Everything you need to know about the Central European University controversy

Everything you need to know about the Central European University controversy
By Robert Hackwill
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The Hungarian government has moved to close down the George Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest, triggering a wave of protests and claims academic freedom is under threat.


Hero or villain? Billionaire financial whiz and philanthropist George Soros, American but Hungarian-born, wasted no time with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet union in setting up or supporting a host of educational and civil rights organisations.

He was determined to help mould a new generation of eastern European decision-makers, and encourage them to throw off the shackles of their recent past and embrace the new democratic world they were entering. They would become politicians, civil servants, entrepreneurs and civic leaders capable of meeting the challenges of EU membership, and a globalising world.

Critical thinking skills are vital in an open society. This university in Bangladesh shows how they can empower. https://t.co/lMWx4eVS6q

— George Soros (@georgesoros) 10 février 2017

However for some people he was a mere capitalist propagandist with a sinister agenda determined to impose liberal values and extract maximum profits, taking society from one form of bondage into another, where Brussels or international corporations ruled. In recent years the anti-globalisers or those in power who feel threatened by those liberal values have triangulated their fire on Soros, trying to portray him as a Blofeld-like figure scheming to undermine national sovereignties and promote a “world government” from his secret island base, location unknown.

Now the jewel in Soros’s educational crown, the Central European University in Budapest, is being forced to close down after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government said it was breaking the law, and passed new legislation that would impose an impossible financial burden on the CEU. The decision has brought a flood of protests from within Hungary and abroad.


The 199-seat parliament voted 123 to 38 in favour of the legislation, which places tough restrictions on foreign universities, including the CEU, which is believed to be Orbán’s main target.

The English-speaking university, which is still partly-funded by Soros, is ranked among the top 200 universities in the world in eight disciplines. However Orbán, who ironically studied there himself, is a sworn enemy of Soros.


Under the legislation, any foreign-funded university institution in Hungary can only operate in the country once the government of the source country and Hungary have signed an intergovernmental agreement, while the legislation also specifies that the given university must have operations in its source country. The Budapest CEU has no sister establishment in the USA, and would have to set one up at great expense if it wanted to continue.


“The CEU needs to abide by laws; they donʼt have to negotiate with us, though maybe they would like to do so, but they are not the American government yet,” said Orban, who claimed the university as presently operating enjoyed an “unfair advantage”.

Hungarian Government minister Zoltan Balog said: “To operate under this new law is not impossible. It applies to everyone and we expect everyone to comply. Even the organisations of George Soros should not be above the law in Hungary.”


“The new law puts at risk the academic freedom not only of CEU but of other Hungarian research and academic institutions,” the press statement emphasized once again. The strict deadlines added to the final form of the legislation are seen by CEU as “even more punitive than earlier versions.”

The CEU has taken its counter-offensive onto Twitter:

We need your support now more than ever. Here's how you can help: https://t.co/dATKG49XAr Thank you! #istandwithCEU

— Central European U (@ceuhungary) 3 avril 2017


Politicians across the European Parliament have denounced the moves in Hungary, and there have been well-attended protests. The president of the European Commission is also unhappy.

Hungary CEU: Protesters rally to save university https://t.co/WRU3zrvvdj

— Michael Ignatieff (@M_Ignatieff) 3 avril 2017

One Hungarian MEP, Tibor Szanyi, goes further in his latest press release on the subject.


“The attack against CEU happened for the sake of regulation only on the surface. If we take into account that the students of the institution are coming almost entirely from post-soviet countries, the former soviet sphere of interest, it becomes clear that the functioning of the university – that releases every year 1.500 enlightened, highly qualified professionals, primarily bothers the interest of the Russian president, Mr Putin. For some reasons, Orbán did a huge favour now for his Russian friend.

The anti-democratic processes in Hungary have been carried out in a Russian style, and this event is no exception. The takeover of the media and the liquidation of the civil society are parts of Putin’s massive propaganda war that has entered into a new phase in Hungary. “The Russians are coming.”

Right now, there is a very high chance that CEU will start the 2018 academic year in Vienna. Mostly the institution will have to pay the enormous costs of the relocation, although the EU might help too. Nonetheless, the damage caused by the Hungarian government remains colossal, not to mention the humiliation of the teachers and researchers.

Therefore, to stand in solidarity with CEU is a matter of self-defence in the most extensive sense of the word. It would be a mistake to think that anyone from outside of Hungary could attack Orbán and not hurt the Hungarian people at the same time. The shame is Orbán’s but to wash it off is a task for the Hungarians. As Member of the European Parliament I support the movement that was started to urge the European People’s Party to exclude Fidesz from its members, so we can all start seeing clearly.”

Over 1,000 cognitive scientists, including two Nobel Laureates, have signed a letter to the Hungarian authorities calling on the government to withdraw the proposed legislation and maintain academic freedom and scientific excellence.


European universities call on Hungarian president to block legislation targeting ceuhungary</a> <a href="https://t.co/UHMlNfqHoE">https://t.co/UHMlNfqHoE</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/istandwithCEU?src=hash">#istandwithCEU</a></p>&mdash; EUA (euatweets) 6 avril 2017


The university plans an appeal to Hungary’s President Janos Ader, who has the power to return the bill to parliament or demand the Constitutional Court examines its legality. At the same time, the CEU intends to contest the law directly in the Constitutional Court said Zsolt Enyedi, CEU’s pro-rector for Hungarian affairs.

A protest petition has gathered over 50,000 signatures.


Hungarian president János Áder’s daughter attends the same type of university as CEU – reports 444 Hungarian website.


Orsolya Áder’s LinkedIn page shows that she is attending the private Richmond University. The university’s Wikipedia site describes the school as a US-based university in London.

Viktor Orbán’s daughter, Ráhel Orbán attends a university which operates exactly the same way as the CEU.

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