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"Foreign students are not tourists, but the residents of Pécs"

13 May 2020

The Medical School in Pécs has a scenario ready for every situation in connection with the travel and training of foreign students, says dr. Miklós Nyitrai, who, given the current application numbers, does not expect a significant decline in the short term, and in the longer term the lessons of the epidemic may increase the demand for medical training in Pécs. In his opinion, it is important to recognize that foreign students are not tourists, but equal citizens of Pécs, who enrich the city both financially and culturally with their presence.


Written by Miklós Stemler


In the fields of English, Hungarian and German education at the Medical School in Pécs, we have seen an increase over the last decade and a half, albeit with minor stagnations, the number of applicants and admitted students has continuously increased, as opposed to trends characteristic to higher education as a whole. However, the coronavirus epidemic, like in many other fields, can bring radical changes here as well. What do we know now about the number of applications?

If we look at the numbers from 2006, we see that the number of students in the Hungarian program has been constantly increasing, but the overall rate was 10-20 percent, while the number of participants in the English program more than doubled and the number of those in the German almost doubled. Today, 60 percent of our students are international, which - although I did not take a look at the statistics - I think is a unique rate nationwide. In the past five years, this increase was smaller, we rather saw the stabilization in the numbers. One of the reasons for this is that, in terms of both infrastructure and staff, we have reached a limit above which we should compromise on the quality of the training. And we are not doing that.

We already know from this year's numbers that the number of the first-place Hungarian applicants has increased, the number was already better at the end of April than last July in terms of the number of applicants - this is important because based on our experiences so far there is a regular 5-10 percent increase in the summer. Based on current data of the English training, the numbers for 2020 will be between the number of applications in 2018 and 2019, while the number of applicants for the German program is basically the same as last year. I see the impact of the epidemic in the fact that many people are likely to make a decision later this year, as it will take time to see the health and economic effects of the epidemic.

How can the academic year starting in September be planned in this extraordinary situation?

For our part, we are preparing for the ordinary start of the 2020-21 academic year in September, and we have several scenarios for the situation at that time, which is currently unpredictable. The first of these is that if the epidemic subsides in line with the current trend, we will start the education as usual. Depending on the health situation at that time, it may be necessary to introduce various safety measures, but we have also developed several solutions for this in order to ensure the uninterrupted education. Of course, it may also happen that students will not be able to come back yet, but based on the last two months, I am sure that we can handle this situation as well. In March, we made a huge effort to switch to online education in a week and we have successfully implemented a paradigm shift that would have taken years in “peacetime”.

If the epidemic does not allow the personal, attendance training, we will continue the already well-functioning distance education and shape the curricula in a way to flexibly schedule the knowledge that cannot be acquired in this form. In addition, we take into maximum account the fact that this extraordinary situation affects not only the instructors but also the students and their families. In this spirit, for example, this year we waived the requirement to link participation in the exams to the tuition fee to be paid by 15 April, and the payment of these has been postponed until 15 August. I believe that with this decision, we can support the families of the students with our own means. Overall, we cannot see into the future, especially not in this uncertain and rapidly changing situation, but we are prepared for different scenarios as far as possible, and the interest in the School has not diminished, but has perhaps even increased in the recent period. 

The coronavirus epidemic has created a paradoxical situation. In the short term, uncertainty and financial problems are obviously the determining factors, but in the meantime, it has also become clear that there is a significant shortage of well-trained staff, even in the most advanced health care systems. What effect can this have on medical education in Pécs?

It can definitely be stated that those completing the medical training in Pécs and those completing the Hungarian medical training in general can cope even with these very difficult conditions, and the epidemic has really shown that more doctors and skilled health workers are needed in more developed countries as well. I think the epidemic has highlighted the importance of these trainings, and it will certainly affect us as well.

Let's talk a little about the present, as there are still a lot of foreign students in Pécs who have not been able to travel home for several months due to the epidemic. How can the School help them?

Our most important task is clear communication and to ensure the maximum of learning opportunities. On the one hand, news about the epidemiological situation is important regarding the communication, of course students are mostly informed about these from other sources as well. Communicating the new education systems and examinations is very important. In addition, we place great emphasis on the so-called “normal news” as well, that is, events beyond the epidemic. To give an example, the coronavirus did not stop large-scale infrastructure developments, we have successfully overcome the difficulties. So, from this autumn, even if with a slight delay, we will be able to take possession of our new central educational building and the construction of the new dental block is also ongoing.

In addition, we are not just talking about individual students, but an entire community, they need to be addressed in a way that personal encounter is not possible. In response to the epidemic, among other things, we are working with the instructors and students on an education system with new foundations, this is the POTE2020 learning culture concept, which is based on more active student participation and uses 21st century technology as well. Providing continuous information is essential for its success. In this spirit, we have announced, for example, our new, unique digital education system, PotePedia, or the large-scale development of the Medi Skills Lab. Also, communication is a two-way process, we are constantly expecting and receiving feedback from both the Hungarian and international student councils.

You have mentioned community. All this is also important outside the walls of the School, as the presence of foreign students is not an internal affair of the university, but a public affair in Pécs, and all this is perhaps even more highlighted on the streets that were suddenly emptied due to the epidemic. What will the city and the university have to do if life can restart?

