On a gray winter afternoon in 2018, activists gathered in front of the Hungarian parliament in Budapest. Huddled around a coffin marked “Academic Freedom,” they gave speeches and reflected. Some even shed tears. 

The loss being mourned was that of Central European University (CEU). After a long and bitter campaign, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his far-right Fidesz party had managed to effectively force the institution out of the country. Two days later, on December 3, CEU announced that it would begin to move its staff and U.S.-accredited degree programs to Vienna in the fall of 2019. 

In recent years, Orbán has systematically undermined liberal educational institutions as part of a far-sighted plan to create a generation of citizens rooted in traditional Hungarian values. The ostracization of CEU formed the main focus of this strategy. 

Founded in 1995 by the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, CEU’s stated mission is to foster values of “socially and morally responsible intellectual inquiry.” The institution has also gained a reputation for diversity, recruiting many of its students from the developing world. 

Despite being a former protege of Soros and even attending Oxford University on a scholarship funded by him, Orbán’s contempt for the billionaire financier is extreme. Fidesz propaganda has accused Soros of operating a 2,000-strong secret network within Hungary, paying anti-government protesters and being part of a Brussels-based plot to weaken the nation’s borders and endanger its security. 

The movement to dislodge CEU from Hungary began in April 2017, when Fidesz put a new draft law before the Hungarian National Assembly. It stipulated that non-Hungarian universities must be registered as educational institutions in the country where they were first set up and that they must also hold classes there. This policy was clearly aimed at CEU, which was based in Budapest, but officially founded in the U.S.

After the passing of this amendment, CEU embarked on a 20-month legal battle. It included appeals to the Hungarian government from the U.S. State Department and a case in the European Court of Justice. 

In accordance with the new law, CEU established a physical campus at Bard College in 2017. The New York State Education Department drafted a legal agreement stating that the university had met the Hungarian government’s demands. It gave the Fidesz administration until December 1, 2018, to sign and acknowledge CEU’s right to offer U.S. degree programs in Budapest. 

When Fidesz refused to do so, CEU announced its decision to move to Vienna. At the time of writing, the institution plans to maintain a small presence in Budapest, holding onto its buildings, conducting research and hosting public events. However, the removal of its teachers and students represents a huge loss for higher education in Hungary.

According to the university’s rector, Michael Ignatieff, “What has happened to CEU is part of a wider pattern. That wider pattern is to eliminate independent institutions from Hungary and bring everything under the control of a single-party state.”

Tightening grip

Since his election in 2010, Orbán has dragged Hungary further and further to the right. He has waged a war on immigrants, attacked the EU, strengthened the country’s relationship with Russia and made changes to the national constitution, judiciary and electoral system. The government has also tightened control of national theaters and even the school textbook market. This last move, which allows Fidesz to spread its ideas to children, is emblematic of a root-and-branch assault on education.

The latest – and, perhaps, most far-reaching – example of the Hungarian government’s tightening grip on academia is its takeover of the prestigious Budapest-based Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). 

The MTA is a large and complex private organization. It numbers around 5,000 employees, operating in a range of fields, from medicine to the humanities. Its research network has an international reputation for excellence. 

In July 2019, Fidesz moved to take control of its research institutions and divert their funding to the Hungarian Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM). Now, they operate under the banner of the newly formed Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH). All 13 positions on ELKH’s board can be personally vetoed by the prime minister. Its chairman, who serves a five-year term, is also officially appointed by him. 

Miklós Maróth, the man who now occupies that position is an advisor and close friend of Orbán. Despite being a professor of Middle Eastern studies, Maróth has written a number of Islamophobic books and was filmed in 2016 saying that Muslims should be deported and “wrapped in pigskin.” 

Fidesz’s program of interference in higher education does not follow one neat pattern. In addition to the government’s commandeering of independent institutions, it has also privatized state-run ones. In 2016, the Orbán administration announced plans to place the formerly public Corvinus University into private hands of a foundation.

