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Central European Seeks Resolution to ‘Legal Limbo’

October 18, 2017
 
 

Leaders of Central European University held a press conference Tuesday where they called on the Hungarian government to sign an agreement that would enable the university to continue to operate over the long term in Budapest.

Administrators at CEU, which is accredited in the U.S. and chartered by New York State, said they have complied with all the requirements of a new higher education law passed in April. The law requires foreign universities that operate in Hungary to be governed by a bilateral agreement between the host and home governments and to operate educational activities in their country of origin. In order to satisfy the latter requirement, CEU has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Bard College to offer joint educational activities in New York, including joint degree programs.

CEU administrators say all that’s left to resolve the situation is for the Hungarian government to sign the draft agreement it has negotiated with New York State. But the Hungarian government has not yet done so, and the Parliament recently extended the deadline for complying with the new law by a year -- leaving CEU in what its president, Michael Ignatieff, described as “a state of legal limbo.”

“This is unacceptable but it’s also unnecessary. There’s an agreement with the state of New York that the government could sign if it actually wants to solve this matter. A draft text agreed by both sides has been in place since early September,” Ignatieff said at the press conference, which was broadcast online.

Ignatieff said a university needs legal stability in order to operate. “There’s simply no question that a university that’s deliberately kept by the government in a state of legal uncertainty to suit their political convenience is a university that is in danger,” Ignatieff said.

He added, “No university in Europe -- let me make this very clear -- no university in Europe has been put through what we’ve been put through. It’s just unacceptable. I’m here having this press conference because we want a solution. But a solution is on the table. And every time we get within reach of a solution, the goalposts get moved. The criteria get changed.”

Hungary's new law on foreign universities has been widely seen as a targeted attack by Hungary's government on CEU and its founder, the liberal financier George Soros. The Hungarian government has denied CEU was specifically targeted and said in April that the university "will be able to continue its operation as soon as an international agreement has been reached." In July, the Hungarian government signed an agreement with the state of Maryland allowing for the continuing operation of McDaniel College, another American institution with a campus in Budapest.

Asked why the government has not yet signed the draft agreement, the press department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary said in a statement that the Ministries of Justice and Human Capacities "are examining whether the functioning and operation of the Central European University, based on the documents submitted by the CEU, would be in accordance with Hungarian law."

"There was great international pressure on the government of Hungary with the objective that the university of George Soros should be exempt from Hungarian regulations," the government's statement said. "However, Hungarian laws apply to all schools in the same way and manner, and these rules and regulations guarantee the transparent operation of foreign higher education institutions in Hungary. The amendment of the Hungarian Act on Higher Education extends the deadline, by which the foreign higher education institutions have to meet the requirements in order to be able to operate in Hungary. When the government of Hungary submitted the current bill, it also took into consideration the fact that negotiations with certain foreign higher education institutions, including the CEU from the United State[s] of America, have not been concluded. In doing so, the government of Hungary also took under consideration and accepted the recommendation of the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference to extend the deadline to meet the requirements. This recommendation of the Hungarian Rectors’ Conference was explicitly welcomed and appreciated in the report of the Venice Commission," a body of the Council of Europe that recently issued a report on Hungary's new law on foreign universities.

The Venice Commission report found the imposition of stringent new requirements on Hungary's existing foreign universities to be "highly problematic."

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