Hungarian Minister for Education László Palkovics told reporters in Brussels that tens of thousands of protestors who oppose the country’s new university law were “misled” and media reports on the legal overhaul “do not reflect the truth”.
Palkovics dismissed criticism of the law targeting foreign universities and said he is confident the European Commission will have no basis for a legal objection.
He was in Brussels for last-minute meetings with EU Education Commissioner Tibor Navracsics and Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans today (11 April) to smooth over tensions ahead of an internal Commission debate tomorrow over the law and, potentially, EU legal actions against it.
Hungary’s president signed the law into effect yesterday after it was pushed through a fast-track parliament vote last week, igniting protests that attracted more than 70,000 people over the weekend.
Palkovics told reporters in between meetings today that the law “will not hinder any university either to operate in Hungary or to come to Hungary in the future”.
As a result of the change to Hungary’s education law, the English-language Central European University may be forced to shut down by 2021 because administrators there say the university cannot open a campus in the United States by September.
The new law requires foreign-registered universities to have a campus in their home countries. The Central European University is legally registered in New York, but has its campus in Budapest. The university awards both American and Hungarian degrees.
Palkovics defended the law as an effort to make sure foreign universities “are not misleading students” with fake accreditation and argued other European countries like the Netherlands already require foreign-registered universities to follow special rules.
A spokesman for the Dutch ministry of education said foreign universities in the Netherlands do not need to have a campus abroad.
The Central European University has said it will fight the law and wants to stay in Budapest. University provost Liviu Matei told euractiv.com that other countries are trying to lure the institution to relocate with offers of new buildings, dormitories and even castles and parking lots.
So far, Germany, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Canada and the United States have made bids, according to Matei.
Most students enrol at the Central European University to receive American degrees, but the university complies with both US and Hungarian regulations, Matei told EURACTIV.
“I don’t understand what more the government can control here,” he said.
A Commission spokesman declined to comment on the outcome of Palkovics’ talks with Navracsics and Timmermans before tomorrow’s meeting with the rest of the EU Commissioners.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at a press conference last week that he does “not like the decision” to force through the law, which is widely perceived as part of a clampdown on civil society from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Věra Jourová, the EU justice Commissioner, criticised the law yesterday and praised the “courageous” protestors opposing it.