24 Oct Cultivating talent for the future of Hungary
Dr. András Lánczi, Rector, Corvinus University of Budapest, delves into the pros and cons in the aftermath of the historic university’s privatization
Hungarian higher education sector achieved a very high standard of excellence in the past and has an excellent reputation throughout the region and the entire world and the system was even once pointed with the highest rate per capita in the world Nobel prize winners. Corvinus University is one of Hungary’s leading and most reputed higher education institutions in the country and it started about 100 years ago in Budapest. The university is specialized in the fields of Economic, Management and Social Sciences. Could you give us a rapid overview of the University? How does it stand out in Hungary’s higher education landscape, and how would you evaluate its contribution to the country?
Corvinus University of Budapest obtained its name 15 years ago. It had had many names earlier. The university looks back at 100 years, but the actual University was founded after World War II, in 1948, just the year of the communist takeover. Therefore, the first name of this university was Karl Marx University, up until the regime changed in 1989. Afterwards this university had several names and we finally embarked with the name Corvinus University some 15 years ago. Today, Corvinus University is a middle-size university in Hungary, with roughly 11,000 students per year. Academics, educators, teachers and professors, are around 500 and there are some 500 in the administrative staff. It is an outstanding University in Hungary because it has always been in the focus of Hungary’s intellectual life, and served for the recruitment of the Hungarian political and economic elite. Over the last 30 years, every single government, independently of its composition, had some ministers or even Prime Minister who once graduated from this university. This is why it has always been in the focus of the Hungarian intellectual and public life. Therefore, our first duty is to provide the nation with political and economic elite. It means that we have always tried to educate, to train the would-be leaders of this country, especially in economic fields.
Last year, the incumbent Hungarian Government decided to revitalize the higher education in Hungary, including the Corvinus University of Budapest, together with other universities in Hungary. There were 28 state-run universities back then which is too many compared to the size of the country and its population. But this is not the particular reason why the government decided to change and innovate the higher education.
This university was singled out to be the first university to transit from under the direct government rule to a private foundation financial management. This university, for more than a year now has been run by a private foundation, impacting certainly the financial background and changing the standards by which we would like to develop it. We would like to further develop to be one of the most relevant universities in Hungary. We would like to become the number one university in the region, in Central Europe, providing the new leaders in the region, for the region, and certainly serving the Hungarian governments in the future.
The university is leading the complete of culture in higher education, that is taking place all through the higher education. This has many ramifications again: political, administrative management, cultural and several other aspects, aiming to revitalize the culture of higher education. This is the point of this political decision and, on a daily basis, what we have to do at the university, like Corvinus.
The Hungarian Government has placed a strong emphasis on innovation these past few years. R&D spending has reached a record high in 2019 of 1.49 percent of GDP which should, however, still place Hungary as a ‘moderate innovator’ in the European innovation scoreboards. The government is working to close this gap and to enhance R&D activities, through this higher education reform that, amongst other things, aims to focus on stimulating applied sciences for example. How does Corvinus University position in terms of research? What are some of your specialty programs or research areas and some of the breakthroughs that you have done over the last few years?
This attempt to change the higher education policy is an evidence of innovation in Hungary. Over the last 30 years, from the beginning of the system change or the collapse of communism, higher education has not really been changed considerably. It has preserved a number of features that have been an impediment to innovation. Now that the government established the Ministry of Innovation, it is really in the focus of the government that innovation does matter, and has to be implemented in various directions. Just narrowing my attention to higher education, it means that we have to rethink, first of all, the status and positions of Hungarian professors. The main problem, a heritage of the communist period, is that an average Hungarian professor or teacher still has to have more than one job in order to have enough income. We have to do first is to rethink and change the status of the professors, educators, teachers of the higher education in Hungary.
Secondly, in order to have a decent number and quality of students, we should improve the services provided for the students. Considering an average Hungarian graduate student, and only talking about my own university, roughly half of the students not only attend the university, but also work somewhere for salary. In luckier cases, the two would strengthen each other, attending university plus working somewhere that also develops his or her knowledge and experience, but this is usually not the case. We need to change, reshuffle and rearrange university services, including mainly the number and quality of courses, lectures, seminars and practical sessions, in order to commit the students closer to the university.
