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It is a national strategic enterprise for Hungary to have a leading intellectual, economic, cultural and political elite that can stand its ground in the face of increasing international competition in a few decades' time - said Balázs Orbán, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mathias Corvinus Collegium, on the show "Aréna" on InfoRadio. According to the Deputy Minister of the Prime Minister's Office, the MCC’s talent development network in the Carpathian Basin is unlike any other in the world; this model is similar to the former Eötvös Collegium system.
At the end of the year, the government granted 94.5 billion Forints to the Tihany Foundation, which manages the funds of the Collegium. What does the revenue side of the ledger look like now?
The Mathias Corvinus Collegium Foundation received a large grant in 2020. At the end of the spring session, the National Assembly passed a law entrusting the Foundation with the task of building a network of talent development institutions in the Carpathian Basin. This also entailed the restructuring of the Foundation, which has been a private foundation for 25 years. It has become a public-interest trust foundation, with professional plans to establish Mathias Corvinus Collegium Centers in 35 locations across the Carpathian Basin, offering training courses at different levels from primary school to university and beyond. The large amount of funding will be used to develop infrastructure, purchase and renovate buildings in all the county seats and abroad, where we will set up talent nurturing training and education centers. We will operate on the returns on the shares we received. In fact, the budget of Matthias Corvinus Collegium will be much smaller than that of a Hungarian university, and every forint will be spent on a good cause, on the tuition-free education of talented Hungarian youth.
MCC also obtained a few properties. Is that a plus or a minus? Because the quality of the properties is not an indifferent matter.
The properties that Mathias Corvinus College has received are otherwise valuable, but they are in poor condition. For example, the building of former officers' casino in the center of Pécs is a beautiful property with a patina, one of the iconic buildings of Pécs, but the State has been unable to sell it for decades, and there are no buyers because it obviously requires restoration work to reestablish its historic status. They couldn't find a function for which it would be suitable because they were thinking on a commercial basis. And that's where the Mathias Corvinus Collegium came into the picture. We have the multi-billion resources available to renovate this property, and we do not intend to set up a profit-based activity there, but to operate a training and education center, a residential college, an event space, so the property has become a meaningful entity.
Is it possible to compare the previous income of Mathias Corvinus Collegium with the new income?
It is possible to compare the two incomes as these are public data. In 25 years, Mathias Corvinus Collegium has made considerable progress. First it ran a talent development program, then a residential college from 2001, and now it has almost 200 employees in different locations with more than 2000 children involved in the programs. Before the restructuring, its annual budget was between 1 billion and 1.5 billion HUF. If one-off costs are excluded, this is expected to rise to between HUF 6-7-8 billion. This will be used to provide free education for 10,000 children, from primary school to the end of university, across the Carpathian Basin.
Should the return on the share capital be considered as an operating income?
This is also public data as we are talking about two public limited companies. On average over the last 15 years, it means an annual dividend income of roughly HUF 6 to 7 billion, but there were years around the economic crisis when MOL paid no dividends at all for three years, and there were years when we had an annual income of HUF 15 billion. Obviously, when there is a surplus, we accumulate it, and when there are difficult times, we use it to cover expenses. It is the responsibility of the Board of Trustees to develop a financial operating structure in which the Foundation can carry out its talent nurturing activity in a transparent manner, in accordance with the requirements of responsible management, guaranteeing long-term, sustainable operation.
What is Mathias Corvinus Collegium now? Because, seen from a distance, it seems like a network, a place of elite education or a private educational institution.