I think it is clear to everyone that without the presence of foreign students, Pécs would be a very different place. If we look simply at the numbers, we can say that the tuition fee alone means an annual income of 7-8 billion HUF for the School and the university, and economists calculate that about twice that amount, about 15 billion HUF is spent on various services in the city, be it catering, accommodations, or taxis and so on. Of course, these are not new things, English-language medical training has started not only in Hungary, but in Pécs as the first in the whole region, for more than 35 years now.

The residents of Pécs are already used to the presence of foreign students, but at the same time I believe that both the city and the university still have tasks regarding their integration. I think it is important to emphasize that we are not talking about tourists, but about residents who spend five or six years here with us, they become the members of the urban community. Many of them are interested in Hungarian culture, learn the language, and take an active part in the life of the city. Further symbolic steps can be taken in this area, such as the local government accepting them as honorary citizens of Pécs, and more needs to be done in the field of foreign language communication as well. This requires ongoing joint work on the part of the city and the university, and it also includes respect and proper treatment. It was a particularly sad thing, for example, when Asian students were insulted during the outbreak of the epidemic in Hungary, this is unworthy of Pécs. This city is home to many great intellectual workshops, it has always been famous for its diversity, and part of this is the acceptance and inclusion of foreign students, as they make Pécs more developed, more beautiful and a bit smarter.

The insulting of foreign students is obviously also related to the current state of emergency, as there was tremendous insecurity and fear mainly at the outbreak of the epidemic, which intensified xenophobia in several countries. What is the situation now, after some time in this field?

The human mind finds it hard to bear if it does not understand something, does not see the cause clearly, and the epidemic really set off a series of unexpected events. In such a situation, scapegoating is one of the typical reactions, and a part of this was also when some people thought the Chinese students studying at the university were to blame. All this is, of course, nonsense lacking any foundation, as these young people had been in Pécs all the way before, they could not bring the epidemic in the country in any way. Moreover, we must also see that in such a situation, the infected people are the victims, not the ones responsible. Both the university and personally the rector responded quickly and well, and fortunately these incidents ceased after the first fright.

With all its irrationality, xenophobia is a stubborn thing that has been a constant feature of human history. What can the School, the university, or the city do to mitigate this and prevent it if possible?

I believe that this is a process, a long way from a city - and of course Pécs is not like this anymore - where foreigners are only known from the news, to a place where they are treated as equal partners. The term equal is important: I do not think they should have extra rights. Foreign students who come to Pécs and spend years here are just as much citizens of the city as those who have lived here all their lives, they do not have to be given privileges, but they have to be accepted as residents of the city. All this takes time, and the exemplary role of the university in this field is important, as the University of Pécs is decisive in the intellectual life of Pécs. That is why the university needs to speak up and set an example.

This process has been going on for decades, and the city is our partner in this as well. It is important to recognize that this is a matter of common interest, whether it is about the university, the students or the residents of Pécs. We are quite far from the end of this journey, but it is also worth adding that in Hungarian terms, Pécs is doing particularly good in this area, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Our patterns, however, are advanced foreign universities, more specifically foreign university-city symbioses. There are plenty of small ingredients. For example, Hungarian and foreign students should receive equal discounts, and more people working in restaurants should speak English even better, just to highlight a few typical things. From these examples, it is already clear why this is a “win-win” situation, as the knowledge of the English language will make Pécs a more attractive place for tourists, not to mention that language skills are also vital for attracting international companies to Pécs.

You have been directly involved in this process, having led the English training program for 8 years. What personal experiences have you gained?

It was a very exciting thing to see into this system, especially as I took over the management of the program in 2006 during a busy period. Due to our accession to the EU in 2004, the number of foreign students increased significantly at that time, which posed a lot of challenges. It was instructive to get to know different cultures, I became more open, I can better understand the different aspects and needs. In addition, several things remain the same regardless of cultural background and language. The students coming to us expect high-quality education, which, looking back at the last 100 years of medical education in Pécs, has always been typical. But it was also important for me to learn that this is just one component.

It is also important for them to have other opportunities in addition to high-quality education, and I believe that the higher education competition of the coming years will be about this. Hungarian medical education is traditionally of a high standard, which provides a good basis. Beyond that, however, it is becoming increasingly important what kind of community spaces, services, and connections we can provide them with, either on campus or in the city, and we still have work to do here. Equality is also a key aspect in this field, after all, these opportunities will be available to Hungarian students in the same way, and of course the primary goal of the medical School in Pécs remains to ensure the supply of Hungarian doctors. We need to be open, as students can provide plenty of inspiration and concrete suggestions for further development. If we do this, we could even become one of the best medical schools in the world.

For 35 years, many students have graduated from the English and German programs, many of whom have now become recognized authorities or even public figures in their chosen country. To what extent can they be relied upon to promote the reputation of the Medical School of Pécs?

We have, for example, a former student who has become the State Secretary for Health in his country. In general, it can be said that a lot of people hold leading positions nowadays, they are recognized and respected people. All this did not start today, as even during the period of state socialism, many people came to Hungary from “friendly” countries to study medicine, and this resulted in high-level relations that still exist today. Today, of course, the selection is different, we have students from all over the world, and through our continuously developing alumni system we have placed great emphasis on maintaining a meaningful relationship with them after graduation, which is of course not an easy task for such a large number of students from different backgrounds. All this can be of tremendous importance in building credibility. As the dean, I can tell how great a place we are. But doctors who graduated from our School and have respectable careers draw more attention, they are more credible if they tell how good the training was and that they were able to spend these six years happily and safely with us. There is no better advertising than this honest opinion.