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CEU and the Hungarian higher education law: the latest

Readers of the ACA Newsletter – Education Europe might remember that April 2017 was a tumultuous moth in Hungary. Tens of thousands were out on the streets to protest against Hungary’s new higher education act, which Parliament had already adopted. Only the country’s President, János Áder, could stop the act from entering into force – by refusing to sign it. But sign he did - on 10 April 2018.

There was one single intended victim of the act: the Central European University (CEU), a highly reputed social science postgraduate university in Budapest, the initial funding for which had been provided by Hungarian-born US-billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. Soros’ “Open Society Institute” and other instruments support democracy, open societies and the rule of law. CEU cannot comply with the regulation of the new law that requires foreign higher education institutions operating in Hungary to also operate in their ‘country of origin’. While CEU’s programmes are accredited in the US, they are not operating there.

Two weeks of intense activity followed, in which Prime Minister Victor Orban, who appeared to change his mind a number of times, explained his position in the European Parliament and in which Soros was received by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. On 26 April, the EU Commission sent a “letter of formal notice” to the Hungarian government, marking the first step of an “infringement procedure” pursuant to article 258 of the EU Treaty. The second step was made in mid-July, when the EU Commission sent Hungary a “reasoned opinion”, notifying it that it is failing to fulfill its obligations under EU Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. If the Hungarian government does not put in place measures to rectify the situation within one month and report on it, the Commission may decide to take the case to the European Court of Justice. In mid-August the Council of Europe reacted, with its legal experts of the preliminary opinion that regulations of Hungary’s higher education law generally may be in line with usual European practice but criticise that many requirements of the law are overly stringent or even unjustified if applied to already existing universities.  

In the meantime, CEU goes through a phase of uncertainty. If the new higher education act is being applied, the university may not admit new students (from 2018 onwards), but only teach those already enrolled until graduation.

European Commission- Press release: ‘Second step in infringement procedure on Higher Education Law’

Council of Europe- Press release