Michael Ignatieff, rector of the Central European University, attends a news conference after the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban tabled a new bill that could force the 25-year-old school out of Hungary, in Budapest, Hungary March 29, 2017. (BERNADETT SZABO/REUTERS)
The rector of Central European University, former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff, said Wednesday that the institution will resist legal amendments proposed by the Hungarian government, regarding them as discriminatory.
The amendments presented to Hungarian parliament late Tuesday contain some new requirements, such as the obligation to have a university campus in its country of origin. CEU is alone among 28 foreign-based universities operating in Hungary in not meeting that proposed requirement.
CEU, opened in 1991, was founded by Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and is considered an ideological opponent by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The proposal was considered an extension of Orban’s criticism of the activities of organizations funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
“The timing of the legislation coincides with the wide-ranging attacks on the Soros institutions, which makes it hard to see it as a mere fluke,” said analyst Gergely Rajnai from the Center for Fair Political Analysis, a Budapest think-tank .
“At the same time, it would be surprising if the real aim was to expel CEU from Hungary. The government would not really gain much from that and if CEU were to close its doors it would be a serious loss for Hungary’s higher education.”
Ignatieff said Hungary’s proposed changes to the law on higher education targeted the university were “discriminatory” and threatened CEU’s continued existence in Hungary.
“If it is passed, CEU will resort to all available legal remedies,” Ignatieff told reporters.
He called on other universities and academic bodies in Hungary and abroad to speak out on CEU’s behalf. “We’re part and parcel of Hungarian academic life and an attack on us is an attack on all academic institutions in this country.”
If passed, the new rules could force CEU to change its name and would also eliminate a waiver for professors from non-EU countries who now are exempt from having to secure a work permit.
Earlier Wednesday, Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics said the government supported CEU’s work, does not want CEU to leave Hungary and would back a bilateral agreement between Hungary and the United States that the Central European University would need to continue its activities.
Ignatieff said any such agreement would likely involve not the U.S. government but New York state where CEU is also accredited.
“This is not an anti-CEU investigation and not against Mr. Soros,” Palkovics told reporters. “We don’t have any concern about the quality of the diplomas.”
Ignatieff was adamant that the draft law needed to be scrapped.
“We are willing to work with the Hungarian government,” he said. “But now that trust has been broken by the tabling of this law, a simple return to our existing legal status simply will not be sufficient.”
Ignatieff said CEU would seek an internationally binding agreement to guarantee “that we can operate in freedom in Hungary in perpetuity.”
The U.S. Embassy in Budapest said it was “very concerned” about the proposal.
CEU “is a premier academic institution with an excellent reputation in Hungary and around the world, and it stands as an important centre of academic freedom in the region,” said David Kostelancik, the U.S. charge d’affaires. “It enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. government. The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the university.”
Orban, who once studied at Oxford University thanks to a Soros scholarship, has repeatedly complained about Soros’ Open Society Foundations for many non-governmental groups, including corruption watchdog Transparency International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, whose lawyers often provide assistance to asylum seekers.
Orban, an early supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, says that those and similar groups are “foreign agents” working against Hungarian interests, for example through their advocacy for asylum seekers. Hungary’s populist leader is vehemently opposed to welcoming any Muslim migrants, claiming they are going to destroy Europe’s Christian values and culture.
Orban’s governing Fidesz party is also working on legislation targeting NGOs which receive funding from abroad, a move the party said was meant to diminish Soros’ purported influence in Hungary.