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21 Hungarian university rectors have sent a letter of protest to Ursula von der Leyen

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Hungary – Following a decision by the European Union to exclude 21 Hungarian Universities – that is, 182,000 students, including 30,000 international students, as well as 18,000 researchers – from various EU-funded programs (including Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe), the rectors of those universities have sent a letter of protest to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The UE’s move followed a decision by the Council of the European Unionon measures for the protection of the Union’s budget against breaches of the principles of the rule of law in Hungary” – the first time the so-called “rule of law mechanism” was triggered against a member state at the request of the European Commission.

Unacceptable measures

The university rectors wrote in their letter that they consider that

the unprecedented measures taken against Hungarian higher education, which has a historical tradition of more than 650 years and has given the world many Nobel Prize-winning researchers, teachers, and world-renowned inventions, are unacceptable.

No prior consultation

They also objected to the fact that no one had asked their opinion before the decision was announced, saying that it is the first time that such a decision made by the European Union was not preceded by consultations with the heads of the universities concerned, as well as the broader academic community.

Hungarian academics feel discriminated against

In the rectors’ opinion, the EU’s decision restricts the freedom of education and research, as well as free competition between universities in the EU for students, teachers, and researchers.

According to them, 

“the citizens of the university community concerned have become second-class citizens of the Union, in serious violation of the principle of equality among EU citizens.”

They also reminded the European Commission’s president that the Hungarian law on higher education, which has caused such a stir in Brussels, has provided adequate protection for their universities’ autonomy. Among other things, they pointed out the fact that out of 105 administrators in the 21 institutions that have adjusted their model as a result of the law, only ten have resigned – and they did so of their own free will. The 21 Hungarian rectors see this as proof that there has been no political interference by the Orbán government.

The rectors ask for the EU decision to be cancelled

The rectors further wrote in their letter that they expected the EU decision to be cancelled immediately, and that they want compensation for the damage already inflicted by it. They also expressed their regret over

a move by the European Union which they see as an infringement of “the fundamental rights of university citizens, undermining the universal values of the European spirit”.

Disillusioned students

An informal street poll among students in Budapest has shown that the EU’s decision is seen as unfair and unnecessary. For example, Lea, who is a 20-year-old language student at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), the oldest and largest university in Hungary, said that it is “an understandable measure, as the EU is trying to put pressure on the Hungarian government due to corruption, but at the same time it penalises students in an indiscriminate way and leaves us feeling bitter”. Her opinion reflects the views of many other students as well. Márk, a 23-year-old physics student at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME), likewise said that “the EU might be trying to put pressure on the government through the students, but this is beside the point. First of all, nobody is going to start a revolution over Erasmus, and secondly, it deprives many [students] of having enriching experiences abroad. It’s completely counter-productive, as we are being held hostage, and it’s not going to make us like the EU more”.