Central European University: An Exceptional Moment for Hungary, and for International Higher Education

Hungary’s Central European University (CEU) is a small but bright tapestry. By almost any light, it is a candidate for the title of “most international university” in the world. It offers master and doctoral degree programs to approximately 1,500 currently from 110 countries. There is no national majority in the student body; Hungarians, the largest group, represent only about 15 percent of the total. The faculty is also international, representing over 40 countries at present.

Perhaps more pertinent are CEU’s dual academic and legal pedigrees. It is chartered in the U.S. by the New York State Education Department, which registers all its degree programs, and accredited in the U.S. by the Middle States Higher Education Commission. In Hungary, CEU is accredited by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee. Several, but not all of its programs are accredited by the same Hungarian accreditation agency. All CEU students receive a U.S. accredited degree upon graduation. Some of them, irrespective of nationality, may also opt to receive Hungarian degrees, for which they need to fulfill additional requirements, as provided by the Hungarian law.

CEU has a large financial aid program. All PhD students receive full financial support from the University. Most master’s students benefit from at least some form of financial aid. CEU places high in international university rankings [1]. Most departments routinely appear in the first 50, 100, or 150 in the world in the respective disciplinary rankings, where available.

The university is special in other ways as well. After the fall of the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe, intellectuals and former dissidents from several countries came together to discuss the idea of a university that would serve the entire region, rather than a particular country alone. They included Vaclav Havel, the dissident writer who eventually became the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic; Bronislaw Geremek, a medieval studies scholar, former leader of Solidarity, later on foreign minister of Poland; and Miklós Vásárhelyi, a leading figure of the 1956 Revolution in Hungary. The founders convinced George Soros, a Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist, to join. Eventually, George Soros brought with him not only generous financial support, but also a distinguishing mission for the new institution, which opened its gates in 1991. In the words [2] of the current rector, Michael Ignatieff, the university’s mission is “to teach the values of open society: free minds, free politics and free institutions.”

Today, that mission, the university, and the international enterprise at its heart, are under attack.

An Exceptional Moment in History

There are exceptional moments in history, which show with clarity − and often with brutality − that what happens in or around universities is symptomatic of profound, unresolved troubles in the broader society. Hungary is traversing such a moment.

At the end of March 2017, a set of amendments to the National Higher Education Law were passed [3] by the Parliament of Hungary. The passage of the bill required an unprecedented expedited procedure imposed by the government. To protest both the content of the bill and the unapologetically aggressive manner in which it was passed, some 70,000 people took to the streets of Budapest on April 7, 2017, in one of the largest mass actions in Hungarian history. Despite the protests [4], Hungarian President János Áder signed the bill into law three days later.

The action led to an immediate outcry [5] from academics and non-academics in Hungary and abroad, who charge that it represents a brutal attack against academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The new law is perceived by many as targeting [6] one international higher education institution in particular: Central European University. Critics of the legislation even refer to it as “Lex CEU” to emphasize just how draconian its attack on a single institution is. The university has thus become a symbol of the fight for the right to quality education, academic freedom and institutional integrity, in Hungary and internationally.

Since its founding, CEU has been able to comply successfully with the requirements of two national legal systems, the U.S. (New York State) and Hungary. However, the newly-amended National Higher Education Law has created a legal environment under which CEU will not be able to operate in Hungary. In order to remain compliant with Hungarian law, CEU must now open a campus in the US, where it currently does not carry out teaching or research activities, since there is no educational justification for doing so. It must also secure a bilateral agreement from the government of Hungary and the federal government of the U.S.

The law leaves CEU between a rock and a hard place: the timeline set for compliance (October 2017) by the amended law is so short as to make the opening of a U.S. campus impossible – not to mention the enormous costs it would impose on the institution. The requirement of a bilateral agreement is also problematic, because, the U.S. federal government cannot legally get in the business of making bilateral agreements about higher education – issues related to higher education provision typically fall under the purview of state governments. In addition, this requirement makes the continued operation of CEU (and other international universities in Hungary that are accredited in non-EU countries) dependent on the political will of Hungary’s governing party.

University Autonomy in Hungary: A Historical Overview

An overview of legislative changes in Hungarian higher education and the overall state of university autonomy in Hungary provides the broader context for understanding Lex CEU. It also explains, at least in part, the reaction of many members of the Hungarian society to the law’s passage.

The 1993 Higher Education Law granted Hungarian public universities virtually unlimited autonomy in academic and economic matters. At each university, the rector and the senate were responsible for making decision related to the academic and economic activities of the institution. The senate is a governing body composed of faculty members who work at the university and who are elected by the other faculty members working at the same university. The senate comprises elected student representatives as well. The rector is an academic elected by the senate. The candidates who get the majority of senate votes are confirmed in their position by the president, after recommendation by the Ministry of Human Resources.

Over time, the ability of Hungarian universities to make autonomous decisions began to decline, especially in economic and financial matters. For example, since 2011, ministry approval has been required to make changes to approved institutional budgets.

