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Viktor Orban’s Illiberal State Declares War on the Liberal Arts in Hungary

Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has boasted of his intention to create an “illiberal” state, and this week took two major steps toward wiping out liberal arts education.

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The Budapest-based Central European University has announced that it will suspend its pioneering Open Learning Initiative, a program that offered free non-degree courses to refugees and asylum-seekers. It will be the first victim of a recent law imposing a 25 percent tax on spending by nongovernmental organizations on programs that “directly or indirectly aim to promote immigration.”

The law is part of a package of draconian anti-immigration measures known as the “Stop Soros” bill, passed this summer. Hungarian-born investor George Soros has long been the arch-nemesis of Orban and his supporters, blamed for bringing refugees into the country and undermining Hungary’s Christian culture. Soros has also been a major funder of educational programs in Hungary, including the Central European University as well as the scholarship that allowed Orban to study at Oxford in 1989.

The CEU, which offers classes in English and whose president is the liberal Canadian academic and former politician Michael Ignatieff, is also one of Orban’s favorite targets. Last year, Parliament passed a law setting much tougher conditions for the licensing of foreign-based universities, specifically targeting the CEU, which is officially accredited in New York. So far, the CEU has remained open, satisfying the law’s requirement that it teach courses in its home state through a joint program with Bard College. It also recently signed an agreement to open a campus in Vienna, where Ignatieff has said it may have to move if it is forced from Hungary.

An official in the prime minister’s office also announced this week that the government will cut off funding for gender studies courses in universities, on the grounds that they “cannot be justified scientifically, nor economically.” The law will have a limited practical effect—only two universities teach gender studies in Hungary, one of which is the CEU, which is privately funded. The other, Eötvös Loránd University, “launched its gender studies course only last year and so has not produced any graduates as yet,” according to EuroNews. But the announcement has prompted an international backlash from academics as an attempt to impose the state’s conservative values on universities.

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Hungarians looking for alternatives to Orban’s illiberal vision of education may increasingly have to look, as he once did in the waning days of communism, for opportunities outside Hungary.