Crackdown on controversial school

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Thousands of members of Budapest?s academic community gathered outside the Budapest Parliament building on April 2 in protest of pending legislation that could forcibly close Central European University, a school founded by George Soros. The legislation has been perceived as an attack on civil society organizations, most notably those backed by Soros, a Hungarian-American philanthropist whom Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has accused of violating the country?s higher education graduation system. The legislation sets up regulations for ?foreign? universities, effectively applying only to Central European University, founded in 1991 with accreditation in the United States and Hungary. The US State Department has condemned the bill. Credit: Instagram/asmaciel via Storyful

In this October 26, 2009 file photo, Hungarian born US billionaire and investor George Soros is pictured ahead of the start of his five-day-long lecture at the Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary. Picture: Bela Szandelszky/AP

HUNGARY’S president on Monday signed amendments to the country’s higher education law that could force a Budapest university founded by billionaire American philanthropist George Soros to close or move.

Central European University said it “strongly disagreed” with President Janos Ader’s decision and vowed to challenge what it called a “premeditated political attack on a free institution.”

Ader said in a statement that the bill setting new conditions for foreign universities in Hungary was in line with the Constitution and international treaties and did not infringe upon academic freedoms.

Had he had concerns with the bill, Ader could have asked the Constitutional Court to review the amendments or sent it back to parliament for reconsideration.

Nonetheless, Ader acknowledged that the fast-tracked approval of the law and some of the new conditions “provoked antipathy in many people.” By 10pm, several hundred people had gathered outside the president’s offices in Buda Castle to protest his action.

“As I have said before, we are willing to sit down with the Hungarian government to find a solution to enable CEU to stay in Budapest and operate as we have done for 25 years,” CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff said. “However, academic freedom is not negotiable. It is a principle that must form the basis of any future agreement.”

About 70,000 people rallied in support of CEU on Sunday, calling on Ader to refrain from signing the legislation approved last Tuesday. It was the third rally in eight days in support of the university, which enrols over 1400 students from 108 countries.

Ader called on the government to “immediately” begin talks with affected institutions about the implementation of the new rules.

One new stipulation demands bilateral agreements with the home countries of universities from outside the European Union within six months, while another would require schools to establish campuses in their home countries by the end of the year.

For CEU, Hungary is demanding bilateral agreements with the United States and the state of New York, where the school is accredited, but does not have a campus.

The bill was approved by politicians from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party and their Christian Democrat allies last week.

“The situation is that in Hungary we are not closing a single university,” Orban said Monday in parliament. “In Hungary, we usually establish and open universities. You can trust in this in the future, too.”

Orban earlier said CEU was “cheating” and enjoyed an unfair advantage over other local schools because its students can earn both US and Hungarian diplomas. CEU has vowed to remain in Budapest despite invitations to possibly relocate from cities in Lithuania and Poland.

Orban considers the Hungarian-born Soros an ideological foe whose “open society” ideals contrast with Orban’s plan to make Hungary an “illiberal state.” Orban has accused the billionaire of trying to influence Hungarian politics through his support of non-governmental groups like Transparency International and of working against Hungary’s interests by supporting refugees and migrants.

Opposition parties were quick to criticise Ader, a Fidesz politician who was re-elected by politicians to a five-year term in March.

“Ader today proved that he is not suited to be the president of the republic because he is incapable of recognising the nation’s interests and cannot express the unity of the nation,” the Socialist Party said.

The green Politics Can Be Different asked other opposition parties to support its plan to appeal the law to the Constitutional Court. Fifty of the 68 opposition deputies would need to back the motion.

Momentum Movement, a new opposition party whose campaign recently led Budapest to abandon its bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, said Ader was “hiding behind laws” and more interested in keeping his job than challenging the legislation.

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