FAQ: What happened to CEU?


As reported on Monday, CEU is moving all the US-accredited programs it offered to Vienna. The university claims that all legal criteria the 2017 amendment of the Higher Education Act required were met, yet Hungarian authorities are still unwilling to sign the international agreement that would allow CEU to stay in Budapest. What does it all mean? We're trying to answer some frequently asked questions.

CEU's relocation was present in public discourse for quite some time. What is the significance of the announcement made on Monday?

So far, the university's leaders were only talking about relocating the US-accredited programs to Vienna as a scenario in case the government does not sign the international agreement that allows the university to stay in Hungary. Waiting for that made the operation of the university and the enrolment of new students uncertain, and the situation necessitated the university to set a deadline for a decision about the agreement - that was 1 December 2018. The deadline then passed without any progress, therefore CEU announced their relocation on Monday to ensure that the 2019 freshmen students can start their programs at a Vienna campus where the university's operation is not threatened by politics.

Why can't the US programs stay in Budapest?

In April 2017, upon government initiative, the Parliament passed the amendment of the Higher Education Act. This set four requirements for foreign universities operating in Hungary:

  • Foreign universities can only operate in Hungary if they have headquarters, professors, students, and actual education activity in their country of origin.
  • The state of origin and Hungary have to enter into an international agreement laying down the framework of the university's operation.
  • The programs offered and degrees awarded must be programs and degrees officially recognized by Hungary.
  • The Hungarian Office of Education needs to authorize the operation.

What is wrong with these requirements?

Inherently, nothing. On face value, the government wanted to achieve a uniform regulation of foreign universities this way. There were several "fake" universities operating in Hungary that wanted to capitalise on a foreign name with a nice ring to it while offering useless programs and useless degrees. CEU's activity was the polar opposite though - but there is a reason why the public discourse refers to the law as Lex CEU. Apart from the government's communication campaign that forced that narrative, many circumstances pointed to the personalized nature of the new regulation, as it seems the law was written precisely against CEU that never had a campus in the United States of America and while that was never a problem in their 25 years of operation, the new law is very strict in that regard. The amendment became a weapon of the government's political war on George Soros.

Did CEU not meet these new requirements?

They did. The university established a campus at Bard College not far from New York City. There are students and professors, and the Board of Education of the State of New York certified CEU's education activities at the campus as well. The governor of New York and the representative of the Hungarian government already drafted the required international agreement, and CEU invited representatives of the Hungarian government to their campus so they could see their compliance with their own eyes. 

If CEU complied with the requirements, why is that not enough for the government?

It seems that there is nothing CEU can do that would be enough. In the end, the government never signed the agreement - instead, the government's propaganda outlets started an all-out communications war with the narrative of CEU trying to blackmail and swindle the government. Certain papers claimed that the supposed American campus is an 80 square meter wooden shack and that the programs do not even give proper degrees, as they are minor programs. These claims were refuted by CEU in detail; in a nutshell, the reports confused the exchange-student program with CEU's master programs. When asked why the government is delaying the signature back in June, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explained that the quality of a decision is much more important than its swiftness.

Why is the government dragging out the time of the decision?

Judging by the events of the past 18 months, the government's aim was probably to keep CEU's future in constant uncertainty. If the university's future is in question, students and professors think twice about studying or teaching there. CEU saw this, and therefore decided not to wait any longer, and took the US programs to Vienna.

How good of a university is CEU?

One of its main attractions is the fact that the language of education is English, which gives CEU its unusually deep integration into international scientific life. Many internationally acclaimed scientists gave lectures there from the fields of sociology, humanities, economy, and law. Most of CEU's programs are ranked amongst the top 200 university programs in the world, but certain fields even managed to crack the top 50. It is no coincidence that the majority of Hungarian universities, the Hungarian Academy of Science, and major universities, professors and Nobel laureates of the world took CEU in their defence.

So what is the government's problem with CEU?

To start with, CEU was founded and is maintained by financier George Soros. The institution represents the idea of open society, and they regard developing critical thinking, respecting human rights, and the analysis of contemporary political, economic, and social developments as their mission. As state secretary for the Ministry of Human Capacities Bence Rétvári asked in parliament: "Alright, they have gender studies programs, but where are the innovations that further the cause of Hungary?" Another point often raised against CEU was that it creates a handicap for Hungarian universities as they cannot compete with an institution that can hand out American degrees. The truth is that any university could be able to do that based on partnership agreements with foreign universities.

So all in all, this is not a question of higher education but of politics, right?

Creating a unified legal framework for foreign universities in Hungary could have been achieved through quiet background negotiations involving those affected by the issue – if that would have been the aim of the government. Instead, the government entered into a political strife against CEU, or as it is more commonly referred to by officials, the "Soros-university." It is most probable that the government merely wanted to use the controversy to set an example in order to show that George Soros can exert no influence over the government with money or through the ethos of a university.

Did CEU resort to using political tactics?

It did. Both the rector and the foundation maintaining the university attempted to find political allies in Europe and in the US in order to lobby for the extended operation of CEU in Budapest. The campaign against CEU created an uproar in the European Union as well: the European Commission started an infringement procedure on 26 April 2017 citing that the new regulation may violate the free movement of services, and the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory board, also called attention to the problematic nature of the 2017 amendment of the Hungarian higher education act; their report said the new law seems highly personalised and the unusually fast legislative process left no time for the participation of the affected and called the transparency of the process into question.

How does this situation affect Hungary?

  • International opinion on Hungary turns even worse. This remains the case even if some in Fidesz say that international opinion is already so low that this scandal does not have a significant effect anymore.
  • Students in Budapest can no longer acquire United States degrees.
  • Hungarian universities suffer too; many postgraduate students of CEU were giving lectures at CEU's Hungarian university partners free of charge, as English-language educators are still few and far between in Hungarian academia. 
  • CEU courses were freely open to students of Hungarian colleges for advanced studies.
  • CEU had many multi-million Euro research programs in partnership with Hungarian universities and academic research institutes. As research grants are not given to universities or countries but to the researchers themselves, they are likely to take these projects to Vienna as well.

This article is the slightly modified version of the Hungarian original published on Monday.

Cover: szarvas / Index.

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