15 Oct 2017

If at first you don't succeed, stall stall again

Leaving the Central European University in limbo was a strategic move from the government: 6 months out from parliamentary elections it could not risk a deal with "the enemy", nor could it risk a storm of indignation.

Ivett Körösi
Ivett Körösi Nepszava, Hungary
Source: Nepszava
If at first you don't succeed, stall stall again - NewsMavens
Hungarian ruling conservative Fidesz party logo. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Why this story matters:

Imagine you're in court, awaiting sentencing. In just moments, a sentence will be handed down and nothing will ever be the same again, but at least, after months of uncertainty, a decision will finally be made. But, in a shocking turn of events, the judge announces that sentencing will be delayed by a year. That's how Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), one of the leading institutions of the region, must be feeling at the moment.

The Hungarian government has been trying to expel the university from the country since April in part of a wider campaign that targets the founder of CEU, Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros. The ruling Fidesz party accuses the 87 year old financier, who funded several post-communist-era pro-democracy initiatives, of meddling in Hungarian politics and encouraging millions of refugees to come to Europe. His image has been splashed across billboards all over the country, captioned: "Let's not let Soros have the last laugh". In a recent speech in parliament one conservative MP equated Soros with Satan.

It's no wonder the government decided to amend higher education  laws in April. It wanted to hit George Soros where it hurt the most. Chasing away the university he founded would mean destroying his legacy.

The new law made it harder to give licenses to foreign-based universities. CEU had a January 2018 deadline for jumping through new legal hoops but guess what? CEU's done it already. Yet instead of signing a deal to secure the university's future -- or not, which would have still put an end to the university's uncertainty -- the government said it would delay a decision by another 12 months. That means CEU will continue to exist for one more year, but its anyone's bet what will happen beyond that.

Leaving the Central European University in limbo was a strategic move from the government: 6 months out from parliamentary elections it could not risk a deal with "the enemy", nor could it risk a storm of indignation.

Details from the story:

  • According to amended higher education laws from April, foreign universities operating in Hungary need to have a campus in their country of origin. The CEU is based in Budapest but is accredited in the United States. Therefore it was required to open a campus in the US.
  • CEU recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bard College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, to undertake 'educational activities'. Thus CEU fulfilled the condition set by the higher education law.
  • Uncertainty over CEU's future would have been cleared up had the Hungarian government signed a deal with the State of New York, thus ensuring CEU's operation. But the government didn't and Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi announced that the deadline would be extended by a year.
  • This means that CEU can operate for at least one more year but uncertainty regarding its future remains.
  • Attila Juhasz, an expert with the Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute claims that the government used this strategy to buy some time before 2018 elections.
  • The analyst said: the ruling Fidesz party's interests were served by neither coming to an agreement with nor shutting down CEU. If the government had ensured CEU's future, it would have been contradictory to its anti-Soros message. If it had forced the university to shut down it might have caused outrage, even among Fidesz supporters.
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