The Central European University (CEU) announced on December 3 that it will relocate all US-accredited degree programmes to Vienna from September 2019, as Hungary's higher education law forbids it to accept new students, putting an end to a 20 month saga on the future of the university.
The university said that it has taken all steps over the last 20 months to comply with Hungarian legislation, launching educational activities in the US that were certified by local authorities. It met the legal criteria by reaching an agreement with Bard College in New York State a year ago.
The amended higher education act requires foreign colleges and universities in Hungary to operate on the basis of an interstate agreement and to run a campus in the country in which they are based.
The government of Viktor Orban has made it clear that it has no intention of signing the agreement, which would have ensured the operation of CEU in Budapest for the long-term, it said in a statement.
A month ago, the institution's board of trustees set a December 1 deadline for the signing of the agreement.
It has been clear from the outset that the attacks on the university were not based on academic grounds as both the US and the Hungarian authorities have certified the excellence of the university's academic programmes. The CEU was the best ranked Hungarian university in global rankings.
Soros, the scapegoat
CEU was founded in 1991 by US-Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros, who also funds various liberal NGOs in Hungary, which has aroused the country's populist leader Orban's ire for offering a liberal education.
Ironically, Orban was granted a scholarship in 1988 from the Soros Foundation to study political science in Oxford along with a number of his college peers now in the Fidesz party. The Hungarian-born Jewish businessman helped the establishment of the liberal, anti-communist Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats), set up by a dozen university students in 1988.
Orban stepped up his anti-immigration rhetoric and in parallel attacks on Soros in the wake of the migration crisis in 2015.
The Hungarian government has repeatedly accused the billionaire, who has spent millions backing organisations that promote liberal democracy and open borders in Europe, of plotting to destabilise the continent by allowing millions of migrants to settle there.
Large billboards were a frequent presence throughout the country ahead of the April general election and advertisements on radio, television and the internet all had the same message: Soros is organising mass migration to Hungary and the rest of Europe and it must be stopped. The Hungarian-born businessmen, who fled the country in 1947 was depicted as a public enemy.
The right-wing conservative government began its legal attack against the university in the spring of 2017 when it amended the higher education act. Observers said it was specifically targeted at the CEU. It was clear from the start that the university was not welcome in Hungary. The campaign against CEU fitted well into Budapest’s intimidation campaign against NGOs and migrants.
The CEU announced in September that it cancelled a study programme for refugees because of a new law that threatened to levy a fine on institutions “supporting migration”. It withdrew its gender study programmes after a government ban.
Despite protests, international calls to revoke the contested educational act and an ongoing infringement procedure by the European Union, the government's stance hardened further after the third straight supermajority win in April.
20-month saga ends
On Monday, CEU said it made the announcement in order to guarantee that it can recruit students in time for the beginning of the next academic year. CEU is now registered in Austria to issue US-accredited degrees.
The university retains accreditation as a Hungarian university and will seek to continue teaching and research activity in Budapest as long as possible. Enrolled students will complete their studies in the Hungarian capital, according to its statement.
CEU president and rector Michael Ignatieff said he was deeply disappointed.
"The CEU has been forced out. This is unprecedented. A US institution has been driven out of a country that is a Nato ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU,” a statement quoted him saying.
Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom. It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary, he said, adding that the government has done an injustice toward its own citizens
The CEU is accredited in the US and Hungary with 1,200 masters and doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, business, law, cognitive and network science. The university employs 770 staff and faculty employees.
The US media prior to Monday's announcement said that US approach in dealing with the Hungarian government on the Soros' university has failed. The Washington Post in a recent article said the Trump administration tried to save CEU was “playing nice with an autocrat but it failed”.
Rather than try to shame the increasingly authoritarian leader into backing down, US ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein sought to charm him, the article said.
Cornstein, who took his post a year ago, met Orban in September when the question of the university was on the agenda. The statement issued after the meeting lacked a clear commitment in defence of the university.
The US government is disappointed that the Hungarian government and CEU have not concluded an agreement that would allow the university to continue its US-accredited programmes in Hungary, it said in a short statement on its website on Monday night, adding that the departure of these programmes from Hungary will be a loss for the CEU community, for the US, and for Hungary.
The leader of the European People's Party (EPP) Manfred Weber, a contender for the presidency of the European Commission, also expressed his disappointment. Other leading European politicians have criticised the EPP leader for being too soft on Orban, whose Fidesz is a member of the EPP.
Earlier Weber said the issue of CEU was a red line for the Hungarian government when talks of a possible expulsion from Fidesz from the EPP's rank came up.
Former Hungarian economy minister Attila Chikan who served in the first Orban cabinet between 1998 and 2002 said the departure of the CEU is an immense loss for Hungarian science and academic life. “If someone told me this years ago, I would have believed him,” he was quoted as saying.
Government spokesman Istvan Hollik said Soros university is leaving by staying, as a number of courses will remain in Budapest.
He called the announcement a "political bluff of the likes of George Soros with which the government does not wish to become involved".