Teaching in Hungary amidst COVID-19

Dr. Rita Koris is an assistant professor of international business communication in the Institute of International and Political Sciences at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University of Budapest, Hungary. Her research and teaching focus on business communication trends and practices in Europe and on how to connect education and real-life businesses into collaborative projects. Her interest also lies in new ways and methods of teaching, including the application of online collaborative projects, virtual exchange and virtual mobility in her courses.

Sushil: Could we start with a question about academia and COVID-19? How would you describe the way university faculty in Hungary are managing their work in the middle of this major health crisis? What kind of online infrastructure has already been in place at most Hungarian universities that instructors can use in these circumstances?  How do things at your university compare to what you have seen on media about the situation in the United States as far as the educational institutions are coping?

Rita: The vast majority of the courses at Hungarian universities run face-to-face, so the health crisis had an enormous impact on teachers and students alike in terms of shifting all courses to the online space. Universities do not offer, or only offer, a limited number of online courses, however a few blended courses are available. Our universities’ learning management systems are merely used for course administration and not for online teaching, therefore it has been a major challenge for faculty to start using new tools and applications that they had never used before.  On the other hand, institutions have reacted quickly and were able to set up tools and procedures that aided professors in their online teaching. We were lucky in a sense that university lockdowns fell during the period of the Spring break in Hungary and we had a full week to make all the changes and prepare for what was coming.

A major difference between the US and Western parts of Europe is that we do not have established conventions as to what tools and platforms to use for online teaching. Universities quickly came up with and offered recommendations to their faculties, but professors were more or less given the freedom to use tools they were familiar with. It clearly put less strain on the teachers, but it places extra burden to the students though, who need to constantly switch between a wide range of platforms and tools now for completing all their courses online.

Sushil: How has COVID-19 affected the work routine beyond the academia in Hungary? How is the Hungarian workplace adapting to the current situation? 

Rita: I think we have similar patterns in Central Europe to other parts of the world. Workplaces at many large corporations and SMEs have now moved to home office and have shifted to online services only. Shops and retail outlets are now selling online as they are forced to full closure or are only allowed to open for a few hours a day by new laws and regulations enforced due to COVID-19 in Hungary. The health crisis is a major hit to the national and EU’s economy as a lot of businesses could not survive the closedowns and the interruption of services. Entire industries (travel, tourism, hospitality, entertainment, private healthcare just to name a few) are now facing serious problems. A lot of businesses have released some or all of their staff and those still operating stopped hiring new people. At the companies that are still operating despite the crisis, business communication is now taking place 100% online.

Sushil: I understand that the EU as well as Hungary is also experiencing an increase in unemployment due to the COVID-19 crisis. How does that affect university graduates who are trying to find jobs after graduation?

Rita: As we can see, Hungary is also facing a major rise in unemployment rates. Fresh graduates who got their diploma in February and those who are earning degrees in June/July are going to be the first in line for unemployment benefits. Some of our graduate students could not find a job at all since February and I know some others who had their contracts signed but could not start working due to the health crisis and are put on hold without a job and a payment. School-to-work transition has never been easy in the EU even in the pre-COVID-19 era. In the last few months, it only got worse.

Sushil: Could you describe what trends were in the EU’s job market before the COVID-19 crisis and how these trends are changing now?

Rita: Businesses and job-seekers had to adjust to a new situation in the EU after the Eastern enlargement as the size of the job market expanded enormously creating a much stronger competition for job-applicants. The concept of national job markets became obsolete and we had to look at the EU’s job market as one single space. Countries experienced a large internal flow of workforce; vocational workers, highly-skilled professionals, students, and fresh graduates were all looking for temporary or permanent positions in other EU Member States. Before COVID-19, not only were many graduates applying for positions in the EU to start an international career, but working professionals were also seeking better career prospects in other EU countries. Personnel fluctuation is higher than a generation ago: the average European is now expected to have 10 jobs in their career. Therefore, companies were seeking to fill in their labor shortages and attract highly-skilled workforce by recruiting new graduates and professionals from the entire territory of the EU.

Before the health crisis, but more so now, graduates lacking relevant work experience and skills are often at a disadvantage when they step out to the European job market. In fact, in the current situation, unemployment hits fresh graduates with little experience first as they are the ones who are losing their jobs. Many young Hungarians who lost their jobs in another EU member state (in Austria, Germany, Italy or the UK for example) due to COVID-19 returned to Hungary in March and are now applying for unemployment benefits. I expect that most of these professionals will try to return to their positions abroad once the health situation gets better. Clearly, those having more work experience and marketable skills will succeed in finding a new job after the crisis.

Sushil: How do you think workplace practices in the EU will change after the health crisis?

Rita: In this newly structured labor market, more and more companies will outsource professionals for specific tasks or projects. Even before the crisis, projects and tasks often involved physical and virtual teams spreading across countries within the EU and beyond. Despite available digital technologies, portable devices, online platforms and Web 2.0 applications teleworking was not a widespread option for business professionals in the EU. According to a study published by Eurofound last year, only 3% of EU employees worked regularly and 10% occasionally from home in 2015 and numbers have not gone up significantly since then. Working from home is now increased in an unprecedented scale and I believe it will remain a viable alternative at workplaces of the post-COVID-19 era. These trends imply that the number of collaborative tasks requiring online, virtual teamwork is increasing, which requires a completely new set of skills from professionals that we are all developing at the moment. Furthermore, the recruitment process and job interviews are going to take place in the digital space.

Sushil: In your opinion, what role do business and professional communication faculty have to play in helping graduate students in their school-to-work transition?

