The Hungarian government branded criticism of the controversial law that specifically targets Central European University (CEU) as “overblown scaremongering”, as it fast-tracked the legislation through parliament on April 4.
The law, which was announced on March 29, threatens to drive the university founded by US-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros out of the country. It was swiftly condemned by top US and EU politicians, as well as many leading academics. Critics say it represents the latest move on independent institutions by the self-proclaimed “illiberal” government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which has clamped down on the country’s media, judiciary, central bank and independent civil organisations since regaining power in 2010.
The government says the law addresses administrative issues around educational bodies. The legislation passed on April 4 includes a new stipulation that foreign universities must have an agreement between Hungary and their “home” government. It will take effect from April 5, instead of September 1 as originally planned.
Before the law was passed, Human Affairs Minister Zoltan Balog accused Soros of undermining Hungary and told parliament that his organisations in Hungary and globally are “merely fake-civil bodies” that “we are dedicated to stamping out”.
In a statement the Hungarian government accused CEU of continuously misleading the public, including scholars and organisations of international repute. “Instead of complying with legislative requirements, the Soros university has chosen to try to retain its privileges at all costs,” the statement argued.
Yet there have been voices of dissent. The Hungarian-born European commissioner for education, Tibor Navracsics, who is a member of Orban’s Fidesz party, called CEU “one of the most important higher education institutions not only in Hungary, but also in the European higher education system”.
CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said his university will explore every legal means to defend CEU, adding on April 4 that, “we are fighting for the academic freedom of all Hungarian institutions of higher learning”.
The university has received public invitations to relocate to numerous cities including Vienna and Prague since the legislation was first touted.