Laszlo Kontler Talks About CEU on Hungary's News Radio Station
Pro-Rector for Hungarian and EU Affairs Laszlo Kontler was a guest on Info Radio's education program "Katedra" on June 26, 2012.
Central European University concluded a successful 2011-2012 academic year, in which 153 Hungarian students were enrolled into CEU programs tuition-free. 123 of all the Hungarian students received full or partial scholarships. My first question to Laszlo Kontler, Pro-Rector for Hungarian and EU Affairs at CEU, is how the prospective changes in higher education affect the institution.
Naturally, as an institution accredited and recognized by the Hungarian state, we follow all of these developments with great interest, and we are also affected by them significantly, as the legislative environment determines the way we can operate in Hungary. Some of the listeners may not be aware of the fact that our university possesses double accreditation, as it is recognized by both Hungarian and U.S. authorities. It is worth emphasizing CEU’s international character, as that is rather unique within Hungarian higher education. However, I would also like to stress that at the same time we are also a Hungarian university. As our Rector likes to put it, we have dual citizenship—which implies several things. One of them is that we must comply with the legal requirements which apply to universities, such as those related to quality control and the like. Actually, this year we have undergone a periodic review of our Hungarian accreditation, which as a result has been renewed for the next five-year period. Currently, the major problem that fellow Hungarian universities and partner organizations today might have to face is the issue of financing. In this respect, we are in a better situation, being funded by a private foundation. We are also very successful in obtaining different kinds of European Union research funding, thus our financial situation is more solid than that of our partner organizations. However, with all things considered, we cannot disregard the environment in which we operate. We partly live from the Hungarian higher education market as 18-20 percent of our students are always Hungarian. Therefore we are also closely affected by the options Hungarian university students have, what kind of BA and MA degree programs are available for them in higher education in Hungary.Apart from this, we obviously sympathize with Hungarian universities which are in a more difficult situation and are seeking ways to work with them to mutual advantage.
How about the number of fee-paying, financially supported students, and those on scholarships? One of the biggest changes in Hungarian higher education starting from the next academic year seems to be that in certain subject fields the number of state-funded or supported places will be significantly reduced.
Well, this is what I was referring to when I mentioned that all this affects us in an indirect way. We do not have state-funded students at our university, so...
...yes, however, you provide, as far as I know, financial aid for a certain number of students, which I presume is through the foundation.
Yes, definitely. We have a nominal tuition fee, which is, horrific to say, EUR 11,000 per academic year, much more than the tuition fee of even the most expensive Hungarian degree program. However, only a very small minority of students actually pay this fee, and most of them are supported by a company or foundation. The majority of our fee-paying students are enrolled in our business school, by the way, where the international standards are very different anyhow. All in all, more than 80% of our students not only enjoy a tuition waiver but receive a CEU stipend. Among doctoral students, this rate is approximately 95%.
In the midst of transition, almost every Hungarian higher education institution is seeking new ways, new possibilities—some to improve the overall quality of their education, others simply to survive in the new situation. Over the last couple of months, we heard plans of university integration, establishing polar centers, etc. What possible new ways are being considered at CEU? Is this at all relevant to your institution?
I believe the formation of these poles is a controversial issue. It can turn out well, so obviously, in a small country, in a country of limited possibilities, we have to consider how to allocate our scarce resources. Time will certainly tell how reasonable it is to develop regionally based foci of degree courses in natural sciences or engineering, in social sciences and humanities, and so forth. There actually is a tendency, and maybe considering the global situation it is understandable in a sense, that engineering and natural sciences are more supported by the system which is being established right now. What is noteworthy from the perspective of CEU is that exactly in the fields that are more strongly represented in both MA and PhD degree programs at CEU, namely economics, law, humanities and social sciences, there is a rather significant budget cut being implemented in the state-funded part of the Hungarian university sector.
You mentioned the international character of Central European University. In case of CEU, this internationality or international character is crucial. What possibilities does this offer or imply in the near or even more remote future?