One of the most significant results is that Corvinus now no longer automatically offers full government scholarships to candidates from low-income backgrounds. While this is likely to have a potentially devastating effect on student diversity, the university has been hailed by the government as a model for future academic initiatives in Hungary.

The ITM did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

A bleak outlook

In November 2019, CEU held an official inauguration of its Vienna campus. “CEU has steadfastly defended the principle of academic freedom against concentrated attack by the corrupt government of Viktor Orbán, who was hellbent to destroy it,” Soros told the assembled crowd. 

Three months later, Soros doubled down on his commitment to higher education. In February 2020, he used the World Economic Forum in Davos to announce that he would contribute $1 billion to the formation of the Open Society University Network. Led by Bard College and CEU, the aim of the organization is to provide academic opportunities to minorities and scholars threatened by arrest, imprisonment and violence.

However, the outlook for universities in Hungary remains bleak. In June 2018, the pro-government magazine Figyelo published a piece naming a number of MTA academics associated with “liberal” research disciplines, such as gender studies and immigration. It suggested that the government should have much greater oversight of them and their work. Other articles have singled out members of staff and provided links to their personal social media profiles.

Some academics I spoke to at the MTA said that these high-pressure tactics have made them consider leaving their jobs. Others said that they are increasingly self-censoring while at work. 

“In the corridors, you hear a lot of talk about what we should not do research on,” said Emese Szilágyi, a junior research fellow at the MTA’s Institute for Legal Studies. “Like, we should not research human rights, or rule of law — these are risky topics.” 

Fidesz has also taken an aggressive stance against women’s rights. Hungary now ranks last on the list for women’s political power in the EU, according to a 2019 report by the European Institute for Gender Equality.

In October 2018, the Hungarian government took this fight into the academic arena, issuing an order that revoked accreditation and funding for gender studies programs in public universities. Earlier that year, another Figyelő article described “homosexual rights and gender science” as “politically suspicious” areas of research and publicly listed the names of professors associated with such fields.

Orsolya Lehotai,  a PhD student in Politics at the New School for Social Research in New York, graduated from CEU’s gender studies department in 2017 and believes that the ban on these subjects reflects a deep-seated fear of dissent within the government.

“Critical gender studies revolves around questions of how power and dominance operate in various contexts and how it affects our everyday life,” she explained via email. “These are exactly those questions that I ask myself when I think about how Hungary’s illiberalism operates.”

The EU’s response

The situation in Hungary also poses a unique problem to the European Union. According to Petra Kammerevert, a member of the European Parliament and former chair of its Committee on Culture and Education, Orbán’s actions are unprecedented within the bloc.

“Hungary is not the only member state of the European Union which is restricting European values and the rule of law,” she wrote in an email. “We can also observe this trend in Poland. However, the Hungarian government is actually transforming so many parts of social life with a view to restrict freedoms that the case is quite exceptional.” 

The EU claims to take responsibility for upholding freedom of expression and academic liberty in its member states. In September 2018, the European Parliament requested an investigation of Hungary, using Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. Under this clause, the bloc can impose sanctions — including the suspension of voting rights — on member states that violate those principles. 

The investigation is underway, but the EU has yet to take any concrete steps against Hungary.

When asked about the EU’s role in protecting institutions such as CEU, Ignatieff responded, “What role? I don’t want to sound all twisted and bitter about it. I’m an optimist, but basically they haven’t done very much of anything.” 

He also pointed to a fundamental flaw in the way that the European Union operates. As a body primarily dedicated to trade and economic cooperation between nations, the EU bases most of its decisions on commercial law, which leaves few avenues to address the erosion of rights such as academic freedom.

“There is no clear human-rights based or public-law based defense of academic freedom as a principle to which a university in trouble could appeal,” Ignatieff explained. “That’s a problem that Europe’s going to have to fix, if it’s going to have free institutions in 25 or 30 years.”