On 28 March 2017, Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog introduced a bill to the Hungarian Parliament. The bill, an amendment to the National Higher Education Act of 2011, sought to regulate the operation of foreign universities in Hungary. A week later, on 4 April the legislation was passed by Parliament.
The bill was clearly aimed at making it impossible for the Central European University to continue its operations in Budapest. According to the legislation, the University can only operate in Hungary if they have a US campus and if there is a bilateral agreement between the Hungarian and US governments. The latter is unconstitutional in the United States, as the federal government has no say in higher education.
The bill was followed by a huge wave of protests both in Hungary and in academic circles worldwide. Letters were sent to Minister Balog and President János Áder from the Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of several leading universities in the UK and the US (including e.g. Harvard and Oxford) and from leading academics, including several Nobel laureates. 15 European Societies of this University also published a joint statement of support.
However, Hungarian government officials have only answered this with cynical (disingenuous?) statement to the effect that the CEU has to obey the law (even though they just implemented it).They also claim that the fact that the CEU gives both an American and (after further examinations) a Hungarian degree is an unjust advantage over other Hungarian universities. However, their real motivation has not been down to a concern about the fairness of higher education – which, incidentally, they have hardly promoted during the seven years of the Viktor Orbán’s premiership
The ulterior motive behind ‘Lex CEU’ was the Hungarian government’s attack against George Soros, the Hungarian-American businessman who founded the CEU which has been operating in Budapest since the 1990s. Soros supports human rights NGOs around the world and his activity is consistently criticised by the Hungarian right as being responsible for the 2015 migrant crisis. Orbán, who likes to think of himself as one of the main right-wing politicians in Europe, ‘predicted’ that 2017 will be the year of the global rebellion against Soros. Although this is yet to happen, Orbán and his party have started a full-scale attack on Soros.
So the deeply anti-Semitic conspiracy theory goes: the rich American Jew has given money to leftist organizations in order to undermine the ‘ethnic homogeneity’ of the country (yes, they talk of ethnic homogeneity.) This could have appeared on a Nazi propaganda poster – or rather, it has. He also stands for liberal values – the values of the Popperian ‘open society’ – that are incompatible with the authoritarian ‘illiberal’ regime of Viktor Orbán. This is worrying in itself especially for me, as a Jewish-Hungarian citizen, and this conspiracy now works as a foundation of law both in the case of Lex CEU and with a proposed, Russian-style anti-NGO law.
The Central European University is supposed to be at the heart of the Soros-conspiracy, a place where they educate the new generation of pro-migration human rights activists. This is, of course, a blatantly distorted picture of the university’s operations, and the government is well aware. CEU is an American-style institution (i.e. it awards American degrees and education in English) that offers relatively cheap education (and a lot of scholarships) to students from all over the world. It is ranked and considered as the best university in Hungary, some courses (e.g. sociology, politics or philosophy) ranked among the top 100 in the world. The university may have liberal values, but that includes academic freedom and openness instead of the politically biased brainwash some imagine them to be..
CEU isn’t perfect, but it will be a huge loss to Hungary to lose it. As a Hungarian student in Cambridge, I was very happy when the 15 societies showed solidarity or when two events in defence of CEU and academic freedom in general took place in front of King’s College. But this isn’t enough.
As much as we talk about the privilege of going to Cambridge, we seem to forget the ‘privilege’ that the UK government will most likely never shut down a university because they don’t like someone around it. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is a privilege in some sense that the UK government follows the basic values of academic freedom; Hungary, Russia and Turkey aren’t this lucky. But just because it is a privilege, it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
We should also understand this in its wider context – as an attack on institutions to fuel anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiment. Civil right NGOs are branded as enemies because they uncover serious mistreatments of refugees in Hungary. A university is shut down because its founder happens to fit into a conspiracy theory of cosmopolitan liberal Jews propping up these ‘enemies’. It is not only our fight, even if it is in the end the Hungarian people’s duty to send them a message.
If you want to help, you can do it very easily: you can sign the petition where we ask the Vice-Chancellor of the University to stand up publicly for the value of academic freedom, like his colleagues did all over the world; or if you want to get more involved, you can join the ‘I stand with CEU Cambridge’ organizers’ group. Cambridge students should understand the importance of this and stand up for academic institutions threatened by authoritarian governments. We benefit from academic freedom on a daily basis and it is time we protect it.
The author is a member of I stand with CEU Cambridge.