Internationality is indeed one of the most pivotal, most important features of the institutional identity of CEU. As I said before, 18-20% of our students are Hungarian, this rate among faculty members is 35-40%, which means that foreigners make up an overwhelming majority at the university. There has been a shift in the ratio of regional distribution in a way that this "traditional region"–we call Central-and South-Eastern Europe, and the former socialist countries the "traditional region"–constitute only about 50-55% of the CEU community, while the rest are really from all over the world. We have always had a fair number of students from North America and some from Western Europe. South and Southeast Asia have come up very strongly recently. We have more and more African students as well. Additionally, Latin America has come into the picture, so this really is a global institution, in which you might see faces from about 100 countries each year. It can often be heard that a possible way out of the current problems of Hungarian higher education would be to become international, which would be, of course, a pleasant development. It is, however, good to keep in mind if one sets out to implement such a strategy, that it entails a kind of institutional culture, a kind of openness. Openness to the world and the acquisition and implementation of communication practices which Hungarian higher education as a whole might not be prepared for at the moment. Of course, there are immensely successful examples already which usually come to mind, such as the international courses of Semmelweis University, or Corvinus University, and the University of Debrecen is implementing such a program of internationalization in an enviably successful way. But I think this really requires a sort of open-mindedness, a constant attention and respect to the cultural background of the Other, and by that I mean "Other" with a capital "o", which I believe we still should learn in Hungary in general.
If one pivotal point regarding Central European University is this international nature, we might say that the other element of fundamental importance is the concept or ideal of an open society and its cultivation. What does this imply in terms of higher education practice or the everyday life of the university?
Indeed, it is a kind of, well, I would not say melting pot here at CEU, on the contrary, in fact, so it is not about the melting together of different cultures. Rather, the essence is that when students sit together at a certain course in a classroom and very often there are not two people who belong to the same nationality, then the attention, the open and impartial debating culture which I tried to refer to earlier will be inevitable in order simply to survive. That is, to preserve and advocate your own views without offending the other and to gain as much as possible from the other, I think this is a basic requirement. The way we put it in 1992-1993, when the first master’s degree programs were launched, was that this is a mutual learning process for all of us. On the one hand, professors facing such an immensely diverse student community learn as much from the student as students learn from them, but students also learn at least as much from each other as from the faculty members. This is something we tell our freshmen each year and at the end of the year they always say we were right.
Is there such a thing as the CEU model? Or is this what you have just described?
I think it is. The CEU model is based on inter- or trans-national professional and academic socialization, which may sound presumptuous coming from me, but it can be confirmed by the strong cohesion among CEU alumni. There is already a group now of ten-something-thousand people who graduated from CEU. And I believe it is an outstanding example in Hungary and Central Europe that this network is functional. There is mutual help, and we can rely on them heavily for example in recruiting students for us. So they disseminate the knowledge that this is a successful model which is worth trying even for just one year. So we have one-year MA courses, which arm people with a very different experience. There are some though, who assume that CEU taints people who come here with a definite identity and tries to impose a sort of doctrine of an abstract model, which would be the model of an open society. Given my own experience at CEU, I think this would be an absolutely self-defeating strategy.
We began this conversation talking about the many changes taking place in higher education, in the degree programs in higher education, mainly concerning the financing of higher education. Can you already tell what will change with regards to CEU, say, next year?
I believe that next year will be an important test, a litmus test so to say, of what is the impact on talented students in Hungarian higher education who would merit continuing their studies after a BA program, for example, but could not afford it. Maybe it will mean a chance for them, but it is also possible that they will try and gravitate toward CEU instead. Our possibilities are limited though in admitting these students. This year’s application statistics show that approximately 6.000 people applied to CEU master’s and doctoral programs in total, of which we can admit approximately 10%. Our possibilities are very limited. We do have existing and promising cooperations with some academic and university partners. I, as pro-rector in charge of Hungarian affairs, have just finished a process of requesting all the different departments to help me compile a list, a database in fact, of the institutional and personal partnerships of the past 6-8 years. Be it a joint conference, supervising external PhD students, participating in doctoral committees or the joint implementation of more comprehensive and more ambitious research programs. The material is incredibly rich. So this shows that we do have something to build on in the future. We have a relationship with practically every important research center, or university department, in the fields of economics, the humanities and the social sciences, which connects us. We have, for example, a Center for EU Enlargement Studies which is headed by one of Hungary’s former foreign ministers who maintains a collegial relationship with the current minister of foreign affairs, which recently resulted in the signing of a long-term research cooperation agreement between our Center and the Hungarian Insitute of International Affairs concerning issues related to the EU, integration and so forth. A very new addition to the CEU community is, for example, the Department and Center of Cognitive Sciences, which has already been embedded incredibly deeply into Hungarian research and academic cooperation in psychology, social psychology and cognitive science. Senior undergraduate college students are frequent visitors in every department to CEU courses within the framework of arrangements with the special studies colleges (szakkollégiumok) of Hungarian universities . So there is a lot we can build on either by the exchange of experiences or the joint implementation of mutually interesting and progressive research. We are determined to further improve and intensify this cooperation in the future.
Photo: CEU/Daniel Vegel
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