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Hungary education law threatens Soros-backed Central European University

A proposed education bill would shutter Budapest's Central European University, university officials have said. Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly clashed with Hungarian-born financier George Soros.

 A new higher education bill drafted by the Hungarian government would require foreign-funded institutions operating in Hungary to meet stringent new conditions, such as having campuses and offering similar courses in their home country.

Officials from the Central European University (CEU) decried the new law, saying these conditions would make it impossible for the university to continue operating in the Hungarian capital. Funded by Hungarian-born US financier George Soros, the CEU's home country is the United States, although it does not have campuses or offer courses there.

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Michael Ignatieff, the university's president and former leader of Canada's Liberal Party, said in an open letter to staff and students that the proposed legislation would be contested "through every means possible."

The CEU's closure "would damage Hungarian academic life and negatively impact the government of Hungary's relations with its neighbors, its EU partners and with the United States," Ignatieff said.

Hungary's state secretary for education, Laszlo Palkovics, sought on Wednesday to dismiss any accusations that the law targets the CEU,  saying it was not "an anti-CEU or anti-Soros law."

However, the new requirements would make the CEU's position exceptionally hard, as it is only the international academic institution operating in Hungary without an arm elsewhere.

The draft bill dictates that all universities in Hungary must comply with the law by February 15, 2018, or cease to offer course the following September.

Soros' and Orban's ideological clash

Soros helped found the CEU in 1991 following the fall of communism. With its English-speaking degrees in social sciences, humanities and law, it is widely regarded as a stalwart of liberal higher education.

However, Soros through his Open Society Foundation has found himself at odds with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his preferred model of "illiberal democracy." Orban has also accused Soros of backing anti-Hungarian groups and meddling in the country's own politics.

US concerned but Trump support uncertain

The law risks sparking a diplomatic row between Hungary and the United States, with the US embassy in Budapest saying it was "very concerned" about the legislation.

"The University...enjoys strong bipartisan support in the US government. The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University," US charge d' affaires David Kostelancik said in a statement.

Whether the university will win the backing of the Trump administration, however, remains to be seen. US President Donald Trump has exchanged stern words with Soros on several occasions in the past, while Soros, a major Democratic Party donor, has reportedly described Trump as a "con-artist" and "would-be dictator."

dm/jm (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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