It is on it or below it for the prestigious Central European University (CEU) in Hungary. The international university was founded in 1991 by the American-Hungarian businessman and philantropist George Soros with the aim of stimulating new democracies in Eastern Europe.
But two decades later, the university’s pre-existence in Budapest is under threat. If the government does not give permission before 1 December, the university will disappear from Hungary.
A group of students demonstrate this week every day before the parliament. They have built a tent camp. In tents, lectures are given and there are day and night activities and concerts. There are banners with texts such as ‘deacademic freedom is in danger’ and there is a coffin with the words ‘RIP CEU’.
Symbolism leaves little to the imagination. “If we have to leave Hungary, the freedom of education has definitely died,” says a Hungarian student who places burning candles on the coffin at nightfall.
Students from more than one hundred countries study at the CEU. One of them is the Dutch Max de Blank. He follows a master’s degree in gender studies and is one of the organizers of the protest. “If we are deported, we want to do so with as much noise as possible,” he says. “We have to show the world: look, this is what is happening here and we think it is not possible.”
With the coffin on the shoulders and banners in the air, small groups of students walk through the city center every day. They stop at a busy Christmas market. “What do we want at Christmas? Academic freedom!”, They shout at day visitors.
Meanwhile, one day before the deadline, the chances that the government will come over the bridge have become very small. “We do not want to leave”, said CEU’s director Michael Ignatieff last month, when he announced that he would give the Hungarian government until December 1 to sign an agreement that would guarantee the continuity of the institution. “We are being chased away, we can not help but prepare for a departure”.
If this happens, the international doctoral and master’s programs will no longer be given in Budapest but in Vienna from the next academic year, where a new CEU campus has been founded last year.
In the past two years it has become clear that Hungary wants to get rid of the university. According to Dean Eva Fodor, CEU trains the watchdogs of democracy, and is seen as a threat to Prime Minister Orbán’s power. “Good universities train critical thinkers, but in a country that is increasingly moving in the direction of an authoritarian state and getting further away from the democratic principles, critical thinkers are a problem,” she says.
The CEU specializes in social and political sciences. Founded in 1991, it grew into one of the best universities in Central and Eastern Europe. Students receive American diplomas that are recognized worldwide. Most masters are national studies and gender studies and programs that give refugees and asylum seekers scholarships.
The reason behind the imminent departure is an amendment to the law on higher education, which was implemented in April 2017. The amendment of the law stipulates that an educational institution that receives financing from abroad must also have a branch in the country where the money comes from.
When this law was approved by parliament, where Orbán’s party has a large majority, few people doubted that it was a direct attack on the CEU, the only educational institution without a branch in the home country.
That same year the government started a vicious media campaign against CEU founder billionaire and philantropist George Soros. Viktor Orbán speaks about Soros as the greatest enemy of the state. As a danger to the conservative and traditional way of thinking he envisions for the Hungarians.
A number of Orbán’s fellow party members have studied at CEU in the past and Orbán himself has received a scholarship from Soros’ Open Society Foundation to study in England as a young student. Things that the government rarely wants to respond to.
After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, CEU was an idealistic project by George Soros. Students from countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine were able to study with scholarships at a university that was well ahead of its time in that region.
The aim was to support the former Eastern Bloc countries in the transition from closed societies to open democratic countries. With the knowledge and skills they gained from the CEU, the students were able to return to their countries to help develop the young democracies there.
The Romanian student Maria Dumitru could not have studied as easily if she had not received a scholarship for CEU. She comes from a poor Roma community in southern Romania. Now she studies gender studies in Budapest. It remains to be seen whether she can continue her studies when the university moves to Vienna. “Livelihood is much more expensive there, I’m worried about that,” she says.
She finds it important to continue to fight for her university until the last moment. “It seems that education is a threat nowadays, but free education is a fundamental right for everyone, and we must continue to fight for it.”
The ruling party of Prime Minister Orbán has been much discredited in recent years because of violations of European democratic principles. Especially his rigid policy towards migrants and the breakdown of the free press are topics of criticism from Brussels. The European Parliament recently voted for the launch of an Article 7 criminal procedure against Hungary.
“This will be the first time that a university in the European Union has had to close fully legally for decades,” says dean Eva Fodor. “That’s dangerous, because if it can happen here, it can also happen elsewhere in Europe.”
The government has called this last cry for help from CEU ‘hysterical’ in a statement earlier this week. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the university still does not meet the conditions to be able to stay. The CEU looked for a solution in the past year, opened a department in the state of New York, with which the institution claims to comply with the new law.
“We now comply with all the rules,” says Fodor. “It is now up to the government to put that last signature, but they refuse to do so, which tells us that this government wants our university to leave the country.”
In the protest camp students also take into account that their actions will change little. Yet there is still hope, says the Dutch student Max de Blank. “We need to show Hungary and the rest of Europe that this is a political struggle by the government to get our university out of the country, because they have a certain image of society, a conservative society, and we do not fit in there. . “