Lex CEU: “If the CEU goes, where can I go?”

The Hungarian government has adopted a new Higher Education Law which threatens the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest with its closure. The law affects not only the university itself but also the life of the students. 

The main entrance of the CEU in Budapest.

Surrounded by countless little cafés and bars, the CEU is located in downtown Budapest, close to the Danube and even closer to the biggest church in Budapest; the St.-Stephans-Basilika. The magnificent basilica attracts many tourists so the district appears very vibrant at almost any time of the day.

The university is divided into different buildings in close vicinity to each other which seem to perfectly blend in their setting. Therefore, it can happen that tourists and non-locals, who end up in this energetic area, pass them without consciously being aware of it.

At present, this is impossible. Large blinding banners adorn the outer facade of the building in “Nador utca 13”. Large blue banners with a white message:” #IstandwithCEU #aCEUvalvagyok”.

Blue banners are hanging on the facade of the CEU.

Those who want to visit the library or the CEU Auditorium for example must go to the directly interconnected building in “Nador utca 15”. It locates the main entrance of the CEU and was opened there in autumn only one year ago.

The glazed front ensures modernity and signifies the university as a liberal and cosmopolitan institution. This modern touch of the new campus visually fits in with the older surrounding. However, in view of the current events it is questionable to what extent the modern attitude of the CEU is compatible with its traditional setting beyond the visual aspect.

On April 4th, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a fast-track draft of the amendment of the Higher Education Act. Despite strong protests, president János Áder signed the law only six days later, on April 10th.

The new law determines among other things that foreign universities whose institutions are located outside of Europe must have a branch in their home country in addition to a location in Hungary to hold a teaching establishment there and to award degrees. Not like the CEU, founded by George Soros, which is based in Hungary but registered in the USA.

Hager Ali is one of the international students at the CEU. She is German and is doing her master in Political Science at the CEU.

“There are other foreign universities in Hungary of course but if you read through the whole paragraphs, the law really only applies to the CEU”, she says. It is therefore also called in short “Lex CEU”. According to this, the CEU is not allowed to take up any more students from 2018 and has to cease teaching in 2021.

“We all jumped up when we heard about the law for the first time. Everyone asked themselves: Oh my God, oh my God, what is happening here?”, Hager speaks on, as she recalls the past events which according to her feel as if they happened one year ago.

However, the initial perplexity seems to have passed into action. The “IstandwithCEU”-campaign has been launched by the university as an immediate response to the law. It offers a possibility to declare one’s solidarity with the CEU for those who want to preserve the university.

Entering the main entrance of the CEU you first pass a large sign with the quote of George Soros. “But we must remember the unintended consequences – the outcome always differs from the expectations”, after reading this sentence it almost seems as if he had foreseen the recent proceedings. Hanging in the middle of a big wall the quote even seems to be more important.

Standing in the entrance area you can see that plenty of the people passing by are wearing a badge with the “IstandwithCEU”-message either attached to their jackets or backpacks. At the information desk on the left there is a small box with more badges. Again and again people are taking one.

The CEU is a small university. Walking through the building, you have the feeling that everybody knows each other. There are groups of people everywhere and you can rarely see people walking around on their own. Maybe that’s the reason why you are immediately noticed even when you are wearing one of the described badges. That’s also obviously one of the reasons for the way the CEU has responded to the law.

“Students are mainly here for one or two years and the majority is not Hungarian. They could be much less active about that situation but they are really fighting for a society to which they don’t belong. That’s so amazing for me to see”, says Hungarian Zsofia Suba. She is now working for the “Human Rights Initiative” at the CEU after she had finished her studies in “Political Science” there.

Hager doesn’t wear the badge anymore because she heard of students who “wore the badge and were beaten up in bars”. The Student Union of the CEU also calls attention to that in an email to all the students which informs them to be careful “whether walking the streets with the #IstandwithCEU/ #aCEUvalvagyok badge, engaging in demonstrations, or showing your support academic freedom with a blue ribbon”.

Andrea is standing in front of her university building wearing a blue badge.

Thus, there also seem to be advocates of the law. “I don’t know who they are, I don’t know where they live, it’s hard to imagine that they even exist”, says Hungarian activist Andrea Kobór. She is studying “Public Policy” and is writing her master thesis at the moment.

A lot of the protests against the Lex CEU have been organized by Andrea and a few other students. After it had become clear at the end of March that a vote concerning the Higher education law will come up in parliament they funded their own protest organization called “Freedom for Education Group”.

The name should emphasize that it’s more than just about the university: “We wanted to frame this issue as a broader issue. It’s not only about CEU. It’s about freedom of education and academic freedom”, says Andrea.

The case of the CEU is reminiscent of similar incidents in Turkey or Russia.

In Turkey 15 universities were closed after the failed putsch attempt last year. The government in Russia has withdrawn the license of the private European University at St. Petersburg even in April this year. “Suddenly it has happened in Hungary within the European Union. This has pretty shocked us all”, Hager states, as she reflects the beginning of the proceedings.

The CEU is not the only institution the government is proceeding against right now. According to a recently proposed law non-government organizations (NGOs) have to label themselves as “funded by foreign countries” if they receive more than 23.000 Euros of support annually. Therefore, past protests have often not merely referred to the Higher Education Law but rather to the government in Hungary in general.

For Zsofia the law is no longer exclusively about the CEU. “If this is the climate, how can I exist here? What are my possibilities in such a climate? If the CEU goes, where can I go?”, she asks herself.

