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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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We Can’t Take It for Granted: Academic Freedom in Hungary

Academic freedom is under attack in Hungary, where a new law could see the closure of a prominent independent institution, the Central European University (CEU). On April 4, the Hungarian parliament passed a motion to regulate the country’s 28 foreign universities by requiring them to have a campus or offer courses in their country of origin. Observers believe the Hungarian legislation, fast-tracked through parliament without public consultation, is designed to exile the CEU from Budapest.

Under the new rules, the university will need to open a campus in the US, and teaching staff will require work permits; stringent requirements that could effectively force the CEU to close its doors. Of the 28 foreign universities in Hungary, the CEU is the only one affected by the provision that now requires a university to have a campus in its country of origin. In a statement, the CEU called the law a “premeditated political attack on a free institution.”

Founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros in 1991, the CEU was intended to revive intellectual freedom and act as a bastion of liberal thought and democracy in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Accredited both in New York State and in Hungary, the CEU has over 1400 students from 108 countries, and provides outreach initiatives to refugees.

A Victoria alumna studying at the CEU described the recent events as a shock. Students were informed of legislation targeting the CEU, “but none of us knew the severity of it. It happened really quickly and took us by surprise.” The university could face closure as early as 2018 if it cannot comply with the law, jeopardising the future of its students and over 600 staff. The strong academic community at the CEU “is why people care about it so much, and why the threatening legislation has been met with so much shock and outrage. It’s not just shutting down the university — people have lives here.”

But the CEU is not going down without a fight. An estimated 80,000 protesters took to the streets of Budapest on April 9 and protests have continued over the past month. They have gained support from academics, institutions, and public figures around the world. The alumna said, “it’s been amazing to see how the students and community — the staff, teachers, and alumni — have mobilised, and to see academics round the world supporting CEU.”

The protests by the people of Budapest “show the important place of the CEU in Hungarian academic culture and Budapest. It’s not just a school for international students, it has a greater significance and role.” For Hungarians, the targeting of the CEU is far from random — it’s deeply symbolic.

People protest against the bill that would undermine Central European University in Budapest

Protests in support of the CEU, April 9, 2017. Bernadett Szabo. Reuters.


The CEU has been drawn into a broader conflict about the future direction of Hungary and has come to represent freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry in an increasingly repressive society. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orbán has argued that “the era of liberal democracies is over” and Hungary must “construct a new state built on illiberal and national foundations,” naming Russia, China, Turkey, and Singapore as models.

Following a landslide victory by the Conservative coalition of Fidesz (Orbán’s party) and the Christian Democratic Party in 2010, the Government used its supermajority to rush through a new constitution in only one month. The most controversial aspect of the new constitution relates to checks and balances on governmental power, in particular the Constitutional Court. Fidesz reduced the Court’s powers by amending rules to allow the governing majority to appoint constitutional judges without negotiation with the opposition, increasing the number of positions on the bench, and filling these new positions with party allies. With 11 Fidesz-confirmed judges out of 15, the court is no longer an effective counterbalance to government power.

Other reforms have included the possibility for the “emergency dismissal” of civil servants in cases of “loss of trust,” and fines on media for content deemed “not politically balanced,” as judged by a government-appointed panel.

The main rivals to Fidesz are the Socialist Party, which secured a quarter of the vote in the 2014 election, and the far-right, radical nationalist Jobbik party, which gained 20% of the votes. However, even if Fidesz were to lose in the 2018 election, many policies are now enshrined in the new Constitution. Changes to social and economic policies entrenched in the Constitution are now off the table without another supermajority.

Orbán’s leadership has seen record low unemployment, a reduction in the budget deficit, and economic growth. However, health care and public education have suffered and the relative poverty rate has increased. Hungary has seen the largest increase in child poverty over recent years of all European Union (EU) countries. While their policies continue to exacerbate these social problems, Orbán and the Fidesz Party have taken the populist approach of presenting themselves as the saviours of a pure Hungary under attack from the EU, an influx of illegal immigration, and traitorous internal forces such as foreign-sponsored NGOs.

In response to the refugee crisis, a fence was built along Hungary’s southern border and a set of amendments enabled police to apprehend asylum seekers crossing the border and “escort” them back onto Serbian soil. Orbán’s strong anti-immigrant rhetoric has emphasised that Hungary must “preserve its ethnic homogeneity” and has sought to discourage refugees with legal status from remaining in the country by eliminating funding and supports for integration. Under a new asylum law approved by Parliament in March, Hungary will now be able to detain asylum seekers, including children, in camps surrounded by razor wire. The asylum seekers can be held until their cases are resolved, which can take months. Further, hundreds of asylum seekers already in Hungary may be relocated to the camps, which the government strictly controls access to, denying journalists entry. Orbán has rejected UN criticism of the policy as “charming human rights nonsense.”


In light of this wave of illiberalism, the swell of support for the CEU following the legislation that threatens it with closure seems to have caught the Government on the back foot. According to the VUW alumna, “Hungarians are more angry about it than CEU students are: ultimately the university will survive, but the biggest loss will be for the Hungarian people. They’re angry and feeling the loss more deeply.” In a Publicus Intézet survey, 63% of Hungarians opposed the Government’s targeting of CEU and only 14% supported closing the university.

When the 80,000 protesters took to the streets of Budapest on April 9, pro-Government media claimed protesters were bussed in or given free plane tickets. The Budapest Beacon reported strange visits from uniformed men to the homes of demonstrators, although the police quickly denied their involvement. These actions fit Orbán’s targeting of the CEU, and its founder, the Jewish billionaire Soros, who has been cast as the villain in Orbán’s nationalist narrative. The president of the CEU, Michael Ignatieff, has stressed that the university is an independent institution and not beholden to Soros. However, Soros is accused of using NGOs to meddle in Hungarian politics and encourage illegal immigration. Currently proposed legislation would see tighter scrutiny of NGOs, yet another provocative act that will test Hungary’s relations with the EU.

On April 26, the European Commission announced it would start infringement proceedings against Hungary — an EU member state, beholden to its laws and membership obligations — over its new rules on foreign-registered universities. Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President of the European Commission, was concerned that the law unfairly targeted the CEU. The European Commission’s proceedings require Hungary to prove the legality of the legislation within a month. However, any eventual legal action by the EU could take years — too late for the CEU, which would be forced to move elsewhere. Although rumours have circulated about relocation to Vienna, the CEU affirmed in a press release that it would fight to stay in Budapest.

For students, the sudden change in fortune of the CEU is a surreal experience. The VUW alumna reflected that “it feels like I’m in a weird reality TV show right now. In New Zealand, we’re used to earthquakes, but not things like this — this is massive.” In addition to attending classes and completing assignments as usual, students now have another task: defending the very existence of their alma mater, and of academic freedom in Hungary. “In the long term, I think the CEU will become stronger. People are still going to learn and teach. If there’s a chance to stay, people will fight for it.”

Although the fate of the CEU might seem far removed from New Zealand, which has a friendly relationship with Hungary, the closure of the prestigious university would set a worrying precedent for Europe and the rest of the world. With VUW facing its own questions around its Academic Freedom policy, the situation in Hungary is a wakeup call: “We should care because we take academic freedom for granted. What happens in Eastern Europe — it does affect you, in ways you don’t know. We should care about education as a principle, and we should give a damn about what happens elsewhere in the world.”

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