By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungary said it will not withdraw new legislation to regulate foreign universities that a Budapest college founded by American financier and philanthropist George Soros says could force it out of the country.
Central European University (CEU) said on Wednesday that the bill proposed this week was unacceptable and that it threatened academic freedom in Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has clashed with Soros-funded organizations.
CEU rector Michael Ignatieff met with Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics late on Wednesday and told him the university demanded the bill be withdrawn and that rules ensuring foreign universities can operate freely are put in place.
The government said it was open to negotiations but would not withdraw the bill.
“The government does not consider it justified to withdraw its proposals to modify the higher education laws, including the operating conditions of foreign higher education institutions in Hungary,” the ministry told state news agency MTI.
Orban has criticized civil society organizations funded by Soros which espouse an Open Society model at odds with his own preferred “illiberal democracy”. One flashpoint has been migration.
The right-wing premier, who himself once benefited from a Soros-funded scholarship, says NGOs that receive funding from abroad meddle in Hungarian affairs and plans to tighten rules governing them in a widely criticized crackdown.
The bill proposed this week singles out CEU — a stalwart of liberal international education in Hungary — with a set of rules it might find prohibitive for continued operations, CEU leaders said on Wednesday.
One is a requirement to operate a campus in its home state of New York, the other is a bilateral agreement of support between Hungary and the United States.
Palkovics told MTI he would be open to hammering out a bilateral agreement with the State of New York, which has jurisdiction in education matters, instead of the U.S. federal government.
That would make such an agreement far more likely than with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has exchanged tough words with Hungarian-born Soros several times in recent years.
The bill’s requirement of operating a campus in the universities’ home state puts extra burdens only on CEU, as all other foreign universities have a home campus already.
Founded in 1991, CEU operates exclusively in Budapest but offers diplomas recognized both in the European Union and the United States.
Ignatieff told a press conference on Wednesday that CEU would not discuss the current bill, only a new future legal text that offers international guarantees for free continued operations “in perpetuity”.
“Trust has been broken … A purely domestic remedy is no longer sufficient,” he said. “We will never close this university and we will maintain academic programs no matter what … We have done nothing wrong.”
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Catherine Evans)