The Role of Universities

Statement and a Summary of the Articles and Comments from the Forum of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

2021. június 16.

A Model Change at Universities – A Position Paper by the Presidium of the MTA Resolution No. 10/2021 (II. 23.) of the Presidium

The Presidium of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences issues the following statement in connection with certain changes affecting universities:

  1. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences is committed to the intense and harmonious development of the whole sphere of Hungarian research and higher education, and to increasing its excellence, competitiveness and its attractiveness.

  2. Scientific freedom and the autonomy of universities is one of the cornerstones of European cultural heritage. The raison d’être and the success of the university model of the study of sciences and knowledge transfer is clearly proven by scientific, technical and social development.

  3. Today, universities are the almost exclusive providers of professionals who are fit to be leaders of society, economy and government; in addition, universities play a crucial role in keeping the knowledge of these professionals up-to-date. Modern universities are essential to preventing threats to mankind, and to the scientific and technological advancement serving the welfare of mankind. The modernisation of Hungarian universities is a national interest.

  4. The massification of higher education, a phenomenon present around the globe, and its large-scale expansion was not accompanied by the development of university institutions, nor were complex development programmes and funds available in this regard. Making up for the deficiencies has become ever so urgent. In order to allow for higher education and research to fulfil their essential functions and to maintain their central role in society, we need to review the benefits and disadvantages of their current operation, and establish a vision for them based on the findings.

  5. “Fundamental higher education values” encompass the freedom of education and research, the autonomy of institutions, accountability, equal access and social responsibility. We need regulation and operational models for universities that assert all of these collectively.

  6. Several attempts were made in order to improve the situation of Hungarian universities in the past decades, yet none of them brought a breakthrough solution. The pros and cons of the transformation currently on agenda, which has been a subject of ongoing debate at the Hungarian Rectors' Conference for years, still need to be considered for universities and faculties with various educational and research profiles. As one of the fundamental principles of the new models, new maintaining entities should not be granted more rights than those currently held by the State. In addition, regulation pertaining to universities should warrant for the following conditions at the level of laws:

  7. The powers of the maintaining entity (the State or the board of the trustees) should not extend to influencing educational and research decisions, the establishment or discontinuation of certain academic departments or faculties, or to the appointment of university heads and professors, or to university habilitation procedures.

  8. Movable or immovable property used by the universities and owned by or to be conveyed to the maintaining entity (the State or the board of the endowment) and revenue collected from asset management may only serve the performance of tasks related to education and research at universities for which the guaranties of efficiency and external control also need to be provided. The property of the university may not be sold to third parties, eventually, right of ownership should revert to the State.

  9. In case of the boards of trustees of foundations, the proportionate representation of policies, economy, education and research, and furthermore the option for rotation of the members need to be ensured.

  10. Changing the operational forms of universities is a far-reaching decision, one that determines the future of Hungary for decades, therefore these concepts need to be developed carefully for which sufficient time should be allowed. The stakeholders need to be involved in the discussions preceding the decisions, and the autonomy of universities need to be honoured even after the decisions are made. The public needs to be informed and social control must be ensured. High-quality universities that would prefer to refrain from transformation should not be discriminated against.

  11. The Academy intends to keep the lecturer and researcher communities, and the society informed on changes and the expected consequences by initiating a public dialogue. During the discussion the representatives of the scientific communities should strive to facilitate the endeavours aimed at improving the level and conditions of education and research at universities by making carefully considered suggestions.

  12. The results of the restructuring must be evaluated after three years with the involvement of the authorities, the universities concerned, the Academy and independent experts from abroad. The outcome of this evaluation must be made public.