A few years later, the government introduced a system of chancellors to oversee key operational aspects of universities. To create the new institution of the chancellor, which universities opposed on constitutional grounds, the Hungarian government drafted a constitutional amendment severely restricting the scope of university autonomy. The amendment was passed by the Parliament in 2013, making Hungary possibly the only country in the world that initially included broad and clear provisions for university autonomy in its constitution only to later tighten those provisions almost to the point of complete deletion.

Unlike the rector and members of the senate, chancellors are not elected by fellow academics working at the university. Chancellors are chosen by the Minister of Human Resources and are appointed by the prime minister. They have veto powers regarding the strategic, financial, and human resource management activities of the university. Nominally, rectors and the senate remain in charge of academic matters, although decisions related to teaching and research that have implications for the institutional budget must be approved by the chancellor.

The ability of Hungarian public universities to make decisions varies across areas of university autonomy. In 2016, the European University Association (EUA) surveyed university autonomy in the 29 countries and states in which its member institutions are located. Based on their survey, Hungary compares poorly [7] to the other 28 countries and states in all four dimensions of university autonomy: academic matters, finances, organizational matters, and staffing. On the dimension of financial autonomy, Hungary ranked 28th out of the 29 countries and states in EUA survey in 2016. Organizational, staffing, and academic autonomy in Hungary is also limited in comparison to most other EUA countries and states: Hungary ranked 23rd in organizational autonomy, 22nd in staffing autonomy, and 16th in academic autonomy. The similar autonomy scorecard published by EUA in 2011 put Hungary in a much better position. The situation has worsened markedly in the last several years, under the current government.

The Future

What happens in or around universities can be symptomatic of profound, unresolved troubles in the broader society. Moments such as the one in which Hungary and CEU now find themselves in thus display an often overlooked function of higher education: Like the chemical substance that converts a latent imagine from a negative film into visible image, higher education can expose what’s hidden. It can bring into the open ignored, hidden or suppressed issues, such as social conflicts, crises, inequalities, repressive policies (or politics) that aim to suspend or oppose progress and development. By uncovering deep breakages in the society, higher education can sometimes also help to address them – although the process may be complicated, long, painful and uncertain. Those same moments show that the larger society cares about higher education, and in ways that might not be easy to notice in “normal times.”

The situation at CEU reveals a broader national crisis in Hungary, and casts a bright light on its source: The current Hungarian government’s effort to build a political regime based on a particular blend of populism and nationalism, infamously branded by Prime Minister Viktor Orban as “illiberal democracy”, or simply “illiberal state.” Such a regime cannot tolerate many freedoms. In the age of globalization and unavoidable international connections, this regime cannot tolerate openness – “the open society” was declared a public enemy in Hungary – and it cannot easily tolerate international openness in the form of international education, which it tries to repress, or at least control.

Hungary is not the only such country in the world. Yet it is remarkable that Hungary, a member country of the EU, a union of independent countries committed to the promotion of democratic values, economic and social development, and international cooperation, was able to go to such lengths in repressing freedom. Even more remarkable is the extraordinary, unexpected but sustained reaction of the Hungarian society, or a large part of it, against the actions of the government.

For CEU, and for Hungary, the outcome of the current crisis remains to be seen. In the meantime, all key actors involved are paying a price. The cost to CEU as an institution is clear: It has to navigate a difficult political situation; its operations will be impeded if the recently adopted legislation stays; it may have to move or shut down. The psychological pressure on members of the CEU community and their families, day to day, is also enormous, and is taking a toll. The price for Hungarian society is likewise steep. Its reputation abroad, and the attractiveness of Hungary among internationally minded students are both at stake. International education in other countries might pay a price, too. If Hungary’s populist government succeeds in making CEU’s operations in the country impossible, American universities in other countries with populist regimes might also come under attack.

CEU has made a commitment to keep up the fight and ensure continuity of its operations in Budapest. For this, it has been able to mobilize unprecedented public support in Hungary and internationally. Solutions are possible, but they are almost all of a political nature, and beyond the university’s control. Theoretically, the Constitutional Court of Hungary can annul the law on grounds of unconstitutionality. (The Court was formally asked by almost all opposition MPs to review the law.) Unfortunately, it is not clear when the court would rule, as there is no set deadline for doing so.

The European Commission has already begun a so-called infringement procedure against Hungary, and asked the government to repeal Lex CEU, on the grounds that it is discriminatory and incompatible with the European legislation. The government refused to comply. The procedure may now continue at the European Court of Justice, but it may take a couple of years, and CEU cannot wait.

Preliminary talks have started between the government of Hungary and the Governor of New York about a bilateral agreement regarding CEU. There is a glimpse of hope here. However, the Hungarian government continues to insist on some kind of an agreement with the federal government of the U.S. – a conversation that the State Department has made clear it will not engage in.

Theoretically, the Hungarian government itself may decide to repeal the law. That is highly unlikely. CEU can in principle continue for another academic year (2017/18) in Budapest under the new law, but will not be able to enroll students for the following one (2018/19). Absent a resolution, CEU will have to move to another country. It will become a university in exile, a remarkable first for a higher education institution in a European country, and an indication of tectonic shifts deep under the surface of Hungarian politics, which threaten to severely unsettle Hungarian society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).