BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands joined a student rally in Budapest on Saturday calling for safeguards for academic freedom and changes in government policies which have prompted a university founded by U.S. billionaire George Soros to plan to leave Hungary.
The Central European University (CEU) has announced it will move to Vienna unless Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government agrees by December 1 to ensure the legal framework for its continued operation in Hungary.
CEU has offered U.S.-accredited degree programmes to thousands of students from ex-communist eastern Europe for almost three decades.
Participants in the demonstration held outside the historic buildings of Corvinus University on the bank of the Danube river, said the academic climate symbolised by the CEU, one which celebrates free thought and open debate, needed to be defended.
"CEU represents free education and diversity... I am fed up with what is going on here," said Maria Palmai, 63, a retired bank official.
More than 3,500 CEU alumni are currently working and teaching in Hungary.
Students of other universities including ELTE and Corvinus also attended the rally.
"If we do not stand up for CEU, the next time they will come for ELTE. Nobody will stand up for ELTE, and if they go for Corvinus, nobody will stand up stand up for Corvinus, " said Eyad, 30, a Jordanian who studies film making at ELTE.
CEU's plan to move U.S. accredited programmes, the bulk of its courses, to Vienna follows a lengthy battle with Orban's government, including legal changes widely seen as targeting CEU.
The conservative nationalist government has accused the Hungarian-born Soros of plotting to destroy European civilisation by flooding the continent with immigrants. Soros says his support for refugees is part of a humanitarian mission.
The university looks set to move as the government has ruled out any concessions to CEU.
(Reporting by Sandor Peto; editing by Jason Neely)