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Proposed higher education law threatens Central European University

Proposed legislation submitted to Parliament late Tuesday promises to clarify and tighten rules related to foreign institutions offering higher education in the country. The rector of the Central European University (CEU) fears the proposed law targets his institution, set up by Hungarian-American financier George Soros, and would lead to its closure.

Hungary’s Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog submitted the proposed legislation. In the billʼs justification, he notes that “educational cooperation with countries outside of the EU is an important goal of cultural policy in Hungary,” but adds that provisions in the Higher Education Act must define the “direction of international cooperation in higher education” by drawing boundaries, supporting the intentions of the government and its foreign policy goals, and ensuring that the entry of students and educators into the country complies with aspects of national security, according to Hungarian news agency MTI.

According to the ministry, the decision was made after a probe by the Education Office uncovered violations and shortfalls at a “majority” of such educational institutions.

László Palkovics, state secretary responsible for higher education, said during a press conference on a separate matter Saturday that the Education Office is investigating the operating conditions of foreign universities present in Hungary, and soon a report will be issued about it, according to MTI’s report today. Palkovics argued that related laws stipulate that the education system needs to be reviewed from time to time, and the review of foreign institutions is happening right now under the related legislation.

The ministry noted that Hungarian law requires foreign universities that award diplomas in Hungary to operate in the countries in which they are based, according to MTI.

Although the law would apply to all foreign institutions operating here, Hungarian online news portal index.hu noted that the government might well be targeting the Central European University, which was founded by Hungarian-born businessman and philanthropist George Soros, who has frequently been critical of the governing Fidesz party, and whose funding of NGOs operating in the country has been attacked by the government.

A report in government-friendly online news source origo.hu today claimed that CEU operates unlawfully without program accreditation and has neglected its obligations to supply data for official public records. It also openly accused the institution of "clear fraud" by offering educational courses that have not been registered.

CEU set to respond at press briefing

A press release received by the Budapest Business Journal announced that a press conference will be held by CEU’s Rector Michael Ignatieff and colleagues at 2 p.m. this afternoon at CEU.

Soon after the news broke, Ignatieff, who is a Canadian citizen, wrote a public letter to professors, students and graduates of the university, saying that the planned legislation threatens the institution, suggesting it is especially targeted at CEU.

“The claim that we do not have program accreditation is entirely false,” Ignatieff writes, according to a copy of the letter the Budapest Business Journal has seen. “The claim that we have failed to meet our obligations regarding data to official public registry is also false. Our master’s and doctoral programs are accredited with the Hungarian authorities as well as by the State of New York, and the University’s accreditation is overseen by the Middle States Commission, which certifies American institutions like Princeton and UPenn.”

Ignatieff stressed: “More importantly than these false accusations, legislation has been proposed to the Hungarian Parliament that, after careful legal examination, would make it impossible for CEU to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Hungary authorized to grant degrees accredited in both Hungary and the United States. As we see it, this is legislation targeted at one institution and one institution only. It is discriminatory. It strikes at the heart of what we have been doing at CEU for over two decades. We are in full conformity with Hungarian law and have been for more than two decades.”

The rector insisted in the letter that “CEU is a proud Hungarian institution, a university whose freedom is in danger.”

The Hungarian government has been vocal in criticizing Soros and institutions and organizations tied to the businessman.