Developing dynamic capabilities

The recently established Faculty of Economics at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University is moving to meet growing demand in business and economics with an emphasis on preparing students to adapt to the unpredictable. Tim Banerjee Dhoul talked to Gabor Zemplen and Judit Fortvingler to learn more 

Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) is steeped in history. Originally founded in 1635 in Nagyszombat (today, Trnava in Slovakia) it moved to Buda in 1777 (the historic capital of the Kingdom of Hungary which, since 1873, comprises the western part of today’s capital, Budapest). In 1950, it acquired its current name, in homage to the renowned physicist and faculty member, Loránd Eötvös. Today, ELTE counts four Nobel Prize laureates among its teachers and alumni, and the number of students is roughly 33,000. 

The establishment of its Institute of Business Economics (ELTE IBE) and the transition, last year, into the Faculty of Economics – ELTE’s ninth faculty (ELTE FE) – are more recent developments, born out of the rapid growth of students studying economics and business at the university. 

Business Impact talked to faculty members, Gabor Zemplen and Judit Fortvingler, to find out more about this rising level of interest and gain insights into ELTE Faculty of Economics’ pedagogical approach and outlook.

How healthy is the current market for business education in your country, and the surrounding region, and what are the main challenges?

The number of international students in the region is increasing rapidly, and in Hungary, state-funded scholarships for students from developing countries also help with the recruitment of young talent. Naturally, recent events have upset the current trends. With an influx of refugee students from Ukraine, many of whom come from Africa, ELTE is able to provide for their continuing education during the crisis. 

At the national level, business education is very popular among students, and is probably the field with the highest number of competitors: more than 30 universities offer such education, and students themselves help in ranking these institutions through their choices. We have the highest number of postgraduate (and MBA) applications and students, and we are in the top two for undergraduate excellence, with an increase of more than 60% in the number of applicants
who ranked ELTE as their first choice for next year. This is a huge success, given that the overall number of higher education applicants has decreased this year. 

Has the Covid-19 pandemic influenced your School’s long-term strategy? If so, how?

We had used certain IT tools to support our master’s students’ learning experience even before the pandemic started in 2020, so it did not hit us dramatically. The new external circumstances forced us to extend the use of available systems to bachelor’s-level programmes and to widen the scope of IT solutions in teaching. 

After a smooth transition to an online environment in spring 2020, the School’s management started to consider the future: after overcoming Covid-19, should the faculty return to ‘traditional’ teaching tools, or should it implement a combination of pre-Covid and pandemic tools? Our approach differentiates us from other leading Hungarian universities and is twofold. 

On the one hand, we have realised that certain tasks (for example, consultations, the oral entrance exam at master’s level, and project work presentations) could be implemented more efficiently online. In addition, our students – especially master’s students who work [in conjunction with their studies] – favour this channel because of the time factor. 

On the other hand, we have abandoned paper-based assessments. Certainly, the first steps to eliminate printed tests were necessitated by the pandemic, but then it became part of our long-term strategy. In autumn 2021, we opened an exam centre with a capacity of about 200 students per timeslot, which is unique in the region. 

Another lesson learnt from online teaching was that students’ learning methods have changed, and they are accustomed to relying on video-recorded lectures to extend their knowledge. Consequently, we have just opened a video library on campus where students can book a computer station in advance and watch the recording of any bachelor’s or master’s lectures or seminars of the semester (term).      

I understand that programmes at ELTE FE aim to incorporate other disciplines, such as psychology and computer science. Why is this mixing of disciplines important to students of economics and business?  

We have realised that, due to the availability of the internet, factual knowledge has become less important in the past decade while certain 21st-century soft and transversal skills, like critical thinking, negotiation skills, people skills, organisational and IT skills, have become indispensable for future businesspeople. It is these skills that we aim to help our students acquire to ease their transition into the business world and to prepare for the integration of the not-yet-known and the ever-changing world around us. 

These days, we offer several courses to bachelor’s students that have become increasingly important for practising business professionals, including law and advanced IT skills. By teaching students about human behaviour and communication, we also help them develop a growth mindset. We even have courses specifically targeting meta-expertise (for example, ‘Transdisciplinarity and expertise’) as it is not hard to see how technological change impacts expertise quickly in the fields of finance, marketing, and so on. Reacting to the dynamic development of IT in the fields of accounting and finance, for instance, we have just launched a new course on ‘Finance and Accounting Informatics’ for our bachelor’s students.

In a recent interview, Dean of ELTE Faculty of Economics, György Andor, described the School’s vision as being ‘to train open-minded, versatile, and creative economists’. Why are these characteristics important in the world of business today? 

Economics students learn about the nature of business cycles and the occurrence of periodic crises that have challenged the world in the past. Having the previous patterns in our mind, we emphasise and teach the importance of planning in business. However, in the past few years we have faced new, hardly predictable circumstances that one has to adapt to, such as the pandemic, or the war in Ukraine. 