The Role of Universities
A Summary of the Articles and Comments from the Forum of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

László Kollár
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Secretary-General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Civil Engineer, Professor, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Faculty of Civil Engineering
kollar [dot] laszlo [at] titkarsag [dot] mta [dot] hu

László Borhy
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Rector, Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Humanities

Anna Erdei
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Deputy Secretary-General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Science

Ferenc Hudecz
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Science

György Kosztolányi
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor Emeritus, University of Pécs, Medical School

Csaba Pléh
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Central European University

Péter Török
Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor, University of Debrecen

Lajos Vékás
Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Professor Emeritus, Eötvös Loránd University Faculty of Law


The introductory paper of the articles on the „role of universities” states that one of the main actors of R&D and innovation is higher education. Furthermore, it is also shown that sophisticated university education requires cutting edge research. To fulfil this role the key is the personality of the faculty members. Considering the new models of university financing it is stated that the most important question is the new university governance which offers both opportunities and risks.

University, higher education, model change, governance

Since its foundation, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) has felt a responsibility for Hungarian academia and the development of Hungarian science as a whole, while its primary task in recent decades has been to maintain and modernise its network of research institutes. Some of its programmes[1] were open to the entire research community, while others[2] were exclusively announced for the research institute network. To help shape generations of researchers, the MTA Lendület ("Momentum") Programme was initially open only to young researchers from the network of institutes, but was later opened to all domestic researchers. The possibility of incorporating the programme directly shaped the institution network. The MTA remains committed to representing the entire Hungarian academia in the future as well: research institutes, universities and public collections alike. This was the sentiment formulated in the mission statement adopted by the 2019 Extraordinary General Assembly of the MTA[3].

As everywhere in the world, higher education is one of the most important custodians of scientific research in our country as well. Approximately two-thirds of our public association members and academicians are university-affiliated. It was, therefore, clear and understandable that in March of this year, the President of the MTA announced a forum relating to universities, in the context of which we aimed to review the task and role of universities, also relying on the opinions of the members of the public association. The creation of this forum was specifically justified by the change in university model and the related position by the MTA Presidium [4]. The objective of the forum was to discuss current issues in university education and research, and the social mission and role of universities in general.

The President of the MTA asked an Editorial Board to maintain the forum, whose members are the authors of this paper. The Editorial Board invited eminent experts in various fields, active contributors to higher education, including the Minister of State for Higher Education, to elaborate on eight topics. The papers written in response to the invitation were first made available to the members of the General Assembly and then to close to 18,000 members of the MTA's public body, with more than 3,000 people reading them and around 50 people also commenting.

The commenters – with the exception of the paper on the model change – did not generally argue with the content, but rather highlighted, reinforced and supplemented certain ideas. The following section shares the ideas that emerged from the works, where the authors were given the opportunity to make changes based on the comments received.

This introduction does not intend to evaluate the individual papers, but we will highlight some of the points made in the papers and in the comments.

The papers were published in the Magyar Tudomány (2021, Vol. 182., No. 11.).

* * * *

Operating universities is a complex task, simultaneously having to take into account educational, research and economic issues, the legacy and lessons of the past, the challenges of the present, as well as international experiences, while preparing students to solve yet unknown future problems. There are many different approaches to this highly complex task, and many different ways of teaching and researching and of operating a university with excellence. However, it is possible to formulate general principles that are clearly need to be followed in order to achieve an outstanding level of higher education. These principles/thoughts can be summarised as follows:

The role of universities is far from solely to provide professional knowledge, education and research, but so much more: a university is a forum for the presentation and juxtaposition of scientific views and for collective thinking. Higher education requires workshops that create and ensure the background and conditions for the training of intellectuals who are capable of solving problems independently, think critically and always ask questions. The university is the place to train future intellectuals.[5] The goal is for students to develop into open-minded, creative thinkers, intellectuals capable of taking on new challenges and working as part of a team.

This is based on and underpinned by the high quality of research work at universities, and in some areas, development and innovation. Research is not self-serving, and neither is basic research: it aims to shape the future and make an impact by posing new problems and formulating new answers. It can be aimed at understanding how nature or society works, at cultivating culture, or at direct practical application, innovation. Research is partly supported through calls for proposals, in the framework of open and transparent competition. One of the decisive criteria for assessment and award is the expected impact of research. This impact, however, can be interpreted very broadly: it can be scientific, it can be social, it can be cultural and even short-term or long-term economic benefit.

