Academic freedom under threat in Hungary: the story of Lex CEU

Academic freedom under threat in Hungary: the story of Lex CEU

Protests against Lex CEU, attacks on academic freedom and the current authoritarian tendencies, took place on 9 April 2017 in Budapest, Hungary.

(Beliczay László)

In the aftermath of World War II, the Hungarian political philosopher István Bibó argued that an authoritarian threat to democracy existed when “following a cataclysm or an illusion,” the cause of the nation was separated from – and seen as a threat to – the cause of freedom.

Explaining the 2008 global financial crisis as such a cataclysm, it was along these lines that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defined his intentions to build an illiberal nation state.

In a 2014 speech, he stated that the Hungarian nation as a community needed to be organised, strengthened and developed not around the values of liberalism, but using a particular national approach instead, in order to become globally competitive. This demanded a centralised state power and a unified nation.

On the former, with Orbán and the Fidesz-KDNP alliance winning a two-thirds parliamentary majority in both the 2010 and 2014 elections, under the pretext of governing by “the general will of the people,” the last seven years have resulted in a ‘state capture,’ whereby state institutions are used to advance a particular group’s interests instead of public interests.

Replacing the rule of law with a rule-by-law approach, they have gotten a tighter grip on the institutions, including the Central Bank, the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, the media, and even the economy.

They did this, mainly, through an attempt at (re)defining the collective identity, pitting ‘real’ Hungarians against a collection of internal and external enemies.

Currently Orbán is moving against at least three such ‘enemies’: refugees, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and George Soros.

On the first, in addition to the inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, the government is pursuing an aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric with some of the questions in the on-going ‘national consultation’ fusing “immigrants” with “illegals” and “terrorism”.

On the second, Fidesz has proposed a bill in the parliament that would crack down on foreign-funded NGOs, suggesting that they “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.”

Finally, on the third, the financier and philanthropist George Soros has long been portrayed as Orbán’s ideological nemesis.

An early Trump supporter, following the November elections, Orbán and his media started openly attacking the Central European University (CEU), a university founded by Soros in 1991 with the initial aim to educate new regional leaders. Even though the university is not controlled by Soros (it is privately endowed and governed by an independent board of trustees), CEU has continuously been called “the Soros University” by the Fidesz-controlled media and the government, making a discursive connection between one of the illiberal nation state’s ‘enemies’ and CEU.

This way, the attack on CEU has been framed as a measure “to protect the nation,” rather than something which jeopardises academic freedom.


On 28 March, an amendment to the National Higher Education Law was tabled at the Hungarian parliament, which was signed into law on 10 April.

This law became known as ‘Lex CEU’ after the university that seems to be most directly targeted. CEU has a dual legal entity – an American entity registered in New York and a Hungarian entity, which has allowed it to award both Hungarian and US-accredited degrees. The new law targets the functioning of the American entity in Hungary.

Two aspects seem particularly troubling and single out CEU from other foreign universities in Hungary. The first is the requirement that all foreign universities maintain campuses and offer degrees in the jurisdiction that accredited them. For CEU, this would mean opening another campus in New York. With October 2017 as a deadline, compliance is essentially impossible.

The other aspect is the requirement that the university’s work is regulated through an intergovernmental agreement between Hungary and the other country of accreditation. The government has so far argued that this is a technical and legal matter, when in reality it is evidently a political one. The government is looking for a way to control a university which – unlike the country’s public universities – has managed to stay out of its meddling reach.

Nevertheless, Orbán’s desire to deal with Trump directly notwithstanding, the message from the US State Department was clear: “this is a matter for the government of Hungary and CEU to work out.”

There have been some clumsy attempts at backpedalling by Hungary’s Secretary for Education, and a group of parliamentarians are challenging the law at the Constitutional Court, while CEU itself is exploring all possible legal remedies.

