BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s Central European University, an international school embroiled in a conflict with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said on Monday it had signed an agreement with the City of Vienna to open a new satellite campus there.
CEU has found itself in the eye of a political storm since last year, when Hungary passed a law setting tougher conditions for the awarding of licenses to foreign universities.
Critics said the law would hurt academic freedom and was especially aimed at CEU, founded by Hungarian-born George Soros after the collapse of Communism and considered a bastion of independent scholarship in the region.
The new law stipulated that CEU must open a branch in its “home state” of New York alongside its campus in Budapest and secure a bilateral agreement of support from the U.S. government.
The university has since set up a U.S. site at Bard College in New York State.
Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, which won Sunday’s election with a landslide, vilified Soros in a fierce anti-immigrant election campaign that helped the 54-year-old premier win a third successive term in power.
CEU said last month it was in talks with Vienna about a memorandum of understanding that would enable it to open a satellite campus there, complementing its Budapest campus and its U.S. site.
“CEU has signed an MoU with the City of Vienna and looks forward to working with city representatives to open a satellite campus there. We consider Bard College in New York a first satellite campus and Vienna would be a second satellite campus,” said CEU International Media Relations Manager Colleen Sharkey.
CEU is still waiting for its agreement with New York to be signed by the Hungarian government, prolonging a period of uncertainty over the Budapest operation.
“As we have said repeatedly, Budapest is our home and this is where we want to stay. We have no reason to believe that the Hungarian government would not sign the agreement ... but we are still waiting for the signature to bring the lexCEU issue to a close,” Sharkey added. She said the Vienna campus would be functioning from the autumn of 2019.
The government has said it did not want to close down CEU and only wanted to ensure all universities are governed by the same rules.
Orban has been locked in a series of running battles with the EU, where Western states and the Brussels-based executive Commission decry what they see as his authoritarian leanings, the squeezing of the opposition and the free media.
The crackdown on CEU triggered mass protests in Budapest last year, and the European Commission took Hungary to court over the legislation targeting the university.
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Hugh Lawson