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In March this year, scholars across the world were alerted to the fact that something was seriously wrong in Hungary.

The country’s top-ranked institution, the Central European Universitysounded the alarm that new government legislation would, in effect, force it to shut down. The former communist nation’s right-wing government, led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, was proposing to require foreign universities such as the CEU to maintain a campus in their home countries and to ban them from awarding degrees in the absence of an agreement between their home government and Hungary’s. The CEU, founded and funded by Hungarian-born and US-based billionaire philanthropist George Soros, is co-accredited in Hungary and New York state but operates only in Budapest.

petition quickly garnered 50,000 signatures from around the world, and an open letter was signed by 500 senior academics and 20 Nobel laureates. Nevertheless, the legislation was passed by a huge majority by the Hungarian parliament in early April.

According to critics, the CEU – set up in 1991 to fortify liberal democratic institutions following the fall of communism two years earlier – is the latest target of an increasingly authoritarian Hungarian government intent on neutering civil society groups: particularly those funded by Soros. Some Hungarian academics have even become afraid to speak out publicly, claiming that the situation under what Orbán has termed “illiberal democracy” is worse than it was in the latter years of the pre-1989 communist regime.

Critics of Orbán – who was a feted liberal reformer in the dying days of the communist era – agree that the humanities and social sciences have suffered particularly since he came to power in 2010, and some attribute a political motivation to that.

“Humanities are very important for teaching critical citizens,” notes Zoltán Fleck, head of the Centre for Theory of Law and Society at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University. “Teaching history, literature, humanities…is quite dangerous for authoritarian regimes.”

But there is also a more pragmatic explanation. Many in Hungarian academia believe that, for all Orbán’s own academic background – he studied law at Eötvös Loránd before obtaining a Soros-funded scholarship to study English liberal political philosophy at the University of Oxford – he has lost faith in universities’ economic importance.

Liviu Matei, a professor of higher education and the CEU’s provost, notes that there has been a “change of attitude” towards Hungarian higher education since Orbán’s Fidesz party came to power. “The dominant discourse in Europe since the late 1990s was that higher education is important…because it creates knowledge, through either research or skills capacity,” he says. But in Hungary, higher education is now seen by the government as a “luxury”, with the country needing fewer students, not more.

According to Norbert Sabic, a strategic planning assistant at the CEU and a higher education researcher, Orbán has turned his back on the “knowledge economy” orthodoxy – of which mass higher education is a key part – after witnessing Hungary’s failure to catch up with Western European economies following the fall of communism. Instead, the prime minister thinks the country’s brightest future lies in becoming a relatively cheap manufacturing hub for German companies, Sabic says.

Source: The World University Ranking