Pro-Rector Laszlo Kontler on CEU at 25 in Hungarian Weekly HVG

Pro-Rector Laszlo Kontler talked about CEU's 25 years old history and recent developments in Hungarian weekly HVG. You can read the translation of the article below:

Step by Step

It started out as a regional institution, in order to help the transition from Soviet-type societies to open ones. Students from more than 100 countries arrive to the MA and PhD programs of Central European University, which marks its 25th anniversary this year.

A café and community spaces in the inner courtyard open to the general public, a roof with windows looking up to the sky, and a rooftop terrace – the latter with a breathtaking view of St Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament building – all of these elements of the campus of Central European University (CEU), which is currently being built, will reflect the idea of openness. The private institution founded by George Soros will inhabit parts of its renewed and restructured buildings in Nador street already this September, and by 2019 the second phase of its campus development is expected to finish. CEU was founded in a historic moment: when the Eastern- and Central European state socialist systems collapsed, and it seemed that the future will belong to market economy and constitutional democracy. In 1989, in the year the Berlin wall came down, intellectuals from the region and the “West” gathered in Dubrovnik, and dreamt up an institution with international standards that is sensitive and committed to social problems, and by educating a critically-thinking learned elite can help the transition from dictatorship to democracy. “At the beginning, the university was made up of professional programs loosely connected to each other. The process was surrounded by a euphoric spirit,” recalls CEU Pro-Rector Laszlo Kontler, who had been associated with university since the very beginning.

In the first years, 90% of the students were from previous Comecon countries. Although the language of teaching had always been English, for a long time Russian could be heard at the corridors, as students communicated with each other mostly in this language. Gradually, over the years, some North-American and West-European students joined the students from the region, who mainly arrived to Budapest to study because it was considered to be adventurous, or they had Hungarian ancestry. At the beginning of the 2000s a change started to happen in CEU’s life and the institution took a global direction. The composition of students gradually changed. Although even today 50% of them are still from the post-Soviet region, today CEU attracts those eager to learn from each continent, and from more than 100 countries. Hungarians represent 18-20% of the student body, constituting the largest national group. “We say that CEU is the most ‘densely’ global university in the world: there are institutions with students from more countries, however, there are only a few where there is no national majority,” says the Pro-Rector.  

In the meantime, the number of programs grew and new fields of study also emerged. One of the novelties of the past 6-8 years is the establishment of the Department of Cognitive Science, which examines the interconnected basis of social knowledge and behavior from a neurological, psychological and communicational viewpoint, but network science is also a relatively new scholarly discipline. The CEU community consists of around 2000 people: the student body is about 1200, plus some 100 guest students annually, a faculty consisting a little more than 300 professors, and the administrative and service staff. There are many recurrent visiting professors who teach elsewhere full time, but regularly spend a semester now and then at CEU.

It is a unique characteristic of CEU that it does not provide undergraduate education, from its beginnings it had offered only master’s degrees and from the middle of the 1990s doctoral courses. According to Laszlo Kontler, the advantage of this particular institutional structure is that the needs of a larger undergraduate student body does not have to be met, therefore building on research results in small-group study circles can be more effective. However, one of the disadvantages is that contrary to Western private university models, where the tuition fee paid by undergraduates is a considerable source of income, CEU is financed mainly through the income of its foundation, and in a lesser degree from donations and grants. A further disadvantage is that it’s more difficult to organize the traineeship of PhD students. While at big American universities these students can easily test their teaching abilities on the undergraduates, at CEU doctoral students can only give classes in a limited number to beginner master students. “Therefore, we made agreements with international and Hungarian universities for our PhD students to hold classes there,” says the Pro-Rector.    

It is still a stubbornly held public view that CEU education is extremely expensive. Indeed, there is an annual tuition fee that amounts to 11-12 thousand Euros. In an international scope, this amount equals that of a boring American small town university’s tuition fee, compared to which American students with student loans feel like being in paradise during their year in a vibrantly interesting European city. On top of it all, only a minor fraction of students pay this fee. Doctoral students not only receive tuition free of charge, they also receive a stipend: 220 thousand Forints per month. 60% of master students receive full or partial scholarships, which can be a maximum of 90 thousand Forints. Besides this, CEU supports its students in many other ways, from housing support to health insurance, and funding travel costs for research.

CEU brought back to Hungary such renowned academics as economist Botond Koszegi, or network science researcher Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. Its academic courses have been appearing on world rankings for years: its politics and international studies reached the 40th place in this year’s Quacquarelli Symonds subject rankings, and two-third of its programs are listed in the top 200. We cannot find among these the one that is the most successful from a different perspective: the cognitive science program acquired significant funding from EU grants, the discipline is so new though, that it is not yet listed in the rankings.     

July 28, 2016