Govʼt to extend deadline for compliance with education act

Analysis

The government has moved to extend by one year the deadline for foreign colleges and universities operating in Hungary to comply with new rules in the amended higher education act, Justice Minister László Trócsányi said Friday, submitting an amendment to Parliament to that effect.

In response to the news, the Central European University (CEU), which was founded and funded by Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros and believes it has been targeted by the bill, issued a statement which seemed to suggest this was just a delaying tactic by the government.

"CEU welcomes any initiative that reduces uncertainty, but the Minister of Justice’s proposed extension of the deadline prolongs the uncertainty while walking away from a solution that lies at hand," the university said.

In what has proved a controversial move internationally, Hungarian lawmakers amended the higher education act in the spring to require foreign colleges and universities in Hungary to operate on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement and to have a campus in the country in which they are based. According to state news service MTI, Trócsányi said on Friday that the rules apply to everybody, even CEU.

The CEU, which is based in Budapest but accredited by the State of New York, has no campus in the United States, and never has had one. Early in October, CEU announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Bard College to provide educational activities in New York.

"An agreement between the State of New York and the Government of Hungary guaranteeing CEU’s existence is ready for signature. Resolution of this matter is now up to the government. The government can simply sign the agreement it has already negotiated," the CEU statement insisted.  "We have already initiated a program registered with the New York State Board of Education that should be operational within weeks. Thus there exists no obstacle to an agreement bringing this whole episode to a conclusion," it added.

The government and the State of Maryland reached an agreement in July that will bring the local campus of McDaniel College in line with the amended rules. MTI reported Trócsányi noting that the agreement with McDaniel College had been published in the latest issue of the official gazette Magyar Közlöny.

The original deadline had been sufficient for institutions of higher education "that sought an agreement in earnest rather than unnecessary political debate and conflict," MTI quoted the minister as saying, adding that talks are ongoing with other institutions, among them CEU.

Noting the agreement between Hungary and Maryland in respect of McDaniel College, CEU said that failure to sign a similar agreement with the State of New York in relation to CEU "can only be perceived as discriminatory."

"Extending the deadline and failing to sign the agreement are a step backward. CEU wants to move forward. CEU calls on the government of Hungary to sign the New York-Hungary agreement without delay and re-affirms its commitment to fulfill all obligations, defend its freedom and continue its presence as a respected member of Hungarian and international academic life," said the CEU statement.

In April, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the education act amendments (commonly known as lex CEU) because it believes the legislation runs counter to the right of academic freedom, the right to education and the freedom to conduct a business, as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

Hungary has responded to the EC, but the EUʼs executive body has asked for further clarification over concerns about the non-compatibility of the legislation with the EUʼs obligations under international trade law.

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