The critical question is not whether CEU will continue to exist. That, it certainly will. The issue, however, is where. How this ends is anyone’s guess at this point. From what we have seen and heard from Orbán so far, as far as Hungarian institutions are concerned, I find myself going back to Antonio Gramsci’s words: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Beyond Hungarian institutions

“Europa, Europa!” has been a frequent chant at the Budapest protests and it is undeniable that the European Union’s approach to the situation in Hungary will define it internally and externally for years to come.

After all, what legitimacy would there be for a “normative power Europe,” for the EU to diffuse fundamental values, such as human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law, around the globe if they are not respected within?

Strongly-worded statements regarding Lex CEU aside, it is still unclear what measures, if any, the EU will take. In expressing his support for CEU, the European Commission’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that a legal analysis was underway and that Hungary would have two weeks to show compliance with EU law. Failure to do so could result in a fine and Hungary could even be taken to the European Court of Justice.

Depending on the findings of the analysis, the issue might gain further traction in the European People’s Party (EPP), the dominating centre-right party in the European Parliament, of which Fidesz is a member, and which has been providing a protective cloak for Orbán at an EU level.

Despite concerns expressed by some members, the EPP does not yet seem ready to confront Orbán at the expense of losing 12 votes in the European Parliament, but the Commission’s analysis, coupled with public pressure in different EU countries could change that.

Importantly, there have been three interconnected positive developments on the streets of Budapest. The first is the collectivism within CEU. Students, professors and staff have not only stepped out of the ivory tower, but have also gone beyond academic individualism, acting collectively for CEU, while simultaneously using the spotlight to draw attention to other attacks on academic freedom, such as those in Russia and Turkey.

This collectivism does not imply a lack of criticism; on the contrary, as one CEU alumna explains, “it is not the institution as an uncriticizable bloc that we need to defend [but] our right to carry on challenging it from within, against the whim of an autocrat to just close it overnight.” CEU has grown united around its right to keep redefining itself as an academic institution, without government’s interference.

The second positive development is the solidarity and collectivism beyond CEU. We have witnessed a massive outpouring of support from academics, public intellectuals, politicians and communities from around the world, coupled with an overwhelming number of protesters on the streets of Budapest, and teach-ins at Hungarian universities, with instructors at the Eötvös Loránd University organising open discussions on academic autonomy and democracy, despite the university chancellor’s discouragement.

Given the risks, it is precisely the Hungarian academics, activists and citizens whose solidarity has been most remarkable, showing that CEU’s departure would not make anyone better off, especially considering the precariousness of teachers and dissatisfactory conditions in Hungarian education altogether.

In fact, in Hungary, this fight is not solely about academic freedom; it is also about access to knowledge and access to education. The CEU library, as the largest English-language social sciences and humanities library in the region, makes its resources available to the wider academic community, including students, researchers and faculty who would otherwise not have access to the latest literature.

And through its generous scholarships, CEU has provided access to world-class education to students from minority groups, including Roma and refugees, as well as students from the region who might not be able to cover the steep fees at other universities. Some of CEU’s graduates join academia in their home countries, including instructors at Hungary’s most prominent universities.

The third and final optimistic aspect is the slow repoliticisation of Hungarian society. Ruling by law, controlling the media and discouraging public debate has left society polarised and depoliticised. Even Lex CEU has been presented as a simple legal matter, bypassing any public discussion or consultation.

Judging by the chants and the theme of every new protest, what is happening on the streets of Budapest and other smaller towns is about much more than CEU. Bringing the silencing of the media, the NGOs and the universities to the fore, the disenchantment with Orbán’s undemocratic governing was overwhelmingly heard by the 70,000 to 80,000 people at 9 April protest.

Going back to Bibo’s observation, the universities and the streets of Budapest have turned into sites of struggle, where students, professors and tens of thousands of protesters continue to challenge the government’s attempts to separate the cause of freedom from the cause of the nation in building an illiberal nation state. Even if they fall, academic freedom and democracy in Hungary will certainly not go down unheard and unnoticed.