BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Pressure is growing on the Hungarian government to withdraw a draft bill on higher education that could lead to the closure of the Central European University in Budapest, which was founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
The U.S. State Department as well as dozens of academics in Hungary and abroad on Friday called on Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to ensure the CEU's independence and operations.
Orban said Friday on state radio that the CEU was "cheating" because it did not have a campus in its country of origin and because it issued diplomas recognized both in Hungary and the United States, giving it an undue advantage over local institutions. The CEU is accredited in New York state but does not have a U.S. campus.
"This is not fair to Hungarian universities," Orban said. "There is competition among universities and it is inexplicable why we should put our own universities at a disadvantage ... while securing an unfair advantage for the foreign university."
Fourteen winners of the Nobel Prize in economics were among some 150 academics from U.S. and European universities who advocated for the CEU in an open letter addressed to education officials and Reka Szemerkenyi, Hungary's ambassador in Washington.
"It would be a sad outcome for the training of students from the region, for academic research in Hungary, and for our own cooperation with Hungarian academics, if the proposed legislation came into force," the academics said.
Orban, however, conditioned CEU's survival to a bilateral Hungary-U.S. agreement on the university. He did not hide his disdain for the Hungarian-born Soros' policies supporting the university and numerous non-governmental organizations that Orban considers "foreign agents" working against Hungarian interests.
CEU rector Michael Ignatieff has vowed to keep the university open despite the draft bill, scheduled to be debated by lawmakers next week. The bill sets new conditions on foreign universities operating in Hungary and was seen as directly targeting the CEU.
Among the 28 foreign universities in Hungary, only CEU would fail to meet a requirement to also have a campus in its home country.
"Contrary to the prime minister's statement, there is no current Hungarian law that requires universities to have operations in their home countries in order to award degrees in Hungary," the CEU said. "We have been lawful partners in Hungarian higher education for 25 years and any statement to the contrary is false."
The CEU also said it was notified Friday by Hungary's education authority that its accreditation in New York state met the conditions for operating in Hungary.
The U.S. State Department also took exception to the proposed legislation, saying it would impose "new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities."
"If adopted, these changes would negatively affect or even lead to the closure" of the CEU, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "We urge the government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU's operations or independence."
Hungarian university organizations also expressed their support for the CEU.
"CEU is a very significant scholarly center," said Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "It is good that it operates in Budapest."