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Independent, Liberal Universities Under Attack in Eastern Europe

Independent liberal arts universities in Eastern Europe are under attack. Simultaneously, though perhaps for different reasons, two of the region’s best and most independent post-graduate universities are under the serious threat of closure.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s long running feud with the Hungarian-born financier and billionaire George Soros has culminated in an attempt to shutter Central European University (CEU), the institute Soros founded in Budapest in 1991. Despite international outrage and large marches in the streets of Budapest, the government has moved ahead with a law that seems designed to close CEU.

The law, which was passed on April 4 by a parliamentary vote of 123-38 requires that all foreign universities operating in Hungary also have a campus in their country of origin. CEU, which is registered and accredited in both the United States and Hungary and gives diplomas from both countries, does not have a US campus. The law also requires that an agreement be reached between the Hungarian government and the other country in which the university legally operates within six months of the law’s promulgation; CEU currently only has an agreement between the city of Budapest and the state of New York. The legislation also makes it much more difficult for non-EU faculty to teach in Hungary; For CEU, which offers instruction in English, this rule would make it far more difficult to attract the caliber of faculty that it currently does.

CEU does educate some Hungarians, but like other “European” or “American” branded universities around the world, it offers a Western, English-language education to students drawn largely from countries where education standards are somewhat lower. In CEU’s case, a great portion of its students are from southern and eastern European countries that have only recently joined or have eventual hopes of joining the European Union.   

By living in a European country and obtaining a US-accredited degree, promising young people from Ukraine, Romania, Georgia and Albania, who would have otherwise had to stay at home in their own corrupt domestic education systems are able to travel through the EU, see and comprehend European values, and obtain valuable professional experience that would have otherwise not been available to them.

Now it seems that only a veto by figurehead president Janos Ader can save CEU from being closed this year.

In Russia, the European University at St. Petersburg (EP) has been under attack for some months. Like CEU, this private post-graduate university is one of the most liberal in Russia. Many courses are taught in English, the program is highly respected, and the university has a sizeable number of international students. On March 20, the St. Petersburg Arbitration Court revoked the university’s license to operate. Here again, one particular educational establishment seems to have come under specific attack for its political leanings. After a far-right parliamentarian lodged complaints against the university, Deutsche Welle reports that:

The university's problems began with a series of inspections by various authorities. In the fall of 2016, a total of 120 violations against regulations were reported following several unscheduled checks. In some buildings, for example, old windows had been replaced and walls torn down without the proper permission. The authorities also noted the lack of a fitness room and an information stand against alcoholism. The local real estate authority filed a lawsuit against the university, demanding that its rent contract be canceled and the premises vacated over failure to comply with usage and preservation clauses.

Since then, the European University at St. Petersburg has been in a fight for its life. It was saved once by the personal intervention of President Vladimir Putin, but with only one appeal remaining, it too is in danger of closure. If it is closed, the university will then have to reapply for a license to operate, an application that may be denied.

In both cases, speculation runs high that the prime properties occupied by the schools in downtown St. Petersburg and Budapest are highly coveted by figures close to the government.

Other countries in the region, including the Czech Republic, Austria, and Lithuania, have raised the possibility of providing CEU with a new home if they are in fact shut down. There is precedent for such an option to succeed. When the private, Belarusian liberal arts European Humanities University was forced to close in 2004, it found a new home in neighboring Lithuania and continues to teach students both through distance programs and on campus. The European University has rejected the idea of moving its operations abroad, noting the importance of its collaboration with several St. Petersburg educational institutions as key to its work.

Both CEU and EP are relatively small—CEU has 1,440 students and EP has 260—but their political importance is outsized. The actions taken against both represent the continued backsliding of democratic values in Central and Eastern Europe, and suggest that the leaders of Hungary and Russia believe such independent-minded institutions threaten their rule.

Thus far, the European Union (EU) has not been particularly willing to push back against Hungary’s slow erosion of the democratic standards its government has undertaken in the past years. Many hope the rollback of academic freedoms in Hungary might be a step too far for the EU and that it will take steps to punish Hungary.

There is perhaps little that the international community can do to help save EP as Russia has become both increasingly closed off and hostile to foreign concerns about their governance choices. Should either university be closed, Western institutions should be quick and thorough with efforts to assist any stranded undergraduate and graduate students by providing new homes that will allow them to complete their studies. It is an opportunity for Western academic institutions to make a stand for the academy’s independence from political interference. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

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