No one can find a precise description in a textbook of what to do and how to settle into new situations, both in business and our private lives. We train our students to be creative, versatile, and open-minded, which means that, based on the relevant acquired factual and applied knowledge, they can tailor a solution to any new scenario. We also help our students understand the viewpoints of both an employer and employee, and multinational and national companies, given the macro and micro interests. Our priority is to develop students’ dynamic capabilities to be proactive or reactive, as is required.

ELTE FE offers English-language degrees at undergraduate level. Do you have any figures on the proportion of international students that are normally enrolled in these programmes? How popular are they with domestic students in comparison to the bilingual and Hungarian degrees?

We started with four bilingual undergraduate degrees (English and Hungarian) in 2018, and from 2019, we have also offered two of these as English-only degrees (Finance and Accounting, and International Business Economics). These are becoming increasingly popular among Hungarian students with an approximately threefold increase [in admissions] in the last year. For the coming year, we already know that around 300 more prospective students have applied, compared to last year. The ratio of international students is around 25% this year, and for the coming year the applications are still open.

What were the reasons behind last year’s launch of ELTE’s Doctoral School of Business and Management? 

Since its foundation, ELTE Faculty of Economics (previously, the Institute of Business Economics) has aimed at offering the full range of higher education, from bachelor’s to PhD studies. We are a young faculty with talented and experienced staff. 

The story goes back to 2017 when a cohort of 40-50 excellent tutors with outstanding academic performance, supported by the senate of ELTE, started work on building the Institute. Most of these tutors had been working together at bachelor, master’s, and doctoral levels for about 15 years, so it was evident that we had the expertise to obtain accreditation for each of the three levels. 

The rapid growth in the number of students we received initiated the transition from an institute for business economics to a faculty of economics and was eased by the PhD programme accreditation. In other words, the intention and experience to run a PhD programme was present, but we first had to reach maturity by running relevant postgraduate programmes for consecutive years.  

Business Schools are often encouraged to play a greater role in their communities. Can you give an example of a new event, activity, or initiative with this in mind? 

Community-building has certainly not been eased by Covid-19, and one present initiative aims at forging international relationships with similar institutions outside Budapest and Hungary to help like-minded students form groups, cohorts
and alliances. 

For example, our students have been actively involved in case study competitions, which serve as a bridge between knowledge acquired at university and real-life business experience. One student from our bachelor’s in finance and accounting has been awarded second place at an international competition organised by Baker Hughes and the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants). Currently, we are working on a business game project together with the ACCA, where a group of students solve a case study under the guidance of mentors.  

The most recent initiative, however, responds to the largest crisis in our region in years, whereby ELTE Faculty of Economics has allocated 40 new guest studentships for refugees from Ukrainian universities for the 2022 spring term. Tuition fees for the term are waived and while half of the quota is reserved for Ukrainian or Ukrainian-Hungarian citizens, students of other backgrounds from Ukrainian universities are also welcome. Guest students wishing to continue their education at the Faculty of Economics beyond the spring semester can do so as fee-paying students after going through the regular application and admission process. 

What does ‘responsible management’ mean to your School? 

Our vision is to educate students who, on graduation, will be successfully integrated into business life, either as an employee or an entrepreneur starting their own business. One core objective of responsible management is to help our students acquire the necessary skills and applied knowledge to smoothen their transition to real life. We receive direct feedback from our students on whether their perception of service quality in teaching is in line with our expectations. 

Our faculty cooperates intensively with companies through guest lecturers and traineeships, so we serve as a bridge between our students and the employers. Based on this experience, the School’s management has a clear understanding of trends in the labour market.   

Moreover, faculty management is accountable to the provider – which for our university is the central government – for the funds used. Responsible management includes not only the use of resources in accordance with the applicable rules, but also the implementation of the so-called ‘three Es of management’: efficiency, economy, and effectiveness. Through our performance-reporting system, there is ongoing monitoring of how tutors accomplish the key targets.

In short, managing a faculty is an opportunity to educate talented youngsters and a significant responsibility to make the best use of funds while achieving our targets.

What plans does your School have for the next three years? 

We aim to maintain and stabilise our achievements on the national market with moderate growth with respect to international students. We plan to pursue our ACCA accreditation and the BGA membership. 

In turbulent times, it is exceedingly difficult to have reasonable predictions about the future environment, but we hope that our adaptability to change will help us maintain our current position on the market as the leading provider for master’s degrees in economics (we run around 30% of the national market for these programmes), and as lucky tutors teaching many of the brightest undergraduates
in Hungary.

Gabor A Zemplen (pictured, left) is Vice Dean for International Affairs, and Professor at the Department of Argumentation Theory and Marketing, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) Faculty of Economics, Hungary. 

Judit Fortvingler (pictured, right) is Director of International Affairs, and Assistant Professor at the Department of Finance and Accounting, ELTE Faculty of Economics, Hungary.

This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: May 2022-July 2022).

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