European UniversitiesInternationalisation

The pandemic measures of the past few months have brought changes into the lives of all of us, almost without exception. Universities and public education institutions needed to switch to online education from one moment to the next. Besides the smooth running of education, every institution continues to lay great emphasis on the ability to renew professionally and maintain their existing international relations, as well as to establish new ones. However, this year’s events, the border closures and other restrictions have definitely made the internationalisation efforts of higher education institutions very difficult. In such a situation, it is important to find out about the experiences of international students and the staff members of Hungarian institutions, as well as about the good examples which may bring us closer to succeeding in a future which is still unknown in many respects.

International students would require more interaction and more attention from universities

The Institute of Intercultural Psychology and Education at ELTE PPK (Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Education and Psychology) is conducting research on the psychological aspects of international mobility in higher education. The volume summarising the findings of the research, titled The Psychological Aspects of Higher Education Mobility, was published in 2019; besides 'making practical, educational and organisational recommendations based on the aspects crystallised during the research', the publication also presents the psychological aspects of adaptation. This summer, they also asked questions specifically addressing the pandemic situation. They could mostly reach the international students who chose to stay in Hungary during this period. There are some partial results, but the evaluation is still underway. The head of the institution, Principal Researcher Nguyen Luu Lan Anh gave us a summary of the additional pressures imposed by the COVID-19 related restrictions and uncertainties on international students studying in Hungary.

Did this period affect the students more heavily?

The pandemic is an unknown and exceptional situation which presents a lot of challenges to all of us;, not only international students, but the university staff, teachers too, not to mention dormitories. Most of the international students reported negative changes in every aspect: studies, social life, psychological effects equally.
Those who were in such situation, or, rather, had that type of personality to establish meaningful relationships with Hungarians reported that people had always been very nice to them, but it was increasingly so during that period.

Experiences during the pandemic became more extreme: bad experiences became even worse, positive ones became even more positive. In social interactions, for example, it turns out who the really important people are and who aren’t, so they can find realtrue friendships. Self-reflection becomes stronger, and many feel that they now know themselves better. These things may generally apply to everyone, you don’t need to be an international student for to experience that. But you must be one to feel you needed to struggle cope with this extreme situation. If you manage to do so, it gives you a sense of achievement, which has a positive effect on your self-confidence. This mechanism had existed before the pandemic, too; in a former publication, we discussed the stress and difficulties that international students needed to cope with, and if they managed, they could benefit from it immensely. According to the reports, quite a many of them benefited from the pandemic situation.

Besides everyday difficulties, they also needed to perform at the university. How did the pandemic affect that?

In studies, as well, the greater difficulties were caused by uncertainty; although we all have experienced it during the past period, international students even lacked have such supports as a family background, acquaintances or close friends, which may have further enhanced this experience. The unprecedented situation itself presents a great shock; they may feel that they don't know or understand anything about the surrounding world, which is also coupled with linguistic difficulties. It was also more difficult for them to get to know and use the system of the university, since it’s much harder to get some help when you can’t just go to the international office or stop somebody oin the corridor and ask them. They found themselves in a kind of social vacuum.

What experiences did the students you asked report concerning education and the institutional background?

Switching to online education was challenging for both teachers and the organisers of education. The respondents reported teachers who couldn’t properly adjust the requirements to the changed situation and ones who didn’t hold interactive classes, but only gave them exercises and sent them presentations. For many, it presented a negative change compared to the pre-pandemic situation, when they could collaborate, study together and discuss what they had learnt. They lost the opportunity of high-quality education, because there is no argument, no explanation, no discussion and no interaction. Besides, the opportunity of social interaction was lost, too.
There were, however, also many students who were amazed by the support and preparedness of university teachers and the staff members of the international offices. One thing they highlighted, for example, was that these people always asked them how they felt.

Can we say then, that owing to the coronavirus and the related closures, restrictions and the unprecedented situation, international students found it much harder to manage?

During the project, besides the open-ended questions, we also conducted a questionnaire survey, seeking to find out what an indication of whether a student will succeed in his or her studies may be. Based on that, the general ability to succeed is indicated by the extent of cultural intelligence competence. During the Covid-19 period, however, it seems that the ability to succeed is indicated by the extent of fear of the virus. The more a student is afraid, the harder they will find it to concentrate on their studies, and the more depressive personality they have, the more heavily they will be affected by this situation.

With regards to the institutions, students feel that the more international and 'student-friendly' a university is, the easier it is to succeed.

Can you also rely on the findings of the research conducted during the pandemic to make recommendations on how to help international students, isolated in online education, to succeed?

