In 2017, Hungarian authorities introduced legislation that meant US-accredited courses at Central European University would no longer be held in Budapest.
Classes began in Vienna for the embattled Central European University at the beginning of October, the latest saga in what CEU staff calls the only university in Europe forced to leave for political reasons.
“Less than a year ago, we announced that the Hungarian government was forcing us to move US degree instruction to Vienna”, Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president and rector, said in a letter delivered to TRT World that marks the first day of instruction at the university’s Vienna campus.
He continued: “We are doing something no other university has ever had to do in the European Union: move to another country because we have been forced out of our home.”
The Hungarian government, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, passed a law popularly called "Lex CEU" in 2017 that required universities operating in Hungary to also offer courses in any country where their diplomas are accredited.
CEU offered diplomas accredited in the US and Hungary, though at the time it did not offer classes in the country at the time the law was passed.
Since then, CEU began operations at Bard College, which meant US-accredited courses were registered in New York, which appeared to signal that CEU met the obligations of the law.
However, the government did not certify CEU’s adherence to the law. A spokesperson of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Hungarian news agency MTI last in December "the 'campus' of the Soros university is a wooden shed on the grounds of Bard College" that does not meet the requirements of the law.”
By December 2018, CEU knew its US-accredited courses would no longer be held in Budapest.
He continued: “Thanks to the extraordinary hard work of so many people at CEU, we were able to find a new building, fit it out and open it on time for a wonderful class of incoming students from 88 different countries.”
While Ignatieff is hopeful for the university’s future, some members of the CEU community believe its an inconvenient reality.
“It must be terrible,” said a recent CEU graduate who asked their name be withheld due to employment prospects. “They have to commute, that means professors have less time with their families and students have less time for their personal life.”
Some CEU students who attend and professors who teach in both the US- and Hungarian-accredited courses are expected to travel back and forth between Budapest and Vienna, a trip that can take between 2-and-a-half and three hours.
Furthermore, “Vienna is much more expensive than Budapest. I don’t think I could have afforded the cost of living there,” the CEU student said.
CEU maintains a dormitory for students awarded certain scholarships in Budapest, free of charge. For those who live outside the dormitory, rental prices in the Hungarian capital are lower than those in Vienna, a city known to be more expensive than Budapest.
CEU recently partnered with the Austrian state agency for international mobility and cooperation in education, science and research, to offer accommodation for financial aid recipients.
Still, many do not qualify for these benefits.
The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have come under criticism for allegations of democratic backsliding, including “Lex CEU”, anti-migrant campaigns and the criminalisation of aid to migrants and a consolidation of media outlets under government control.
Orban has famously stated his desire to create an “illiberal” democracy in Hungary that looks towards Russia as an example.
CEU's founder, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, is known for his support of liberal causes and organisations, including those that assist migrants.
Soros has been depicted by government campaigns of wanting to flood Hungary with migrants to change its “Christian” composition.
“Lex CEU” was seen as an extension of Fidesz’s illiberal plans and cited as a complaint against Budapest when the European Parliament initiated disciplinary action for breach of democratic norms in September 2018.
However, the government has maintained that CEU is not leaving Hungary, only its US-accredited courses.
A government spokesperson said last year the “Soros university is leaving but staying. It's common knowledge that a significant number of its courses will still be held in Budapest.
“This is nothing more than a Soros-style political bluff, which does not merit the attention of the government”.
In spite of what they see as a forced move, CEU will continue, thanks to the character its community, Ignatieff said.
“Once again, by working together, CEU faculty, staff, students and alumni have shown what we are made of. We have turned a crisis into an opportunity to grow and develop as an institution in Vienna”, Ignatieff concluded.