BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The future of a Budapest-based university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros depends on an agreement between the Hungarian and U.S. governments, Hungary's prime minister said Friday.
The U.S. State Department later said it was concerned about legislation that is seen as seeking to force the Central European University to close or leave Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who considers the Hungarian-born Soros an ideological rival, said CEU, founded in 1991, is "cheating" with its unfair advantage over Hungarian universities because its diplomas are accepted in both Hungary and the U.S.
"This is not fair to Hungarian universities," Orban said on state radio. "There is competition among universities and it is inexplicable why we should put our own universities at a disadvantage ... while securing an unfair advantage for the foreign university."
CEU rector Michael Ignatieff has vowed to keep the university open despite a draft bill amending the law on higher education presented to parliament on Tuesday, which sets some new conditions on foreign universities operating in Hungary and was seen as directly targeting CEU.
Among the 28 foreign universities in Hungary, only CEU would fail to meet a requirement to also have a campus in its home country.
"It makes no difference if someone is a billionaire in Hungary ... this university also has to respect the laws," Orban said. "Hungary is a country which always supports learning but does not tolerate cheating."
CEU rejected the prime minister's allegations.
"Contrary to the prime minister's statement, there is no current Hungarian law that requires universities to have operations in their home countries in order to award degrees in Hungary," CEU said in a statement. "We have been lawful partners in Hungarian higher education for 25 years and any statement to the contrary is false."
Asked whether CEU would be in Hungary in six months or a year, Orban replied that "it depends on negotiations and an agreement between the American and Hungarian governments."
The U.S. State Department also took exception to the proposed legislation, saying it would impose "new, targeted, and onerous regulatory requirements on foreign universities."
"If adopted, these changes would negatively affect or even lead to the closure" of CEU, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. "We urge the government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU's operations or independence."
Ignatieff, who is traveling Sunday to the U.S. to make CEU's case to lawmakers and the media, has said that any such agreement would have to be with the state of New York, where CEU is also accredited.
CEU officials "remain concerned that the government does not yet fully realize the implications of the proposed legislation," Ignatieff said Thursday in a message to CEU alumni and after meeting with Education Secretary Laszlo Palkovics. "It remains unclear why the government feels this legislation is necessary given their acknowledgement of CEU's contributions to Hungarian academic life."
Some Hungarian academics and university organizations have also expressed their support for CEU and their desire for the institution to remain in Hungary.
"CEU is a very significant scholarly center," said Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "It is good that it operates in Budapest."
The government's efforts to stifle CEU come amid Orban's criticism of some of the non-governmental organizations supported by Soros' Open Society Foundations.
The stridently anti-immigration prime minister, an early supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump and whose "illiberal state" ideal is modeled on Russia and Turkey, has called groups like corruption watchdog Transparency International and human rights advocate the Hungarian Helsinki Committee "foreign agents" working against Hungarian interests, for example because they offer legal representation to asylum-seekers.