The research rather gives us directions, but it’s safe to say that students need interaction. A good solution to that can be consultation, which can also be done online, not necessarily during the class, but in addition to that. Managing in an unknown environment has both personal and institutional aspects, but even individual problems can be solved at an institutional level. If a student is depressive or anxious, the institution should help that, but they may also develop cultural competencies and organise training courses, even online.

The students asked also made some proposals. They consider it important that the university should try and establish platforms where international students can contact each other. They also emphasized that it would be great to have more opportunities to get in touch with Hungarian students. Many highlighted the need for psychological counselling. Besides ensuring interaction, they expected the university to provide information, well-organised education, proper technical circumstances, prepared teachers, regular notification, as well as care and attention. It is because for most of them, the university is the only connection to Hungarian society.

Virtual sightseeing, online coffee and an international exchange of experiences can be the key to success

The Directorate for Relations and Internationalization of University of Pécs, Centre for Internationalization and Connections of the University of Pécs organised an online summer course called The Cultural Heritage of Hungary. The Pécs Summer School was launched in 2016 by the Directorate of International Affairs with the goal of increasing the number of summer schools at the University of Pécs every year. In 2020, 11 courses were launched in various fields of science, for nearly 400 students, from 4 countries. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, some of the scheduled summer courses were postponed, whereas other courses were - for the first time in the history oif the University - held online. We talked about the experiences with Dr. Gyöngyi Pozsgai, Study Abroad and Summer School Programme Manager.

What’s the purpose of the summer school?

This year, we have organised the two-week “The Cultural Heritage of Hungary” summer course for the second time. The course held in English presents Hungarian history, economy, culture, folk music and gastronomy to international students who wish to gain more profound knowledge about our country, cultural heritage and diversity.

In June, due to the pandemic, we organised a three-day personality development training course for the Hungarian and foreign students of the University of Pécs online. Driven by its success, we decided to implement the summer course supported by Tempus Public Foundation in an online form, too.

What was the composition of the students like this year, and how did they relate to online education?

Students from 3 continents participated in the course, who joined the virtual training in the US, Mexico, Korea, Germany, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, India and Transcarpathia Transcarpathia. Due to the different time zones, we needed to choose the time schedule of the programmes carefully to allow everyone to attend. The students were enthusiastic and curious all along; they apparently really wanted to learn about our country and culture.

How was the professional programme of the summer school adjusted to the online form?

When we put the programme together, we tried to make maximum use of virtual opportunities. For example, the students went on a virtual sightseeing tour and looked at the sights of Budapest and Pécs, and they took virtual tours to many museums. The programme began with an online coffee before the classes, where the teachers engaged in informal conversation with the students. Every school day was closed with consultation, where the students could ask the experts of the given topics specific questions. The programme also included an online cooking course, where the students learnt how to make a goulash soup and fry crêpes.

Before the course, we consulted the teachers involved about the new educational methods to be used to make the classes more interesting, varied and interactive. We also participate in the work of the professional group EAIE Summer School, where we have exchanged experiences with our foreign colleagues about online summer schools many times, and we integrated the outcomes of these discussions into the programme.

More informal, festival kind of programme elements constituted an integral part of the programme you’d planned. Did you manage to replace them with something else in the online space?

Besides gaining new knowledge, the social experience is also very important for participants. When we were planning the course, we decided to try and offer that to the students in the virtual space, too. In order to do that, we organised social programmes for the participants in cooperation with Hungarian mentor students. The mentor students were responsible for ensuring interesting, entertaining and interactive programmes where the students could get to know each other, and which contributed to developing a real student community, despite the fact that physically they never met. That was how the Night of Games, the Hungarian Movie Night, the Music Night and the Intercultural Night were organised during the course, where the participants and the students of the University of Pécs presented their culture, food, traditional costumes and music to each other.

What feedback did you receive from the students?

At the end of each summer school, we measure students’ satisfaction and carefully thoroughly analyse the feedback we receive. The participants of the online course were very satisfied with the summer school; they all said they could hardly wait to visit Hungary, Pécs and the University of Pécs personally. Of all the programmes, the online goulash cooking show and the online folk dance teaching were the greatest success.

Can you use the practice developed in this extraordinary situation (or some of its elements) in the future? Are you planning to launch a similar course next summer? Will there be a continuation?

We have gained a lot of experience which will also be important for us when we organise further summer schools. It was very useful to study the educational methods and the extracurricular programme opportunities offered by the virtual space, as well as to cooperate with the teachers involved in the programme and the mentor students in new ways. It was nice to see that even online education can induce a feeling of belonging in the participants which makes them want to complete an entire semester or even an entire degree programme at the University of Pécs in the future. Driven by our success, we may as well regularly launch online summer and winter school programmes in the future, thus expanding the course offer of the University of Pécs.

Bianka Tóth
Tempus Public Foundation 


Utolsó módosítás: 2021.03.02.