Threatened university faces final deadline

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Academic freedom protestImage source, Getty Images
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Protests have called for a last-minute change of policy to keep the university in Budapest

A university in Hungary, created to foster democracy in post-Communist central Europe, seems about to be pushed over the border into Austria.

It is being claimed as the first time since World War Two that a university in a European democracy will have been forced to close.

This weekend sees the deadline for the shutdown of the majority of courses taught by the Central European University in Budapest.

The university, founded by the billionaire backer of liberal causes George Soros, has been at the centre of a symbolic struggle over academic freedom.

Cliff edge

For almost two years, the university has been battling with the authorities to stay in Budapest.

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The deadline for the university to stay in Budapest will pass this weekend

When the story began to reach an international audience, it still seemed likely that, despite the angry rhetoric, an agreement would be reached.

That was not least because of the international condemnation at the prospect of a university being forced to close in modern Europe.

But now the cliff edge has really been reached - and protesters' calls for a last-minute change of policy appear to have been rejected.

The university says that unless a deal is reached by 1 December, it will "have no other choice" but to move its teaching, with plans announced for Vienna.

It will be legally unable to admit new students to study in Hungary from next year and, even though existing students can continue until they finish in Budapest, future students will have to study elsewhere.

'Soros university'

The Hungarian government rejects this, saying the fault lies with the university in failing to comply with higher education regulations.

Its spokesman said the deadline was the university's choice, not the government's - and that an agreement could not be reached in "such a short time".

There is a complex argument about the university's accreditation in the United States - and negotiations in the US more than a year ago seemed to have reached a deal.

But not far below the surface is a much bigger cultural and political battle.

Much of this has focused on Hungarian-born Mr Soros.

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East or West? The battle over the university's future has become a symbolic struggle

Mr Soros is the target of attacks from Viktor Orban's nationalist government, accused of being in favour of mass immigration, a globalist who will undermine the country's culture and identity.

The university has become an emblem of this ideological arm-wrestling.

Looking West or East?

It is a long way from the optimism of how it was founded - and says something about the shifting political sands.

It was opened in 1991 as an English-speaking graduate school, supporting the growth of free-market democracy in central Europe, as it emerged from totalitarian Communist regimes.

This liberal institution, looking to the West rather than the East, has been swimming against the rising tide of populism.

And now it seems to be going under.

Image source, Getty Images
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The university will keep the building in Budapest, but most teaching will switch to Vienna

The foreign affairs minister has shown no sign of conciliation - saying the "Soros university" was not "searching for a solution, but just wants a political commotion".

The official position remains that the university does not meet the regulatory requirements - and the complaints about academic freedom are a dishonest smokescreen which are "hard to stomach".

Calling the West's bluff

Without an agreement, the CEU building will remain in Budapest and students can finish their courses, but most of the institution will become a university in exile in Vienna.

It might also show the lack of impact of Western disapproval. Hungary has called the West's bluff.

Image source, Getty Images
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There have been claims that campaigns against George Soros have stoked anti-Semitism

The US state department has been unambiguous in backing the CEU.

Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel has been pushing for a deal.

The European Commission has spoken strongly in defence of the university.

The University of Oxford's vice chancellor, Louise Richardson, joined the CEU's board in a sign of solidarity, saying that Hungary was threatening academic freedom.

None of these seem to have had influence.

Lip service?

It also raises questions about how much academic freedom is really valued.

The UK government has been muted about the CEU. But it's not been shy of generating headlines about free speech in universities at home.

In England, ministers have launched multiple stories about university free speech, issuing guidelines, strong warnings and even holding a "free speech summit" earlier this year.

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah says: "At the heart of the mission of every university is the relentless and rigorous search for truth. Freedom of expression and thought is vital to this."

But what about when a university is having to shut down? Will there be any consequences?

It is more than the doors of a university which will have closed.