By Marton Dunai and Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros, said on Monday it had been forced out of Hungary in “an arbitrary eviction” that violated academic freedom, and it confirmed plans to open a new campus in Austria.
CEU’s statement is the culmination of a years-long struggle between Hungarian-born but U.S.-based Soros, who promotes liberal causes through his charities, and the nationalist, anti-immigrant government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
For nearly three decades CEU has been a gateway to the West for thousands of students from ex-communist eastern Europe, offering U.S.-accredited degree programmes in an academic climate that celebrates free thought.
The university said it would leave Budapest if it had not secured guarantees of academic freedom by Dec. 1.
“CEU has been forced out,” said CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff in a statement. “This is unprecedented. A U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.”
“Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom. It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary,” CEU’s statement added.
Ignatieff told a news conference later that the CEU had received a “clear and unequivocal” welcome in Austria.
CEU’s legal status has been in limbo for more than a year since changes to a higher education law that meant a foreign-registered university could no longer operate in Hungary unless it also provided courses in its home country.
Orban’s critics say the legal changes deliberately targeted CEU, which is regularly ranked as the top university in Hungary and offers U.S. degrees. Orban accuses Soros of encouraging mass immigration into Europe, a charge the philanthropist denies.
The European Commission has taken Hungary to court over the higher education law and has clashed with Orban over other issues related to the rule of law and democratic standards.
Earlier this year, Open Society Foundations, Soros’ main funding network, was also forced to leave Hungary.
Attila Chikan, a CEU professor who served as economy minister in a previous Orban government, said the university’s relocation was “a very serious loss for the country… with respect to Hungarian sciences and higher education”.
CEU, founded in Budapest in 1991, has repeatedly said it has complied with all the new regulations set by Orban’s government, which has refused to sign off on an already agreed document with the State of New York that would allow CEU to stay.
Hungary’s government has dismissed the university’s move as a “Soros-style bluff”.
CEU said it would start enrolling students for U.S. degrees at its new campus in Vienna for the next academic year. Students already enrolled will complete their studies in Budapest.
The university retains accreditation as a Hungarian university and will seek to continue teaching and research activity in Budapest as long as possible, it said.
Hungarians comprise about 20 percent of the 1,320 students admitted to CEU for the 2018-19 academic year. Many others are from central and eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and western Europe, with smaller numbers from further afield.
(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Gareth Jones)