April 10, 2019 / 10:13 AM / 3 months ago

Hungary will not soften laws to allow Soros college to stay

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will not relax rules for international universities despite pressure from the European Union and offers from Germany to mediate in a row over a college founded by U.S. billionaire George Soros, the government spokesman said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: People attend a rally for the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, November 24, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a nationalist who has often clashed with the European Union, has been accused of restricting academic freedom with his new higher education rules, which the Central European University said forced it out of the country.

“There is no change in our core view,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told Reuters. “We will not change the laws and regulations that govern higher education in Hungary. We still operate on that basis.”

Central European University, set up by Soros, a Hungarian-born liberal philanthropist, will move part of its operations to Austria from September because of rules forbidding it to issue U.S. degrees.

The dispute, often seen as a proxy for disagreements between Soros and Orban on migration, is one of the main issues that caused the European Peoples’ Party to suspend Orban’s Fidesz before European Parliament elections.

At the initiative of Manfred Weber, the EPP’s lead candidate to head the EU executive after the May elections, the government of the German state of Bavaria and the Technical University of Munich stepped in to help.

Offering three new professorships and new courses to augment CEU’s teaching, they said they would open a way for CEU to issue international degrees.

A Hungarian government official told an opposition member of the Budapest parliament that Hungary considered Bavarian participation in the Hungarian higher education sector “a step that builds trust”.

Balazs Orban, a state secretary on the prime minister’s staff, said the government was “ready to examine the possibility for issuing diplomas recognised in the United States and Germany as well as in Hungary”.

But he reiterated that all universities had to comply with Hungarian law, and Kovacs also made it clear that Bavarian participation, while welcome, would lead to no legal amendments.

CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff was not immediately available to comment. He said in a statement last month that to reverse a plan to leave Budapest CEU wanted a clear political commitment from Orban that it could issue degrees freely.

“This political commitment (must be) backed up by legislation that provides legally binding authorization for all of CEU’s operations in Budapest,” Ignatieff said.

After the Bavarian offer and the EPP’s threat to oust Fidesz “a door has opened,” Ignatieff said subsequently, but legal guarantees were still critical.

Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Giles Elgood

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