Last April the Hungarian parliament approved a new law that regulates the operations of foreign (non-EEA) universities in Hungary. Among other things, the new law requires a bilateral agreement between Hungary and the country of the university’s origin, and they should also deliver education programs in the countries where they are accredited. Although ‘lex CEU’, as has been popularly referred to, was defended on purely administrative grounds it clearly is part of an orchestrated attack on free institutions—NGOs, independent media, and the judiciary. At the time, it seemed impossible for CEU to fulfil these conditions: deadlines were tight, the costs were enormous since CEU has no educational activity in the US where it is accredited, and securing a bilateral treaty with the US government was unfeasible since, American educational matters are regulated at State level rather than at the federal’s level.
The law was received with an outcry: 80,000 Hungarians came to the streets on 2nd April demanding academic freedom, hundreds of institutions (both intentional and Hungarian) sent letters of support to CEU, and thousands of individuals joined the #istandwithCEU/#aCEUvalvagyok. Perhaps partly because of the outstanding support, the government seemed to relax the conditions for the new law. For instance, the Hungarian government started negotiations with the State of New York (rather than insisting on a Hungary-US bilateral treaty), and there are grounds to think that the requirement for an operational campus can be satisfied by having some educational activity in this State.
By early autumn, media outlets reported than a basis for an agreement between Hungary and New York had been reached and that there was hope that government would sign it in a matter of weeks. Moreover, CEU established a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Bard College whereby CEU will conduct some academic activity in New York. It looked like CEU would be able to comply with the new law within the January 2018 deadline. However, a few weeks before the original deadline expired, the government unexpectedly announced a one year deadline extension. After the announcement, the government declared that there was no rush to sign the agreement with New York.
Although the extension looks like a generous offer, in fact it is both unnecessary and harmful. It is unnecessary because the only condition missing is the Hungary-New York agreement. The treaty is waiting to be signed at the Prime Minister’s desk. It is harmful, because it extends CEU’s legal uncertainty for yet another year. This move by the government involves a strategic change in the way that CEU is being attacked: in April the attack was frontal, now we are under siege. One of the reasons for this change is the upcoming elections in the spring. Another reason is the amazing support that CEU received from every corner of the Earth. The government’s hope is that the legal limbo in which CEU now operates will wear out faculty and students, making it harder for CEU to recruit a new cohort of students and attract international faculty. By continuing asphyxiating CEU, it hopes to diffuse the pressure and use CEU as a political tool.
However, not everything is bad. The European Commission has filed a lawsuit against the Hungarian government at the European Court of Justice on ‘lex CEU’ and two other issues. The EJC’s decisions are mandatory for all member states of the EU.
Many of us are optimistic, and believe that CEU has a future in Budapest. It is our conviction that the final outcome of the battle will ultimately depend on the resilience of CEU. We do not let ourselves to be intimidated. Teaching is going on as usual. The university makes plans for the future. We will be here by the time the EJC passes its ruling. CEU’s Rector and President, Michael Ignatieff, has repeatedly stated that CEU is not in danger and that it will continue to operate under any circumstances.
In the meantime, the new deadline extension makes it legal for CEU to start its recruitment campaign for the 2018-2019 academic year. The legal framework guarantees that all CEU students can finish their studies until 2021-2022.
For those who wish to continue supporting CEU, the best way to do it is to apply to its programs, and encourage friends and students to apply. CEU will be in a strong position if it can show that, despite everything, it is able to attract a healthy number of applicants and to enrol great students. CEU continues to offer generous financial aid schemes for MA students and all PhD programs are fully funded. The application deadline is 1st February 2018, for more information see: https://www.ceu.edu/apply