Rita: I believe that effective workplace and business communication skills are now even more crucial for young graduates irrespective of the discipline they study and the industry or service sector they want to work in. They need personal selling techniques to get the most wanted jobs and step out successfully to the EU’s job market. European universities should play a role in equipping graduate students not only with marketable knowledge, but also with skills to facilitate their school-to-work transition.

Even before COVID-19, efforts had been made by European educational institutions and instructors to react to this need and incorporate skills development courses into their graduate programs. It is an unstated requirement of the business communication curriculum to cover and teach new sets of skills to boost students’ English business communication competence with digital and transversal skills. Job-seekers also need to acquire intercultural or rather intra-European cultural competence as they need to respond to culturally-different requirements depending on the country where they are applying. All of these should be taken into account when preparing for job interviews, very often done online and in English. Also, job-applications and resumés are scrutinized by the recruiters for proof of digital skills, English language proficiency and business soft skills to identify the best candidates for job interviews matching their strict selection criteria. Therefore, new graduates need to acquire a new skill set and be able to demonstrate them effectively during the recruitment process. Our role is to extend our programs with innovative projects that bridge the gap between education and the job market and provide students with all the necessary knowledge, skills and basic experience they need in future’s job market.

Sushil: You have been involved in some international teaching projects. Could you describe how these projects are there to help students’ school-to-work transition process?

Rita: Our recent online international collaboration project was designed and implemented during the fall semester of 2019/20 as part of two English business communication courses run in tandem at a Belgian and a Hungarian university. Thirty-four students, representing 12 different nationalities and cultures, participated in this 8-week long project and worked online in mixed virtual teams on pre-set assignments. 5-6 students were assigned to a multicultural team, each representing at least 4-5 nationalities and cultures each. The project aimed to provide students with the opportunity to develop, practice and demonstrate their English business communication skills in an intra-European virtual setting. During the individual and team assignments students could 1) develop intercultural competencies, 2) practice international online collaboration and teamwork, 3) apply digital technologies and master digital skills, 4) organize and manage online meetings, 5) promote professional skills, 6) prepare for an online job interview, and 7) prepare a team charter, team performance reviews, team reports, and a final digital personal portfolio.

In the first week of the project, students were assigned to teams and they started to get to know their team members and they also met online with the help of an external facilitator. Their first task was to schedule and organize weekly virtual team meetings to accomplish their team tasks together. After their first meeting, each virtual team had to define their team charter in which they laid down the ground rules for operating and organization principles for successful online collaboration. The first assignment was to learn how to give constructive feedback in English and explore cultural differences when giving feedback, complaint or criticism. Their findings, lessons learned and the minutes of the meetings were documented and shared with the tutors in the weekly team reports.

For the second assignment, students prepared their digital resumés and a pitch, shared and discussed them with their peers at the next weekly team meeting. The purpose of the team discussion was to give each other advice on how to improve their digital resumés and also to practice giving constructive feedback.

In the third phase of the project, students were preparing for online job interviews by studying and collecting all relevant information about the online recruitment process, the cultural differences and the challenges they need to face at an online job interview in any European country. At the team meeting, students shared their findings with their peers, gave each other advice, recommended solutions to possible problems, rehearsed and practiced a job interview scenario.

As a final assignment of the project, students participated in a real online job interview with a recruiter. An international pool of recruiters, represented 10 different nationalities and worked for different companies in various business sectors in Europe, assisted the project and provided expert advice for our graduate students at the end of the interviews as well as a written feedback on the students’ performance and areas for development. The project was closed with an online facilitated session, where students could share their individual experiences of the job interviews with their peers and reflect on their learning outcomes. At the end of the project, students had to write and present a digital portfolio on the successful completion of their assignments, demonstrate the professional and soft skills they developed, the challenges they faced and provide evidence for their intercultural experience.

Sushil: This sounds like a great class. Did you get any feedback from the students how the project helped them in their future careers?

Rita: The students who participated in this project will be graduating at the end of the current term; so they are going to apply for positions now. In the current situation, it is rather difficult to measure the impact of the project, but what we clearly see is that we have just given students the online work experience that will be granted as a competitive advantage by recruiters and employers in the post-COVID-19 times. Before the project, students did not have any experience in online collaboration and managing online meetings and only a few of them had any intercultural experience in Europe. Also, about one-third of the students had any experience in applying for a job online and the use of digital tools and online applications were limited. After the project, all students claimed that they learned 1) how to work online in virtual teams, 2) how to use the technology effectively for online teamwork and collaboration, 3) how to apply effective communication practices in business when applying for a job in Europe, 4) how to promote and sell their human assets to succeed in an online job interview. Students’ confidence also increased: they started to use English business communication more easily after the project. Our initiative bridges the gap between formal education and the business world and achieves the goals set out by the European Commission in terms of making school-to-work transitions smoother for students and preparing them for the post-COVID-19 world of work with marketable skills.

Sushil: How can we incorporate the topic of COVID-19 in our teaching so that we could prepare our students to deal with the current situation more effectively? 

Rita: Working online in virtual teams is a skill that can be developed and practiced in the university settings, which is a closed and safe environment for students to try themselves out. Here, students can experience problems, experiment with finding the best solutions and draw conclusions for the future. Simulating real life, including a crisis like the one we are in now, helps dealing with real situations in the future. I think we have to start thinking out of the box and realize the potential of students’ creativity in managing their own learning and adapt our teaching to their needs. We cannot carry on now with conventional teaching methods and means, we have to keep a balanced teaching track that incorporates online and face to face teaching.

Sushil: Thanks for meeting me at this busy time of the semester.

Recommended Citation: Sushil Oswal with Rita Koris. (2020). Teaching in Hungary amidst COVID-19. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.