One of the top universities in central and eastern Europe may be forced out of Hungary under a draft law being prepared by the hard-right government, which has also accused eight British institutions of “operating unlawfully” in the country.

The US-linked Central European University (CEU), founded in 1991 to support the region’s transition from communist dictatorship to democracy, has cultivated a generation of statesmen and women, academics, and leaders in the arts. But the institution and its alumni are alarmed by new rules that it says are targeted at CEU directly and would “make it impossible … to continue its operations” in Budapest.

The university’s departure would deal a serious blow to higher education in Hungary and the country’s reputation as a regional leader.

The government says that stricter legislation is needed after a review of higher education institutions discovered that 28 foreign-linked universities “are operating in Hungary unlawfully”, including CEU, Oxford Brookes, Edinburgh Napier, CECOS London College, Anglia Ruskin University, and the universities of Middlesex, Buckingham, Hertfordshire, and Newport in Wales. Institutions from the US, Germany, and France are also listed.

“No university can stand above Hungarian law,” the government said in a statement, listing a range of breaches, including institutions teaching unregistered courses, and universities registering in Hungary that are not recognised in their home countries.

CEU said the new law being prepared after the report is squarely targeted at shutting it down. A private and independent postgraduate institution, CEU currently issues degrees accredited in both the US and Hungary, under a 2004 agreement signed between the Budapest government and New York state.

It argued that the draft legislation would force it to open a campus in the US that would be entirely extraneous for a an institution focused on central and eastern Europe. The university said it would in effect be barred from issuing CEU degrees in Hungary, and forced to change its name. The US embassy in Budapest has said that it is “very concerned” by the proposed amendments.

The rector of CEU, Michael Ignatieff, told reporters on Wednesday that the new legislation was discriminatory and “a threat to our continued existence in Hungary”.
“If it is passed, CEU will resort to all available legal remedies,” he said, adding: “We will never close this university and we will maintain the continuity of our academic programs no matter what. We’re part and parcel of Hungarian academic life and an attack on us is an attack on all academic institutions in this country.”

The move is seen as part of a broader crackdown on organisations linked to billionaire Hungarian-American financier George Soros, who founded CEU and sponsors a range of civil society activities through his Open Society Foundations.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán once studied at Oxford on a Soros scholarship, but has become a bitter opponent of the magnate, accusing him of encouraging Europe’s refugee crisis and acting as a shadowy influence on Hungarian and global politics. Orbán has talked of promoting “illiberal democracy” and portrayed himself as a leader protecting Europe from migration.

“Orbán’s attack against the CEU is a broader attack against free-minded and liberal education, academic freedom, and deeply held European and American values,” said CEU alumna and MEP Monica Macovei, formerly Romanian justice minister and architect of the country’s anticorruption campaign.

“It must be seen as broader illiberal design. A week ago, by a Russian order, the license of the European Universityin St Petersburg was withdrawn, forcing it to close. Putin is using legal technicalities to attack one of the best universities in the Russian Federation, and shortly after Orbán does the same inside the European Union. I do not believe this is a coincidence but a coordinated plan against the free-minded and democracy at large.”

CEU currently has 1,440 enrolled students from 108 countries, with Hungarians making up the largest group, most of the staff, and nearly half the faculty. It collaborates closely with Hungarian universities, including government-run institutions. Alumni include Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili, Indian-Canadian filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray, and Lívia Járóka, the first female MEP of Roma ethnicity.

“The general impression in Hungary is that this is a movement not against so-called foreign universities, and not even against CEU as a university, but against its founder,” said CEU professor and former Hungarian foreign minister Péter Balázs.

“But attacks against CEU are completely irrational for any Hungarian government as it has great value for Budapest, Hungary, and the region, bringing thousands of students from the whole world. In addition, it’s not only a Hungarian, but an American university, and the American government could have some problems if Hungary eliminates it.”