Time Ticking Toward CEU Exit


The slow-burning fuse that is the dispute between the Central European University and Hungary’s government suddenly flared up on October 25 with the CEU’s announcement that, unless agreement is reached before December 1 of this year, students starting U.S.-accredited courses from September 2019 will do so in Vienna, not Budapest, although those who have already here will be able to complete their studies in the Hungarian capital.   

The university insists it has done everything required of it by the government to operate in Hungary since a change in the law in 2017, but says the latter refuses to sign an agreement. This has left CEU in a state of limbo, and it must act to give students and staff legal certainty.  

The government response was tweeted (the U.S. President would no doubt approve) by spokesman Zoltán Kovács: “The announcement by @ceuhungary is a @georgesoros style political ploy. Up to now CEU has operated here, it does so now, & we think that it’ll continue to do so in the future. The relocation to Vienna of the issuing body for its US degrees is simply part of that political ploy.”

CEU’s management and supporters believe the university has been singled out for attack because it was founded, and for a long time financed, by the government’s favorite bogeyman, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros.  

Since the Fidesz government won its record third successive landslide term, it has carried on its fight with the university by doing, well, nothing. It feels as if it has calculated that it can weather any fallout from the dispute, and that is precisely what it intends to do.  

And yet CEU does have significant supporters, including the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, David B. Cornstein. The embassy statement published on its website appears unambiguously under an image of the Twitter slogan #IstandwithCEU. It quotes the ambassador as saying: “CEU remains a priority for the U.S. Government and has overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States. I understand CEU’s position – prolonged uncertainty is not sustainable for an academic institution. However, a solution is still possible. There is a small window to resolve this, but it needs to happen fast. I am working with both parties to continue the negotiations and find an acceptable resolution before December 1.”

Virtually the first public act of Ambassador Cornstein when he arrived in Hungary was to visit CEU. He has also identified keeping the university in Budapest as one of his four key priorities, telling an AmCham event in early September that were CEU to relocate to Vienna it would be “bad for the city, the country and the government.”

Were the move to Vienna to happen – and for all that CEU insists it will find some way to stay in Budapest, it is hard not to see this as the first stage in a total withdrawal – it would represent a massive dent to Hungary’s international reputation.

The same could be said of rubbish waiting uncollected in the streets, which, at the time of writing could be seen in District XVIII (near the airport) and in Gödöllő, to name just two places.  

The decision to centralize the collection of refuse fees seems to have created a financial bottleneck, with waste collector Zöld Híd Kft. announcing it would suspend services in about 116 municipalities. The government has finally moved to plug the shortfall by transferring HUF 26 billion, including HUF 7.5 bln from the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, but a more permanent solution must be found soon.  

Robin Marshall


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