On March 28th, Hungarian authorities published a suggestion to change the Law on high education, which concerns the operation of foreign higher education institutions in this country. The text of the suggested changes and later statements of the representatives of the governing party Fides made it clear that the suggestion is targeting primarily Central European University in Budapest (CEU), as a dual legal entity (registered in the state of New York as Central European University and in Hungary as Közép-európai Egyetem) whose education activities are implemented exclusively in Hungary, but its degrees are accredited in both states.
According to the suggested changes, in order to continue to operate in Hungary, CEU is obliged to open a campus in the state of New York, as well as to change the name it has had for the last 25 years. This would undermine the entire concept of this university, which was precisely to offer internationally accredited education programs “at home”; not to mention the additional financial and logistical problems this change would cause. The new law would also make it difficult to employ teaching staff from third countries, which would kill the “pan-middle-European” component of the University’s mission. Through a fast-track procedure, only a week after the news of the changes became public, the ruling coalition Fides-KDNP adopted the changes with 123 votes in favor and 38 against. Only six months are left for the University to try and make an arrangement between the State department and Hungarian government on operations of an American legal entity and nine months to start an academic program in the state of New York. The current strategy of the chancellor is to appeal with the Hungarian president to initiate a constitutional challenge against the law and, if this doesn’t work, to present this case to the European Court in Strasbourg.
News on the possible move or even closing of CEU got a great deal of attention of the European media, which mainly placed it into the context of collapsing democracy in the region. They also pretentiously portrayed this case as a personal conflict between an autocrat and a billionaire (by stressing that the University “belongs to Soros”, although George Soros himself is not a member of the managing board), setting aside the huge contributions of this school to the development of social sciences and humanities not only in Hungary, but also in all of Eastern Europe. A lot has been written about the superficiality of the thesis on the alleged influence of George Soros and his foundation on the content of education at CEU, as well as about the positive influence of such an institution on the increased availability of post-graduate education to vulnerable groups from Middle Europe, and about the misguided criticism of this university from the left.
Open support from numerous Hungarian universities, institutes, and even the Accreditation agency is encouraging. Thousands of students from other schools participated in the protest on the central streets of Budapest and the human chain around the CEU building (which was then illegally followed by the Hungarian police). Social networks were flooded with #istandwithceu, while former students lobbied with their political representatives to intervene with the European parliament against the proposed changes. All of this shows that the majority of the very community which the law was nominally supposed to “protect” from the “unfair privileges of the CEU” doesn’t support the law. The list of institutions and individuals around the world who publically stated their support to keep the University in Hungary is also impressive. This showed how important international cooperation and openness of high education institutions are, as well as the image that CEU has managed to get for the last 25 years. Still, there is little chance that domestic and foreign support will prevent Orban’s government from banning the work of CEU in Hungary. Primarily because this move was meant for the public which is unsympathetic or uninformed about the activities and importance of this University and for whom it symbolizes an influx of foreign capital into the domestic affairs of a small sovereign nation. The real goal of the law wasn’t to “accommodate” the CEU to the domestic legal system, but to remove a subversive element the government hasn’t been able to control.
Paradoxically, this showdown between the Hungarian government and CEU partially reveals the failure of the university at one of its original tasks – to contribute to the process of pluralization on the Eastern European political scene. A quarter of a century after it was founded, the home state of this institution is becoming more and more “anti-liberal”, xenophobic, and autocratic, and the situation is just as bad (or even worse) in all neighboring states, homes of the majority of CEU students and teachers. On the one hand, it portrays the inability of this institution to contribute to changes in the wider community in a meaningful way. On the other, numerous CEU graduates who aligned themselves with the conservative politics of Fides (including Zoltan Kovach, Hungarian government spokesperson and currently one of the most radical opponents of the university) contradict the stereotype of this school being Soros’s “indoctrination center”.
Could these events be connected with the state of academic and student community in Serbia, and what do they say about it? Just like in Serbia, a party with extremely authoritative tendencies is in power in Hungary, although the façade of “pro-European” direction is somewhat more preserved in Serbia, due to its candidate status. Erosion of democratic heritage is evident in both countries, where regimes enjoy a suspicious support of the majority, while systemically fighting against any kind of opposition. Any attempt to stand up to the government is labeled by the pro-government pamphlets as an anti-state conspiracy secretly guided by “soros” (I use the lowercase letter and quotation marks deliberately, because in this discourse, the name is not necessarily related to the person, but to a mix of conspiracy theories and fears of authoritarian governments and thwarted nationalists).
A majority of the Serbian media has been ignoring the events in Hungary. So far, Belgrade Open School (BOS) and the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade have publicly proclaimed their support for CEU, while a group of former students from Serbia signed a petition to the Hungarian government. If the news of the possible relocation of “Soros’ university” was published in Serbia, it would have undoubtedly caused gloating in a large part of the Serbian public, but neither radical leftists nor hard-core nationalists should be happy about this. Mutual support between Serbian and Hungarian people in power is well known (it was evidenced by the open support Fides gave to Aleksandar Vucic’s presidential campaign), with all the similarities of their populist rhetoric and anti-democratic measures. For Vucic, any attempt at political opposition, whether it’s a counter-candidate on the elections, existence of parties who are not in coalition with SNS, media who criticize his activities, or students who publicly demonstrate in the streets, is the same as the existence of CEU for Orban. In both countries, opponents are labeled as “soros’ men”, which means that they are traitors to their country and nation and, as such, open to any kind of demonization. Orban doesn’t care that the majority of students and staff of the CEU are Hungarian (not to mention the economic benefits of hundreds of foreign students and teachers in Budapest), just like it’s unthinkable to Vucic’s propagandists that someone might criticize the regime with Serbia’s best interest at heart.
It’s important to support the survival of CEU in this part of Europe, regardless of any potential reason for criticism (both left and right) of its founder. This is not about whether you agree with the financial, political or philanthropic work of a billionaire, but about the right to academic freedom and possibility of equal participation of experts from the least developed parts of Europe in European and global science developments. Besides this, mobilization strategies of CEU’s community should serve as an example for Serbian universities on how to fight for the principles of academic honesty and freedom of thought, even when defeat is imminent. There are ample reasons for activism, whether it’s about supporting student protests against the procedural problems during the last elections, adequate convictions for plagiarism at state and private universities, or fighting against budgetary negligence of science and education. The mayor of Belgrade, holder of a suspicious PhD title, didn’t follow the example of his Vienna and Vilnius colleagues and failed to offer hospitality to CEU in the case of relocation (for example, to some of the empty fields that are supposed to be the Belgrade Waterfront), although such investment would bring far more benefits (both material and scientific) to Serbian society than the Potemkin’s villages depicted on the model at Geozavod. Unfortunately, the likelihood that a government which has made a brand out of fake diplomas would bring a well-known university to its capital seems even more unlikely than Orban losing a legal battle within a system he has almost complete control over.
The author is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the Department of contemporary history of Yustus Libig University in Giessen and a graduate from Central European University in Budapest and the University of Belgrade