Budapest, April 3 (MTI) – Parties of the leftist opposition on Monday voiced sharp criticism of a bill before parliament designed to change rules on colleges and universities funded from abroad, and seen by its opponents as legislation directed against the Central European University (CEU).
The Socialist Party said the governing alliance’s bill was politically motivated and harmed the freedoms that should be afforded to academic institutions. István Hiller, the party’s deputy leader, told a news conference on Monday that there was “zero” professional basis for the legislation, and he said the proposed law was purely directed at a single university, namely the CEU.
Speaking about ongoing consultations over the future of Hungarian higher education, he said the issue did not belong to the list of problems that needed addressing, such as the relevance of degrees on the labour market, the autonomy of higher education and the salaries of lecturers and professors.
The Democratic Coalition (DK) said that should the bill pass into law it would propose a referendum in protest against it, which DK sees as legislation aimed against the CEU. MP Lajos Oláh told a press conference that “if the government closes down CEU by force it will face powerful opposition”. He argued that a referendum supported by cooperating opposition parties and civil groups could save CEU from closure. DK will stay away from parliament’s upcoming vote on the bill, Oláh said.
The green opposition LMP said on Monday that the higher education bill was discriminative because it was “targeted” at a specific institution. LMP called on parliament to scrap the motion from its agenda, LMP’s Tamás Meszerics, who has been a lecturer at CEU for 25 years, told a press conference, adding that the university had not violated any laws. He said the law bore “obvious resemblance” to Russian legislation which he said stigmatises organisations if they receive funding from abroad.
The Dialogue party said it would submit a proposal to scrap the “discriminative” government bill. Speaking on behalf of Dialogue, MP Tímea Szabó said if parliament still passed the contested motion into law, her party would file a constitutional complaint and escalate the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. Szabó called on the prime minister to “stop pestering” universities and curbing the freedom of education, and work to protect ethnic Hungarian universities in neighbouring countries. The “lex CEU” and the law on civil society are both hysteria-mongering to divert public attention from real problems such as a collapsing health system and the “disastrous” state of public education in the country, she said.
The Hungarian Liberal Party said the bill was “not in line with Hungary’s interests”. Liberal leader Gábor Fodor told the press that the motion, if passed into law, could have serious ramifications for ethnic Hungarian universities in other countries, should those countries adopt the “model of the anti-CEU proposal”. “Ethnic Hungarians could fall victim to the ruling parties’ short-sighted policy,” he said.
In a statement, Budapest’s ELTE university and its PhD student governance body expressed support for the CEU, adding that the institution was an indispensable part of Hungarian higher education and that “it must remain so”. ELTE said that over the past decade and more, various of its faculties had maintained ties with their counterpart bodies in the CEU and they continued to do so. Various lecturers at ELTE also teach and the CEU and visa versa, while many go on to receive their PhDs from the CEU. Further, the libraries of both institutions are open to students and staff of each university. The statement also referred to “numerous joint projects and tenders”.
The Hungarian Rectors’ Conference issued a statement on its website saying that it regards the government’s requirement that foreign colleges and universities be regulated in Hungary as fair. The government’s related efforts, however, should not bring about the closure of institutions engaged in top-level training and research, and should not narrow opportunities of Hungarian universities for international cooperation, it added.
The rectors expressed regret that the proposal put forward by the governing parties had not been preceded by consultations. The polemics surrounding the bill have taken on such a political dimension, they added, that discussions of issues surrounding higher education have strayed far from their original goal.