BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Thousands of Hungarian and foreign students, professors and civilians rallied in Budapest on Sunday demanding the government withdraw legislation that could force a university founded by financier George Soros out of the country.
The demonstrators, who walked from Budapest's Corvinus University to the Central European University (CEU) founded by Soros in 1991 and then to parliament, said the bill was an attack on freedom of education.
Parliament is due to discuss the bill this coming week.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an outspoken critic of liberal civil organizations funded by Soros, said on Friday that the CEU had violated regulations in awarding its diplomas, an allegation that the college had firmly rejected as false. The CEU said it operated lawfully and was accredited to award Hungarian and U.S. degrees.
A year before 2018 elections, Orban has raised the stakes in his fight against civil organizations funded by U.S. financier and philanthropist Soros.
"We came as I believe (Orban's) Fidesz party is building an autocracy and we want to demonstrate in support of free education as if it is CEU now, it could be Corvinus next," said Milan Holper, 20, a student at Corvinus University.
"It is a joint attack against the autonomy of universities and free education," the organisers of the protest said in a statement.
Earlier this week, the government submitted a bill to parliament to regulate foreign universities setting several new requirements, which could force the CEU out of the country.
Under the bill, foreign universities must have a campus in Budapest and in their home country. CEU, which only operates in the capital, is the only international college with no arm elsewhere. CEU has said the bill threatened academic freedom.
Hungarian scholars and teaching organizations, as well as more than 500 leading international academics, including 17 Nobel Laureates have come out in support of CEU, saying it was one of the preeminent centres of thought in the country.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement on Friday that CEU was a "premier academic institution" that promoted academic excellence and critical thinking, and urged the government "to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU's operations or independence."
(Reporting by Krisztina Than)