Trouble in Hungary & Central European University: a Q&A with Radka Pudilova

What has just happened with Central European University?

On Tuesday 4th April 2017, the Hungarian National Assembly passed an amendment to a higher education bill that affects the current mode of functioning of the Central European University. The voting on this change was fast-tracked (it was rammed through the parliament in one week), leaving very little space for discussion on the matter. CEU has only until 1st January 2018 to comply with these new measures.

These new legal provisions are manifold, but for one, CEU would be forced to open a new campus in the US if it were to continue delivering US degrees and its Hungarian-registered entity would have to change its name. You can read more about the proposed changes and CEU’s response here.


Why is it so controversial? 

The amendments to the existing Hungarian law on higher education would complicate CEU’s existence, if not force it to shut down its operation completely. It is seen as directly targeting CEU but also as an attack on academic freedom. CEU has received a lot of support from academic institutions in Hungary and abroad.

Central European University is Hungary’s most prestigious university. Although it is a private school, it offers generous scholarships that allow students from approximately 100 countries, including around 400 Hungarian students, to receive a high quality US-accredited (and in some cases Hungarian-accredited) degrees annually. Its library, the largest in the region, is open to students from other universities as well. There are many research projects in which CEU engages with other academic institutions both in Hungary and elsewhere.

The adopted amendments to the existing higher education legislation are also seen by some as an attack on the founder of the institution – the Hungarian-born American, George Soros. There have been outspoken negative sentiments towards “foreign agents trying to meddle with Hungarian politics” by the ruling party Fidesz, often looking at Open Society Foundations, a foundation that funds many NGOs in the country.


What sort of precedent does this set in Hungary?

In my opinion, it shows that the state wants to have more control even in the traditionally independent domain of academia. It demonstrates the power of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party to carry on with their path towards illiberal democracy - we have seen attacks on media, civil society organizations and now a university. This begs the question of what will be targeted next and I think nobody has an answer to that at the moment.

How do young people in the country feel about this? How are they engaging with this issue?

As a non-Hunagrian, it is hard for me to generalize. It is certainly great to see many young people attending the protests against this decision; tens of thousands of people attended the protest on Sunday.

You can also see the #istandwithCEU hashtag trending on social media. I am personally very positively surprised by the support expressed by many Hungarian youth-affiliated organizations such as the Hungarian Association of Student Councils.


What was the source of this decision?

Orban’s rally cry is that there are universities that operate illegally in Hungary and that no university can stand above Hungarian laws. However, CEU has operated in the country for over two decades and it is properly accredited both with US and Hungarian authorities. Its operations may however become illegal if it does not comply with the new amendments.

Others argue that this is Orban’s vendetta against George Soros, whom he sees as meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Soros is the founder of CEU and the university is often labeled Soros university, even though Mr Soros himself is only honorary chairman of the board of trustees, the university’s governing body.

Was this a foreseen policy? Are you surprised?

Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise. Orban has for long targeted independent organisations. First he attacked the media, then he started harassing NGOs with measures, conducted unlawful police raids and recently proposed legislation that would label those receiving funds from abroad as foreign agents. Now he targets academia. While shocking, this option has been in the back of everybody’s mind for a long time.


PM Viktor Orban wants to build an ‘illiberal democracy’, can you tell us about some of the other policies he has instituted within this vision?

As I mentioned before, he has been for a long time targeting non-governmental organizations. Just this past Friday, a legislation was submitted to Parliament that labels NGOs receiving over 7.2 million HUF (approx. 23,000 EUR) per year from abroad as foreign agents, except for churches and religious organizations.

Another example is his stance towards migration. Orban likes to use a tool called “national consultation” where he sends a questionnaire to each Hungarian citizen to answer. However, the way questions are phrased, suggests only one outcome. My personal favorites from last year’s survey were these questions:

There are some who believe that Brussels’ policy on immigration and terrorism has failed, and that we therefore need a new approach to these questions. Do you agree?

Would you support the Hungarian Government in the introduction of more stringent immigration regulations, in contrast to Brussels’ lenient policy?

and

Do you agree with the Hungarian government that support should be focused more on Hungarian families and the children they can have, rather than on immigration?

These questionnaires are designed so that Orban and Fidesz can use them to demonstrate general support for policies they introduced.


What does this mean for Hungary’s future as an EU Member State?

Some MEPs called for European Parliament to discipline Hungary for its actions against NGOs. It is hard to guess whether there will be some real conclusion from the EU, but it would certainly be a much needed signal that the values that it stands on cannot be so bluntly violated by its members. In short, it seems Europeans are tired of reprimanding Hungary and are calling for more binding action. Some MEPs have suggested to trigger Article 7 as Hungary is in violation of fundamental rights. You can see this article for more information.

How do young people in Hungary feel about his administration?

Again, as a non-Hungarian it is hard for me to speak on this issue. Generally speaking, the young people in Hungary are not that different from their counterparts in the other V4 countries. They are mostly frustrated with the current socioeconomic situation and they worry about their economic prospects. In Hungary, that also translates to support of Jobbik, a far-right party that received the second largest vote in the latest Hungarian parliamentary elections. For people under 30, their support of Jobbik is higher than that of Fidesz. On the other hand, Orban and Fidesz were democratically elected in 2014, which shows that many people at least were supporting their views and policies.
I suspect that Orban tries to steal some of the Jobbik votes back by playing the victim of globalism and promoting the Hungary-first rhetoric.

Radka Pudilova is alumna of School of Public Policy at Central European University. She participated at One Young World in Bangkok in 2015 and currently works as a project coordinator at Open Society Fund Prague where she concentrates on illiberal tendencies in public domains. Radka has worked in the development sector and she has researched on NGO accountability, transformation aid and post-conflict education. She works on strengthening youth journalism as part of the Inclusive Media team. Her ongoing passion is new technology, especially the IoT and sharing economy domains.