The key to the creation of research workshops is the presence and cooperation of ground-breaking personalities and an ever-thinking research team.[6] What makes a good university good is not – or not primarily – the infrastructure, but the people. As Loránd Eötvös said more than a century ago: "the quality of the academic training at a university is determined solely by the personality of its teachers. The university issue is, therefore, first and foremost a personal issue."

Diversity and mobility in training and research, with an emphatic focus on international interoperability between universities and a multi-level training structure, also contribute greatly to creating an inspiring research climate.[7] Increasing participation by women is essential in ensuring that multiple perspectives are reflected and this requires, above all, greater support for researchers raising children.[8]

For the above to work optimally, a predictable tenure track[9], a transparent selection system based on professional excellence, the autonomy of academic work and adequate funding are necessary. The careers of leading researchers and professors take decades to fulfil, and the loss of some, for example due to the siphoning effect of the international research community, can be a loss that is difficult to remedy.

The quality of a research university is largely determined by its research activities, but it should be stressed that university education is a special field of pedagogy, with numerous higher education pedagogy tasks to resolve.[10] The quality assurance steps taken to date are important and should be continued. The proliferation of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) tools poses new challenges,[11] and providing appropriate and effective responses has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic that has been affecting us all for a year and a half.

We are convinced that regardless of the structure of higher education, the above content-related aspects must be taken into account. If any changes are to be made, the first step is to analyse the extent to which the above are met; to assess the results so far and to face the deficiencies, to examine what is preventing or reinforcing the above. The key driver for structural change should also be progress in the above, analysing both the expected benefits and risks.

* * * *

Commenters voiced numerous criticisms of the model change. These can be read on the blog, with a summary of the views of the forum's Editorial Board shown below.

Most of the arguments in favour of a change of model, such as simpler public procurement and adequate remuneration for teachers, could be achieved without a change of model with appropriate legislative amendments. The argument for financial independence is valid only to a very limited extent, with endowments often not sufficiently capitalised to sustain universities.

In our view, the central issue is not whether a university is "endowed" or not, but how the governance of the university changes: i.e. whether the board established plays a significant role in governance alongside the senate. We believe that this structure offers (may offer) many advantages, for which many arguments can be made. However, there are (or could be) many risks involved in the transformation.[12]

As an example, it is worth looking at the situation of high-performing US universities. These, whether public or private, are governed by bodies elected by the academic side (Senate) on the one hand, and by a board of trustees, made up of external members (often alumni) who are usually committed to the university. The latter is responsible for finances, but has no role in academic advancements. It may come as a surprise, but typically only 10-20% of the annual budget of US universities comes from endowment income. (Source: 2019 NACUBO – TIAA Study of Endowments[13])

The European transformations of recent decades have also affected university governance, regardless of whether they remained state-run or not. In essence, they create a new body (hereafter called the university board) alongside the senate, whose members are – for the most part on in their entirety – not employees of the university. The maintainer (the Ministry) delegates its management and leadership functions to the university board in the hope that the board will be able to better take into account the aspects of all stakeholders: namely society, academicians, industry, and the economy. This is based on the expectation that the boards can respond flexibly to the rapidly changing challenges of our time, for the benefit of society and the university. The senate and the university board have the same objective, but their embeddedness and knowledge are different, meaning the different perspectives can ideally complement each other well. This can lead to successful university organisation if there is mutual trust and respect, or to bitter and unsuccessful cooperation if these are absent, as the examples of many American and Western European universities show.

At the same time, the actual feasibility of the above benefits depends on the composition of the university board, its method of operation, decision-making powers and relationship with the university senates.

University boards should not be modelled on the "boards" of for-profit companies, but should follow the practices of "non-profit" organisations. It is essential that, as stated in the MTA's position paper, the university board include all relevant stakeholders, that rotation is ensured, and in no case should the university board's decision-making powers extend to academic promotion, advancement, academic positions, or teaching and scientific issues. University boards must uphold and nurture the traditions of universities. Having all key stakeholders on the university board entails a relatively large organisation. (For example, the board of trustees at Stanford has 32 members. The importance of their work is well reflected by the fact that they meet in person five times a year for a day and a half on each occasion.)

