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People sit during a protest against a new law that would undermine Central European University, a liberal graduate school of social sciences founded by U.S. financier George Soros in Budapest, Hungary, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary has extended a deadline for a U.S.-accredited Budapest university founded by George Soros, philanthropist financier and prominent critic of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, to comply with a new education law or face closure.

As Hungary prepares for parliamentary elections in early 2018, the nationalist, right-wing Orban, who leads the ruling Fidesz party, has launched a "national consultation campaign" on Soros and what he has dubbed the "Soros plan".

The higher education bill applies to all international universities, not just the Soros-founded Central European University, but critics say it was clearly targeted at the Hungarian liberal, whom Orban accuses of planning to bring millions of migrants into Europe.

Parliament approved to amend the higher education law, which sparked big protests when it was passed in April, to extend the deadline for foreign universities to meet conditions for operating in Hungary until end-2018 from end-2017.

Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi said in the bill that the legislation wanted to create a level playing field for all institutions of higher education.

Critics say Orban's efforts against Soros and foreign-accredited universities are part of an election campaign strategy to whip up support among Hungarians who also hold anti-immigration views and fear perceived foreign interference.

Soros, 87, lives in the United States but funds a number of initiatives in his home country, including civil rights and refugee rights NGOs. He has heavily criticised Orban's government.

"I admire the courageous way Hungarians have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state Orban has established," Soros said in June.

Opponents to the higher education bill said it was an attack on academic freedom, provoking big protests in Budapest in the spring and causing Orban's approval ratings to drop.

Although polls show Fidesz' approval rating to be only around 30 percent at present, it is still predicted to win over the deeply divided opposition.

CEU said in a statement on Tuesday that "it has taken all steps to fulfil the conditions of the amended Hungarian higher education law."

It also said the extension of the deadline for compliance is an "unnecessary delay" that subjects the university to a further year of legal uncertainty.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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