On April 4, 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed via an expedited procedure an amendment to the country’s Higher Education Act (Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education) requiring, among other things, that foreign universities not based in the EU: (1) operate under a formal agreement between their country of origin and the Hungarian government; and (2) maintain campuses and offer degree programs in their country of origin. It was signed into law on April 10, 2017.
The law is referred to as “Lex CEU” by the media in honor of its presumed target, as Budapest’s Central European University is the only university in the country that would be affected by it. CEU – which was famously founded in 1991 by Hungarian/American financier George Soros – is registered in New York (although it does not operate there) and is accredited in both the United States and Hungary. It has a profoundly international profile, as with 1,500 current students from 117 countries and almost 14,000 alumni in 133 countries, it was recently ranked the second-most international university in the world by Times Higher Education.
It has also long been viewed with skepticism by current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and members of his Fidesz ruling party.
The passage of the new law generated an uproar both in Hungary and around the globe by individuals who believe it to be a targeted and discriminatory attack on CEU and on freedom of education in general. For its part, CEU claims that the expedited procedure employed by the Hungarian parliament in passing the amendment was unconstitutional, as organizations entitled to express their opinion on the subject had not been consulted, and insists that the amendments violate rights of freedom of academic research, studies, and education as enshrined in the Basic Law of Hungary.
In an interview with Hungarian public radio, Viktor Orban stated that CEU – which he identified as “the George Soros University” – “enjoyed an unfair advantage over Hungarian Universities and fell short of regulations.” On April 26, Hungary’s Members of the European Parliament defended the newly-amended law to their counterparts by explaining that it “applies to 28 universities and only requires common standards to be fulfilled.”
Unsurprisingly, CEU disagrees. In an interview with CEE Legal Matters, Zsolt Enyedi, the CEU Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs and a Professor of Political Science, claimed that the Lex CEU “is discriminatory because the amendment is tailored to specifically target the unique situation of CEU.” Enyedi also described Lex CEU as problematic because it makes the continued operation of foreign universities in Hungary dependent on the decision of the Ministers instead of the accreditation institutions and other independent bodies specifically designed and constituted for that purpose.
In addition, according to Enyedi, although CEU in fact does operate based on a joint declaration of the governments of Hungary and the State of New York, there was no previous requirement that it do so, and by tying the operating rights of foreign universities in Hungary to the existence of this kind of inter-governmental agreement, the Lex CEU “makes the educational autonomy of these institutions dependent on the prerogative and preferences of politicians.”
As a result, on April 21, 2017, opposition members of the Hungarian Parliament filed a constitutional claim with the Hungarian Constitutional Court challenging the new Amendments. According to Enyedi, in view of statements made on the issue by legal experts like Lazlo Solyom (the first Chairman of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and Former President of Hungary) describing Lex CEU as a clear violation of the constitution, CEU is confident that it will get a reprieve.
In addition, in April 2017 the European Commission started infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government regarding the new law, sending a letter to the Hungarian authorities informing them that “Lex CEU was incompatible with fundamental freedoms enshrined in the EU treaties – namely, right to academic freedom, freedom of education, freedom to provide services, and freedom of expression under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.” Hungary has one month to present its views regarding the breach. The Commission will give a reasoned opinion if the observations presented by the Hungarian government is not considered satisfactory, and if necessary, refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.
It appears the bill is unpopular even with Fidesz’s supporters outside the country, as, on April 29, 2017, the Presidency of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the EU center-right party of which Fidesz is a member – asked Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and Fidesz to take all necessary steps to comply with the commission’s request, while making it clear that the “EPP wants the CEU to remain open, [have] deadlines [be]suspended, and dialogue with the US to begin.”
Subsequently, on May 17, 2017, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the Hungarian government to repeal Lex CEU, to “immediately suspend all deadlines,” and to start dialogue with relevant U.S authorities. That same day CEU issued a public statement calling on the Hungarian government “to listen to its European partners and initiate negotiations.”
At the moment of publication, the Hungarian government has yet to act on any of these requests, although a Hungarian government official will reportedly meet on June 23 in New York with a representative of Andrew Cuomo, the governor, to discuss the university’s future.
Note: A previous version of this article was published on the CEE Legal Matters website on May 31, 2017.