As we have already stated, these transformations bring many opportunities and many risks; the changes in the governance of European universities over the past decades have also caused much debate and tension. It is, therefore, important to monitor changes. The speed of the transformation may be considered excessive: it would have been better to analyse the experiences of the transformation of Corvinus University of Budapest after a few years, and then progress by building on these results. The MTA's position on the restructuring states: "The results of the restructuring must be evaluated after three years with the involvement of the authorities, the universities concerned, the Academy and independent experts from abroad. The outcome of the evaluation must be made public." The Academy will monitor and plans to analyse these processes.

* * * *

We firmly believe that one of the MTA's much-vaunted tasks is to act as the nation's chief advisor, helping to ensure the functioning of a modern, high-quality higher education system. This is also served by the MTA's role in quality assurance in Hungary: the Academy has been operating the system of awarding the title of Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for decades, and has also opened up the Research entity holding the MTA Excellence Award scheme to higher education institutions. The MTA is an independent institution that holds the trust of a broad stratum of society, partly because it is guided by professionalism in its opinions. We are, however, also aware that professional opinions can have different political interpretations and consequences. We believe that respectful debate, even in disagreement, advances the cause of higher education and science.

[1] See, for example, the call announced as part of the MTA Postdoctoral Research Programme, then the Premium Postdoctoral Research Programme, the call announced for the establishment of MTA-supported research groups, the MTA Subject Pedagogy Research Programme, the Domus scholarship or the call for applications for women researchers with children under 14 and for single parent researchers with children of minor age in support of their dissertation required for submitting the application for the title of Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

[2] See, for instance, the Young Researchers' Grant, the MTA Grant for Cooperation in Excellence, the MTA's Junior Prize, the MTA Distinguished Guest Scientists Fellowship Programme, the Fellowship for Junior Researchers' Participation at International Conferences, the MTA Mobility Research Grant.



[5] Kollár, L. (2021). Gondolatok az egyetemekről és a kutatásról (Thoughts on Universities and Research. Magyar Tudomány, Vol. 182., No. 11., pp 1426-1431.

[6] Patkós, A. (2021). Az akadémiai kiválóság igazi letéteményesei (The True Trustees of the Academic Excellence). Magyar Tudomány, Vol. 182., No. 11., pp. 1432-1437.

[7] Keszei, E. (2021). A Bolognai Folyamat és az Európai Felsőoktatási Térség célja és értelme (Objectives of the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area). Magyar Tudomány, Vol. 182., No. 11., pp. 1446-1450.

[8] Gselmann E., Solymosi, K. (2021). A felsőoktatás diverzitásának növeléséhez alapvető szemléletváltásra van szükség (A Fundamental Change in Mindset is Needed to Increase the Diversity in Higher Education). Magyar Tudomány, Vol. 182., No. 11., pp. 1451-1476.

[9] Kiss, L. L., Török, P. (2021). Gondolatok az egyetemi életpályáról, előmenetelről és minősítésről (Some Thoughts on University Career, Qualification and Promotion). Magyar Tudomány, Vol. 182., No. 11., pp. 1438-1445.

[10] Halász, G. (2021). A tanulás és tanítás minősége és eredményessége az egyetemeken (Quality and Effectiveness of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education). Magyar Tudomány. Vol. 182., No. 11., pp.1477-1487.

[11] Molnár, Gy. (2021). Az IKT szerepe a felsőoktatás megújításában (Role of ICT in Renewing Higher Education). Magyar Tudomány. Vol. 182., No. 11., pp. 1488-1501.

[12] Bódis, J. (2021). Az egyetem működtetése, összefoglalás a különböző típusokról, lehetőségek, kihívások (Operation of the University, Summary of the Different Types, Opportunities, Challenges). Magyar Tudomány. Vol. 182., No. 11., pp. 1502-1508.

[13] 2019 NACUBO – TIAA Study of Endowments,