Lex CEU: The beginning of the end of Hungary’s academic independence

April 2017, protests against the closure of the Central European University in Budapest

If Hungarian President János Áder signs the law, it will most probably have serious consequences for Hungary’s diplomatic relations. No less importantly, it will mark the beginning of the end of an independent academic sector in the country.

The Hungarian government’s fight against critical and independent thinking has arrived at a new phase when, after campaigns and investigations against independent civil society organisations often critical to the government, one of the most prominent higher educational institutions in the country, the Central European University (CEU), has now been targeted. The sole reason for taking the CEU as the new “enemy” of Orbán’s illiberal state is very clearly its connection to George Soros, the founder of this university, which has been operating in Budapest since 1991. After a brief rampage in the media about and against the field of gender studies, which has until this year only been present in Hungarian higher education at CEU, Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Resources, proposed a bill on 31 March about foreign higher education institutions operating in Hungary that would eventually make it impossible for CEU (and, due to its formulations, only for CEU) to continue its operations in the country. Despite large-scale national and international criticism and protest, the ‘lex CEU’ bill was passed in a fast track vote by the Hungarian National Assembly.

Orbán’s campaign against George Soros

For a few years now, the rhetoric of the Orbán government has been presenting Soros and anything associated with his name as its worst enemies.
George Soros, born 1930 in Hungary, is a Hungarian-American investor, business magnate and philanthropist. He has supported democratic ideals for more than 30 years. His organization, the Open Society Foundations, supports democracy and human rights in more than 100 countries. Organisations that have been receiving financial support from any of Soros’ foundations are labelled as ‘serving foreign interests’, while NGOs working for the sake of checks and balances in the country are labelled ‘Soros-slaves’ and have been facing harassment from the authorities for more than two years already. It could have been suspected that CEU might be the next organization to face such issues when, in the beginning of March, discourse about the legitimacy of gender studies emerged and the university, being one of the very few institutions (and for a long time the only one) where this field of research is represented on an academic level, became more visible in the state-run media channels. However, the intensity and speed of this new wave of attack came as a surprise to everyone.

The reason CEU has become Orbán’s latest target is clearly solely its affiliation to George Soros. As mentioned, he was the founder of the university in 1991, for six years remained actively on its board, and has been an honorary member of the CEU board ever since. The university is by far the most prominent higher education institution operating in Hungary:  Per the latest Times Higher Education Rankings, it is the 39th best young university in the world at the moment, while in concise world rankings it comes in a good 200 places higher than any other Hungarian institution. The country’s best academic library is maintained at the CEU facilities, and their courses are highly accessible even for those who are otherwise studying in other universities. The main focus and emphasis of its operation in Hungary as an international institution has been the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world, which indeed places CEU in the same circle as that of the previously-targeted NGOs:  They stand for the same values, the very opposite to those of the Orbán Government.

A law aiming to destroy a place of critical and independent thinking in Hungary

The shameless straightforwardness of the Government’s move came as a surprise to most of Hungarian society. After the Government-affiliated news portal origo.hu published an article at the end of March stating that CEU was not to meet certain legal conditions, on the 31st of March, Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog proposed an amendment to the Higher Education Act that quickly acquired the label ‘lex CEU’ in the public discourse, due to the fact that it only has strong consequences for that university. The reasoning of Orbán and other Fidesz members, whenever asked by the media, is that CEU does not comply with existing laws. Their sole source of information was the above-mentioned origo.hu article, which has since turned out to be full of misstatements.

This new legislation would create conditions that CEU clearly cannot meet. For instance, it would make the operation of any international university in the country subject to an intergovernmental agreement where both governments would need to give their consent to things such as the curriculum the university teaches or admissions policies. In the case of CEU, this would be problematic, as the American government has no authority over such questions within education institutions. Another problematic point in the ‘lex CEU’ is that it would require institutions operating in Hungary to have a campus in their ‘home’ country, which is exactly not CEU’s case.

When that threat became a reality, thousands of people demonstrated in favor of saving CEU and with it the autonomy of education and academia in Hungary. On the 2nd of April about 10 000 people protested at CEU, accompanied by the publication of numerous open letters and statements of support from Nobel Prize-winning scientists, professors and students of other universities, with organisations and civilians worldwide standing up for the sovereignty of education and democratic values. The Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of the United States also published a statement condemning the Orbán Government’s move.

Despite the loud protest that followed the announcement of the ‘lex CEU’ over the weekend, Balog’s proposal was pushed through at a record pace and was passed by the Hungarian National Assembly on the 4th of April just a few days after it was presented to the public. The process was so quick that legislators did not have (or rather did not want to have) time for negotiations with CEU regarding the issue. Since the Government’s party holds the vast majority of seats in the legislature there was no question that such a rush would result in their plan succeeding.

Now there is only one more step before the new legislation comes into effect. If Hungarian President János Áder signs the law, it will most probably have serious consequences for Hungary’s diplomatic relations. No less importantly, it will mark the beginning of the end of an independent academic sector in the country.

This article is part of our feature on the Lex CEU - Orbán’s attack on academic freedom in Europe.