Most college students face the same stressors: studying, exams, research and finding a balance between school and life. But students at Hungary’s Central European University have another thing to add to that list: Will their government allow them to stay in the country?
Located in Budapest, CEU awards both American and Hungarian degrees. However, after the government's education reform threatened to remove CEU's Hungarian licensing and accreditation, the school is being forced to move to Vienna for the fall 2019 semester.
Rosa Schwartzburg, an American student earning her graduate degree in gender studies at CEU, said the school is marketing the move to Vienna as a new opportunity for the school, but she doesn’t see it that way because they wouldn’t be moving if they didn’t have to.
“The message from the administration is that this is an opportunity to expand, but that’s not what it is. It is running away from a bad situation,” Schwartzburg said. “They say, ‘you have the opportunity to study in Vienna!’ Well, if I wanted that, I would’ve studied in Vienna.”
Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros’ internationally renowned graduate- and doctorate-level school was targeted in the 2017 law passed by Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz government, led by Prime Minster Viktor Orbán and President Janos Áder.
The law states that a foreign university must have a campus in the country in which it is accredited and an agreement between the two national governments must exist. While a U.S. campus was opened to comply with the law, the national government agreement can’t happen because U.S. education is state-based, not federal.
“Several of the passages apply only to CEU, and are thereby discriminatory,” reads a public statement on the school’s website. “Taken together, they make CEU’s continued operation in Hungary impossible.”
Despite more than two years of efforts, no permanent solution has been found to allow CEU to stay in Hungary.
CEU is just one of many Hungarian schools undergoing changes because of Hungarian laws. Corvinus University is being privatized in 2020, meaning Hungarian students who would typically attend with government-funded scholarships will have to pay their own tuition fees, which will rise.
The government has been increasingly selective about which programs it will fund at Hungarian higher education institutions. The defunding of gender studies programs in October 2018 impacted students at CEU and Eötvös Loránd (ELTE), Hungary’s oldest university. The ELTE gender studies program only existed for two years. CEU’s gender studies program still operates for students who will receive American-accredited degrees, but not Hungarian.
Johi Hirsch, a Hungarian 2018 alumna of the gender studies program, said scientific studies like engineering are more likely to receive government funds than liberal arts studies. Fidesz also has control over what goes into primary and high school textbooks, and the dropout age was lowered from 18 to 16.
“It’s not so hard to see that they don’t want people who can think critically and they don’t want an equal society,” Hirsch said. “It’s not just that they don’t want well-educated people, but they want people to receive the education that they think is right.”
A protest in November 2018 brought 80,000 people to the streets to fight against the education law and keep CEU in Budapest. Schwartzburg was among them, and she said the movement reminded her of Fidesz’s beginnings.
Fidesz started as a liberal student activist group opposing the Communist Party in 1988. It reshaped its ideology as it grew and came to power, becoming more conservative and nationalistic.
Schwartzburg said she believes part of the control over education is because “they know student movements can grow into something very real.”
CEU is now in what everyone describes as ‘limbo’— the school has not had its license withdrawn, but at any moment the government could decide to revoke it, leaving more than 1,300 students from 103 countries with unfinished degrees and 400 faculty members without jobs.
“Given this uncertainty, we are getting closer and closer to an exit from the country as an American university, and most probably the government will very much prefer that,” said Zsolt Enyedi, CEU’s pro-rector for Hungarian affairs (a position similar to vice president). “Then they [the Hungarian government] will say that ‘they left on their own accord, we haven’t even withdrawn their license.’”
The Vienna campus will continue to award American and Hungarian accredited degrees, but many students are dissatisfied with the Austrian alternative.
“I’m against the move to Vienna because it would mean a shift in the overall profile of the university,” said Hirsch. “It’s called Central European University for a reason and a lot of people came here because they wanted to study something from this Central European or Eastern European or post-Socialist context.”
Opening a campus in Vienna could mean adding an undergraduate program to CEU, which would likely increase enrollment numbers, Enyedi said. However, the school would have to change its business model, and the financing and tuition students currently receive would change.
Students have expressed concerns about the cost of living in Vienna. According to Numbeo.com, the price of rent is 90 percent higher in Vienna than in Budapest and consumer prices are 51 percent higher as of June 10, 2019.
While the move to Vienna isn’t the ideal solution, some students think the university is handling the uncertainty in the best way they can.
“It’s been surprisingly smooth, even though we know we’re in a crisis, when it comes to logistics and such,” said Bruno Hasa, an Albanian student earning his master’s in public policy. “It is hard, and I think they’re doing the best they can considering the circumstances.”
Hasa does think the limbo the school rests in has gone on too long, and he wishes the school would make a permanent decision, one way or the other, to end the uncertainty. The problem is that nobody seems to know what the best solution really is.
“There’s not really a playbook of what to do when your university is forced out of a country,” Schwartzburg said.
Enyedi hopes there is a way for CEU to remain in Hungary to keep a symbol of free thinking in the country.
He said if the school does leave, “it will be a signal to the Hungarian society that if you are disliked by the Prime Minister, you have no future in this country.”
“There are many sectors of society where there is still a little bit of independent thinking, a little bit of hope that within the European Union you cannot establish a totalitarian society,” Enyedi said. “But once they see that the relatively resourceful CEU has to leave, was defeated, and had no choice but to leave, it would be understood that you’d rather comply and obey and repeat the government ideology and fit in.”
Enyedi said the public support for CEU has been beautiful, but it’s bittersweet to see the need for the protests to save the school from its own government.
“It’s very sad that the government can get away with it,” Enyedi said. “It’s not exactly how we imagined back in the late 80s how the country would look in 20 years.”
Hirsch said she hopes CEU will continue to be a successful school regardless of where it ends up.
“It’s good for a city to have a university, but for some reason Hungary didn’t want to be a part of that,” Hirsch said.