Although many students and the administration of the university were reluctant to organize protests at the beginning because they were afraid that only a few people would show up, around 10.000 people participated in the first demonstration in Budapest. This one was organized by Andrea’s group despite the exams at the CEU at the very time in only two days.

Further protests with 80.000 participants followed. They marched from the bank of the Danube to the parliament building holding among others signs saying “We will not be silenced” or “Veto” on it, written in white on a blue underground, in the hope that the president János Áder would veto against the new regulations instead of signing them.

A “veto”-sign hanging in the CEU.

Andrea Kóbor knows what she is doing; she has been an activist for six years and has worked in various non-government organizations (NGOs) before. That so many people took part in the protests was also a surprise for her. “At the end of the day it’s just about a private American university, I mean who cares?”, she wonders while she is greeting ten of her classmates on her way to a restaurant near the CEU to get lunch.

Precisely the fact that Andrea is studying at a legal American university has given her the advantage of being able to apply for a scholarship of a university in Chicago to work on different political issues and problems in India for one year. She had to go through an enormous application procedure and has achieved it in the end.

You can really feel and see how happy she is about that new possibility after having done her master. “To be honest, this whole situation right now is partly the reason why I’m leaving. Mentally and emotionally, it’s extremely hard as an activist. It’s extremely hard”, Andrea says with a trembling voice. She had to be successful in three things at the same time: Accomplishing her daily student life, organizing protests immediately and completing the application procedure for the scholarship.

“My boyfriend has been an activist for ten years now. He is completely burned out. He can’t even read the news anymore”, she says. It becomes clear how much Andrea’s life revolves around being an activist.

Péter Márton is doing his PhD in Political Sciene at the CEU. He knows Andrea and was asked to speak on the biggest demonstration with 80.000 people.

When he is talking about it, it doesn’t sound like this was a huge challenge for him. During his speech, he encouraged people to go and talk to other people who might not necessarily know about the CEU or the new law. “There is a lack of discussion between people in Hungary”, clarifies Péter.

“Many Hungarians don’t think they are affected by the law. They think it only affects the rich and educated people in their ivory tower”, says Hager. “This doesn’t make it easier to float society’s boat”, she speaks on.

Péter specifically took part in two debates on TV concerning the law. One of them is called “The Stream” on the channel “Al Jazeera” which presents different topics with two sides. “There was me from the university, a journalist covering Central and Eastern Europe and they wanted to get someone who supports the law. They couldn’t find anyone so in the end they got a right-wing journalist who supports Fidesz but even he was against the law”, tells Péter.

In general, numerous scientists and institutions world-wide rally behind the CEU. The law is frequently criticized as a step against liberal thinking and free education as well as a result of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s aversion to George Soros; founder of the CEU.

For some time, Soros has been the enemy of the state because he advocates a liberal society model and financially supports numerous non-government organizations (NGOs) which espouse civil and human rights. The right-wing conservative government wants to constitute an illiberal state and sees the CEU with its founder Soros as a threat to its plans. However, the government emphasizes that the law is not specifically directed against the CEU.

Orbán accuses the CEU of fraud since it is the only university in the country which awards diplomas both in Hungary and the USA. The law should create fair conditions among all universities in Hungary.

During the current developments, many international journalists have visited the CEU to report about it. However, some media also creeped into the university as for example a cameraman of Echo TV which is a conservative Hungarian television channel.

“He sneaked through the aisles and filmed especially students who look different from the rest”, tells Hager. Particularly students with unusual hair styles such as a bald head or students with a dark skin were on camera.

“After that, the story was spread that the CEU is training spies for the USA”, laughs Hager who even experienced being filmed by television. “This of course matches Orban’s narrative of the CEU as a left-wing institution destroying European values. Look who the university is bringing to Hungary”, she clarifies.

The CEU has become leery of journalists. Students aren’t allowed to be consulted without permission from the Communications Office; the contact person when it comes to international media.

In general, many areas of the university are accessible only with an appropriate chip card. You can get a visitor card at the information desk by saying the name of the person you want to visit and by showing your ID card. The CEU has become aware of the effect every single piece of information is able to have.

This awareness is particularly evident in a university-internal organized event on May 18th. Numerous professors and students enter the entrance area in “Nador utca 13”. They are holding signs in the air: “IstandwithCEU” and “We need your support now more than ever” are the main messages.

As the crowd covering almost the whole area is simultaneously saying “We need your support now more than ever” in English and Hungarian for a video to be released later you really can feel the unity of this university. Even if or maybe precisely because you aren’t allowed to take part as an outsider.

One of the posters with the “We need your support more than ever” label which is lying on the information desk isn’t allowed to be photographed until the video is published. The receptionist smiles apologizing after asking the Communications Office about this.

“There is a lot of uncertainty right now”, Zsofia describes the situation. At the end of April, the EU Commission initialized infringement proceedings against Hungary. Nevertheless, the government doesn’t want to distance itself from the law.

The European Parliament is now calling for a procedure to review the constitutionality of Hungary since Orbán has violated European values seriously. Apparently, it is not clear how it will go on with the CEU even if there are talks to move to Vienna or Prague in the worst case.

“Orbán wants to do it and he is going to push it through no matter what the EU says”, states Andrea. “His strategy relies on psychological power and he can’t afford showing insecurity”, she speaks on and you notice that she lost faith in Orbán changing his mind.

“I guess we just want to get back being the university we were”, Péter says. Now, it however looks like the large blinding banners will be covering the CEU for quite a while longer.