Brochures of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest are seen as refugee students arrive, on their first day of study, on September 17, 2016. CEU is a graduate university for social sciences, political and economic matters. It was founded by US billionaire Hungarian-born George Soros. / AFP / ATTILA KISBENEDEK (Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)
Brochures of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. © AFP

Hungary has sparked a row with a university founded by billionaire George Soros by drafting laws that the institution says could force it to shut down.

Central European University was founded 26 years ago in Hungary’s post-Communist era and is one of the highest-ranked postgraduate institutions in central and eastern Europe. Michael Ignatieff, the university’s president, said it was being targeted by “punitive and discriminatory” legislation. 

The proposed changes to Hungary’s higher education laws extend a battle between Mr Soros and prime minister Viktor Orban, who has cast the Budapest-born billionaire as an ideological enemy.

Citing national security considerations, Hungary’s government late on Tuesday presented draft amendments that would require universities offering degrees with non-European accreditation — such as CEU — to open campuses abroad, change their legal status and tighten enrolment and hiring policies for non-EU applicants. These institutions would also have to strike government-level international agreements to cover their operation inside and outside Hungary.

CEU — which offers dual US and Hungarian accredited diplomas to 1,800 students from 117 countries — says the changes mean that CEU would have to close to new enrolments in February unless Hungary and the US agree a binding international treaty.

Mr Ignatieff, a former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, said the legislation “attacks CEU and is an entirely unacceptable assault on academic freedom”. He demanded the government withdraw its proposals and negotiate an agreement with the state of New York, where CEU is also registered, to guarantee CEU’s existence. He said the US federal government had no jurisdiction over university accreditation.

David Kostelancik, US chargé d’affaires in Hungary, said the US “opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the university”.

Mr Orban, a one-time Soros scholarship beneficiary, has steadily tightened his grip over political institutions, media and the economy since he returned to power as prime minister in 2010.

Laszlo Palkovics, Hungary’s education minister, said the proposals were intended to clarify the legal basis of international institutions operating in Hungary. “This is not an anti-CEU investigation and not against Mr Soros,” he told reporters on Wednesday. 

The new proposals follow attacks on CEU in Hungary’s pro-government press, accusing the institution of mistreating staff, producing fake degrees and serving foreign interests.

They also coincide with a planned clampdown on non-governmental organisations that receive funding from Mr Soros’ Open Society Foundations, although final proposals have not yet been published. 

Maria Schmidt, an influential Orban ally and owner of Figyelo, a business weekly, has described CEU as Mr Soros’s “outpost”. In a blog post she said the billionaire philanthropist was “the embodiment of everything that deserves our contempt. Today Soros’s name means liberal and . . . everything that is loathsome, unpatriotic, arrogant, and unacceptable”.

Other countries, including Russia and Uzbekistan, have expelled groups funded by Mr Soros’s OSF. The university crackdown also echoes the closure of the European University in St Petersburg in Russia, which had its licence revoked this month.

The mayor of Vilnius on Wednesday invited the university to relocate in the Lithuanian capital.

Mr Ignatieff would not be drawn on whether he would consider temporarily shifting some operations outside Hungary. “We will never close this university and we will maintain our academic programmes no matter what,” he said. “Budapest is our home.”

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