You cannot improve the quality of education unless you improve the quality of services to students. Quality of services, especially means providing better education, more interesting courses, more up-to-date knowledge, everything that is connected with it, which means that the university should have an idea what knowledge means today, what the perspectives are in front of us, what is relevant knowledge and what is not relevant knowledge. You have to redefine the relationship between education and practical necessities posed by firms, business or government. Therefore education is more relevant than earlier but must get these two aspects closer: the practical needs of life and the expectations students can set for the university. But this is now what we mean by innovating higher education: rethinking every bit of the elements of the relationship between the students and the university and the services of university.
Then, there is a third aspect, concerning the spirit of the university. We ought to improve our commitments to the alumni, to would-be students. We should have much more emphasis upon the recruitment of the best secondary school leavers. The problem in Eastern Europe is that the greatest Western universities, like British or German universities, are very active as well and hunt down our students. How can you develop your elite function when the best would-be university students leave the country? What we should do is to make Hungarian universities, including the Corvinus University, more and more attractive. Therefore, we have a slogan: stay home and you would get the same quality of education as everywhere else. We would like to but we have to give evidence, we have to prove it.
What is the scope of your collaboration with industrial players in Hungary, but also elsewhere? How are you working also with other research institutes or other universities on the national and global levels?
Business relations of universities to different firms and multinationals have not been utilized well. First of all, it is important not only for the university, but for these especially multinational companies acting in Hungary. I have been teaching 30 years now at this university, and I clearly remember these multinational companies in the early 1990s, they desperately needed the most qualified graduates, and this has not changed. Multinational companies but also thriving Hungarian firms and companies desperately would like to establish contact with my university in order to scan the best students. This is a big concern for them.
In addition, we also need to change the conditions and especially the demand with respect to research, and this part of the idea why innovating Hungarian higher education is so relevant. Over the past few decades, Hungarian universities have been encouraged to increase the number of students and not the quality of teaching. The more students you have, the more central funds arrive at the university. As a result, research came second to education and training. Now, research is again in focus in Hungarian higher education, and at Corvinus University as well. This is why, in our organization, we managed to develop new institutions like the Advanced Studies Centre in Corvinus University, which has been acting for two or three years and aims to attract more and more foreign researchers to the university. Research is in the focus and this is also a part of our relationship with firms and multinational companies because they can very often be partner of cooperation, to compete for funds, for EU funds available. There is a joint interest here with firms.
The fourth element is the international focus aspect, dimension of the university. Even during the communist years this university was very active in creating international relations, even inviting foreign students in communist years. So opening up the university was not a shock but it was now over the past few decades, a very natural way of how to develop the university. We have excellent programs for foreign students and we have set this goal for us, we would like to have at least 20 to 25 percent of the academic staff invited from abroad and also the number of students. We have definite goals how to develop this field which requires from us to make the university completely a bilingual university. Now roughly between 10 and 15 percent of the registered students are from abroad, which means that they have to be served. The courses should be delivered in English, not only for foreigners but also for Hungarian students because we have been very active to have Hungarian students to attend our English classes as well.
This year as we know has been quite tumultuous with the COVID-19 crisis. What has been the university’s experience from this crisis and what would have been some of the key lessons learnt or some of the key trends that you have identified that you are here to remain?
It has been a stormy year for us. Our first priority, is to achieve our 2030 goals within 10 years. Last year when we announced the privatization of the university and had to qualify our goals, we set the date of 2030, yet with today’s changes that goals have moved further away. We would like to get up on the ladder of world rankings. A key learning from the last year was that most of our employees wanted to assist the change. There have been many tensions, many counter-arguments and reservations, but all suggestions were voted at the Senate with a very wide margin.
Second, even though such a transition, we could preserve the calmness and the peace of the university inside, despite the many changes. We have already started, we are still going on and will be going on in the next few years too, but the university is solid, peaceful and looking forward to seeing that what we have been doing is really successful.
As we are closing 2020 and opening a new chapter with a 2021, what kind of specific message would you like to address to the global student community and to our readers in general?
Corvinus University is on the bank of the Danube. We are in the centre in Budapest, in a beautiful city and this university would like to attract foreign students. We are looking to recruit quality students because our aim is to provide elite education and to run our graduating students into future leaders. If you are a student, curious enough to see how this city looks like, what excellent students’ facilities in terms of free-time or sports exist, in Budapest and Corvinus University you can find it all!