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Apr 06, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

CEU: facts versus frenzy

Few people know that there’s not one CEU, but two. There’s the Central European University, registered in New York, which does not offer university education in New York. And there’s the Közép-europai Egyetem in Hungary. If you get a degree from CEU, who is awarding your diploma? Until now, in an inexplicable 2-for-1, the answer was both.

A good academic knows that sound scholarship requires that we examine the facts before we draw conclusions. If we take a step back from the heated discussion around the amendment to Hungary’s law on higher education and look at the facts, we’ll find that there’s nothing unreasonable in the new regulations that cannot be sorted out with cooperation between the government and the universities concerned.

“Trust in the good will of the Hungarian government and in the good will of the American leadership,” Prime Minister Orbán told journalists earlier this week when asked about the impact the new legislation approved by Parliament would have on the CEU.

It’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and look at the facts. True, it requires a little more time and effort than copying and pasting a hashtag slogan, but it’s worth it.

The new legislation aims to sort out a number of irregularities and inconsistencies.

Specifically, the law adopted this week simply requires that, if a non-European institution of higher education wants to continue to issue its own country's diploma parallel with the European one, then it needs to be backed by a bilateral agreement with that country's authorities. There’s nothing unusual about that requirement.

You see, few people know that there’s not one CEU, but two. There’s the Central European University, which is a foreign institution of higher education registered in the state of New York but does not offer university education in New York. And there’s the Közép-europai Egyetem , or KEE, which is an institution of higher education registered in Hungary. If you get a degree from CEU, who is awarding your diploma? Until now, the answer was: both.

The new law closes a strange loophole that had allowed the CEU to effectively issue two diplomas for completing the course work for one degree. Under the new law, the Hungarian university, KEE, can continue to teach as before with no change whatsoever. Nothing opposes that. If it wants the best of both worlds and wants to continue to issue a US diploma as it has been doing – beyond the European diploma that it is entitled to award – it will need a bilateral treaty with the United States for mutual recognition. 

The new law affects some two dozen foreign institutions of higher education currently operating in Hungary. It’s noteworthy that all of the other institutions have accepted this modest minimal condition of university equality and fairness. Only CEU has protested because the university insists on its unfair privileges.

These problems surfaced during a review of 28 foreign, higher education institutions operating in Hungary. The state’s Education Office found irregularities and unlawful operations at 27 of them – including the George Soros-funded Central European University. The irregularities and unlawful practices showed that current legislation did not have the needed guarantees to protect Hungary’s higher education market against universities not properly qualified.

For those concerned with the facts, several foreign institutions besides the CEU were found to have irregularities, yet none of them have been fined or shut down.

For example, Oxford Brookes University is not running courses within the required legal framework, allowing students without a Bachelor’s degree to pursue a Master’s diploma. The Czech Banking Institute’s College of Banking appears to have no existing cooperation, and the Hungarian partner institution cannot be found on the address given in the operating charter. Among many others, the International Business School and CEU offer courses which haven’t been accredited. The most common infraction found among foreign institutions is the failure to provide proper documentation for the public register.

In the case of CEU, the university failed to respond in time to multiple requests for proper documentation. The institution in fact ran 17 courses without first registering them.

It’s a sign of both the negligence of these institutions and the loopholes of the previous legislation that allowed them to operate unlawfully. That situation had to be changed, and that’s the goal of the new law. “[T]hey cannot be above the law in Hungary,” said Prime Minister Orbán in an interview last Friday, “cheating is cheating, no matter who does it.”

And it’s not impossible to follow the rules.

“The amendment to the act on higher education,” said Hungarian Minister of State for Education László Palkovics, “does not make it impossible for institutions to operate in Hungary.” The point is to have a certain, basic means of reviewing quality and maintaining standards that apply to all universities operating in Hungary.

Cooperation will not produce sensationalist headlines in the international press but will give us the chance to protect the quality of higher education available to students. I assume this latter is our common goal.