During the 1970s, a phenomenon was well under way in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Dissidents and academics whose critical, independent stance had no place in official academic life were setting up their own private seminars in their apartments.

These were extraordinary sessions. I remember attending one such seminar in Julius Tomin’s apartment in central Prague. The steely philosopher had attracted the attention not only of the Communist secret police but also of a group of British academics, including several from Oxford University.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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The academics joined Tomin as often as they could—which was not easy given the regime’s fear of alternative, autonomous structures. Some, like the British philosopher Roger Scuton, were roughed up. I had met Tomin the day after he had been thrown down a flight of stairs and onto a heap of coal. “I’ll continue teaching,” he told me at the time.

The flying universities, as they were called, had a large following in Poland, which had a long tradition of underground universities. They served to preserve a national identity and culture throughout many occupations. After 1945, these seminars were also aimed at ensuring a space free from Communist indoctrination.

Hungary had these parallel structures too, albeit on a smaller scale. Education and freedom of thought were staunchly defended by young and old, whatever the risks. Those risks ended in 1989 as the Communist system throughout Central and Eastern Europe imploded.

But now in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was himself a dissident, has decided to take on the Central European University. The CEU was founded in 1991 by the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, who, by the way, gave Orbán the chance in the early 1990s to study for a short time in Oxford. But now the university has become Orbán’s bête noire.

The official reason is that the CEU, which is registered in the United States and accredited in Hungary, does not comply with Hungary’s education laws. A bill that was passed by the Hungarian parliament on April 4 forbids the university from issuing its American degrees. Under the law, the CEU will have to open a campus in the United States, and the Budapest institution will be put under the control of the Hungarian government.

For Michael Ignatieff, the CEU’s rector and president, there is a different agenda at play. “The government would have the power to deny work permits to faculty members from outside the European Union and use the visa system to restrict the university’s ability to choose its students,” he wrote on April 2.

Other countries, notably Britain, are making the costs of higher education prohibitive not only for their own citizens but for foreigners too. The latter are also saddled with increasing restrictions to study in Britain. But the difference between Britain’s and Hungary’s policies is that Orbán, who intends to restrict the activities of some other higher-education institutions too, is pursuing a campaign against Soros.

Orbán’s change to the education regulations has not gone unchallenged. Several thousands marched past the CEU’s campus on April 2 in support of the institution. And academics from across the world, many of whom have worked for or were educated in the CEU, have protested. Such support for the CEU is unlikely to fade.

Responding to the domestic and international reactions, Orbán said on April 3, “The Hungarian government – and also, I am sure, the Government of the United States of America, will be motivated by good intentions, so there is no need for alarm on anyone’s part.”

There is need for alarm. Over the centuries, universities across Central Europe have struggled to preserve their centers of excellence and integrity. And when it became intolerable for some academics to continue teaching, they either retreated to the flying universities or emigrated.

This is what is happening in Belarus, where students critical of the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko find support to study in neighboring Poland or Lithuania and receive support from the EU. But in Hungary? Is Orbán really afraid of a campus that attracts students and lecturers from across the world and that spawns ideas, curiosity, and independence?