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Oct 27, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

Deadline on administrative rules extended: So why all that hyperventilating about CEU and academic freedom?

Last spring, media and opinion leaders all over the world pilloried Hungary for what they claimed was an attempt to ‘shutter the Soros-funded Central European University’ and ‘crack down on freedom of education,’ following the introduction of administrative requirements in the amended law on higher education. The new rules imposed an impossible deadline, they argued, that could not be met.

Fact is, many other institutions of higher education, for example the US-based McDaniels College, have not had a problem complying with the new rules. Nevertheless, we decided to extend the deadline by a year to January 1, 2019, and the response? They now say that extension is “an unnecessary delay that subjects the university and the Hungarian academic community to a further year of legal uncertainty.”

Did you catch that? Initially they said the new rules imposed an impossible deadline, but when given an extension, it’s a “further year of legal uncertainty” and a threat to the academic community. The considerable network of CEU allies and surrogates have outdone themselves trying to spin this up into a political issue to cast the Orbán Government in a negative light (and in some cases for their own political gain). But this latest modification extending the deadline just goes to show that this has always been merely an administrative issue, a matter of equality before the law.It’s all here, but let’s recap real quick:

In April, the Hungarian Parliament passed an amendment to the Act on Higher Education that requires foreign universities operating in Hungary to abide by certain regulations. For example, it requires that universities and colleges from outside of the European Economic Area, handing out diplomas from their country of origin in Hungary, carry out education programs in their countries of origin as well. Additionally, it requires that the college or university’s government of origin and Hungary have a signed agreement on the operation of this institution of higher education within Hungary.

The modification affects two dozen institutions, but you’ll only hear about one: the George Soros-founded Central European University and its Hungarian affiliate, the Közép-európai Egyetem – a convoluted relationship.

While the Hungarian government has been clear that the intention of the new law is to have every university abide by the same rules, only one institution has had a problem complying. The CEU chose another path, organizing demonstrations, writing open letters, engaging editorial boards and communicating Hungary’s new law as a ‘crackdown on academic freedom.’ CEU elevated the clearly administrative issue to the international, political sphere. They said that it is impossible to meet the criteria by the deadline set down in the law – January 2018 – to set up a campus and have a bilateral agreement signed.

Much of the international, mainstream media bought into the CEU line. Nothing new or surprising about this. A headline claiming ‘Hungary threatens freedom of education’ fits their editorial narrative and makes for good clickbait.

That line, however, never withstood scrutiny. Scratch the surface and take a closer look at the facts, and you find that the Hungarian legislation is not strict at all. In fact, other European authorities, like almost all of the states of Germany or the Netherlands, have similar rules on higher education institutions from outside the EU. If a foreign university sets up shop in a state of the European Economic Area and passes out diplomas, then its operation should be formalized in an agreement and, importantly, that university should be accredited and delivering higher education programs in its home state.

This is an administrative issue, and even the CEU says they are close to fulfilling the new requirements, despite saying just a few short months ago that these new rules cannot be met. That’s a welcome development. So why all the hyperventilating?