvos Lorant University’s (ELTE), the only other Hungarian university that offered a Gender Studies programme, to stop recruiting students.
ELTE, founded in 1635, is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Hungary.
De Blank also pointed to the proposed privatisation of Corvinus University, a research-focused public institution that used to allow nearly 60 percent of its students to receive tuition-free education.
Students from ELTE and Corvinus have joined Students4CEU and planning their future strategy by building alliances with trade unions, who fear an increase in work hours over a proposed labour law.
Though the deadline has passed, CEU said it will not make any official statement until the administrators and students meet on Sunday.
CEU provost Liviu Matei told Al Jazeera that the university’s case is “symptomatic” of the political situation in Hungary, which also “raises questions on the EU as an institution”.
The ruling Fidesz party is part of the European People’s Party (EPP), a transnational coalition of centre-right political parties that was instrumental in the founding of the EU.
EPP had warned Fidesz that expelling CEU would be a red line for its continued membership, but has seemingly changed its course since Orban endorsed Manfred Weber to head the group.
“The EPP could have done more, could have done something, but they haven’t,” Matei said. “The EU has tried, they sued Hungary, but nothing is happening.”
The EPP did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
However, Fidesz still has its critics in the EU parliament. The bloc initiated punitive actions against Hungary in September, citing the CEU case among a host of concerns.
Judith Sargentini, a Dutch member of European parliament belonging to the GreenLeft party, said she was “outraged” by the crackdown on CEU.
I stand with the Central European University.
— Judith Sargentini (@judithineuropa) November 30, 2018
It is not expected the Hungarian government will be censured, however, since punitive measures require the consent of all EU member states.
Budapest’s allies – Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – are unlikely to agree to any action against Hungary.
CEU’s departure is “a failure of the European idea and ideals,” Matei said.
The Hungarian government did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Back at Kossuth Lajos square, students end their “occupation” with a symbolic burial of academic freedom and announcement of a “unified student movement”.
The students chanted “Szabad Orszag, Szabad Egyetem”, Hungarian for “Free Country, Free University” as they mourned the end of CEU’s time in Budapest.
“Even if we leave the country and move to Vienna, the situation here will not be resolved and the attacks on academic freedoms will continue,” De Blank said.