It is none of them and all of them at the same time. It is a very specific institution. The programs that we run at Mathias Corvinus Collegium can be found in many places in the world, but you will not find an institution of this complexity anywhere else. In the 20th century, education has moved towards mass education, it is becoming more and more generalized. Within societies, the number and proportion of those who have a higher education qualification is increasing. This is not a good or bad thing, but a simple fact. It has both positive and negative aspects. It is absolutely positive that those with tertiary education are better able to move up the social mobility ladder. But there is also a negative side, in that there is much less attention paid to special needs of the most gifted children, and this has been the case explicitly in the Hungarian education system. The proportion of people with tertiary education was very low in Hungary, so the whole higher education system has been transformed in the direction of increasing this proportion. We are now close to the EU average, but the consequence of this is that Hungarian higher education has moved towards mass education. In comparison, the program offered by Mathias Corvinus Collegium is a talent development program that aims to focus on the most ambitious and talented students. We are offering these children a method, an education, a practical experience that they cannot get in the normal education system, simply because the nature of the system does not allow for it. MCC is basically a large institutional framework for talent development. It can be compared to the Eötvös Collegium system before the Second World War, although Eötvös Collegium was a much smaller institution. From a distance, it seems to be a great intellectual enterprise, whose task is to provide the next generation of Hungarians in the world of politics, economics, business and culture, who feel and think Hungarian, and who consider localism to be the most important thing. In other words, they want to help the people of the Carpathian Basin to get ahead, but they also have all the skills that the children of other nations have, they spend some time abroad, they understand how the world works, they speak foreign languages, and have an international network of contacts. This is an institutional base that aims to serve as accelerator or stepping stone for Hungary's most talented students.
So it is not a substitute for school but parallel to it?
That's right; all our students go somewhere to elementary school, high school, university or work somewhere else. Everyone has a mother institution. The elementary school program, for example, is held on Saturdays, parents bring their children participating in the Young Talent Program, and we teach these students in small groups, using a teaching method called “edutraining” that is tailored to their individual abilities and skills. This requires the commitment of students, the involvement of parents, and the cooperation of the given school, of course, but it is not a substitute for the basic knowledge that they acquire in elementary and high schools, or at universities. It builds on it and develops it further.
How are students selected?
There is a very rigorous selection process, but it varies greatly by age. For example, the selection of 10-year-old students for the Young Talent Program resembles a trial day where children come and do tasks in a playful way, while experts look at what skills they have, their strengths and weaknesses, but the students don't know that they actually go through a selection process. The selection of high school students is much more like the usual admission procedures, and the admission procedure to the University Program is a very serious, multi-round system of oral, written, skills development, and engagement tests. The really big challenge is to select a group of students that can build a good community. You have to get the right proportion of very diverse characters.
The number of teachers is limited in Hungary as well. Will the Collegium have exclusive tutors, or will they be hourly tutors?
We already have exclusive tutors. So far, the Mathias Corvinus Collegium has been able to use its own financial resources to try to contract the best, most talented teachers, the ones students like the most. Until now, we neither had the infrastructure nor the financial resources to have our own teaching staff to provide genuine tutorial education. Now this is changing as we have recruited dozens of lecturers and experts from universities, the corporate sector, various media, different areas of government, research institutes, and this number will continue to grow as the number of students increases. They all come to Mathias Corvinus Collegium as full-time teachers. It is their job to know exactly who the students are, what are their life problems, their difficulties, the challenges they face. They know how to motivate them individually, work with them, and develop them constantly. This is not possible in the classroom. Their work starts where the class work ends. Otherwise, they conduct research and have public activities within the framework of Mathias Corvinus Collegium, and in return we can relieve them of the burden of the conventional education system, to have time to reflect, energy to write, do some research, think and provide these few students with real, meaningful mentoring.
If you expect prospective students to have a distinctly patriotic attitude, do you include those who are not particularly patriotic?
They could add to the heat of the debate.
Some of the more able children are conservative, some are liberal, and, ad absurdum, some are social democrats. We have to work with the most talented ones independently of their political tendencies, and the only way to do that is within the line of patriotism. We are running a program to nurture the talents of Hungarian children - this is a national strategic undertaking - so that in a few decades' time Hungary may have an intellectual, economic, cultural and political elite that can stand its ground in this increasingly competitive international environment, and will not gamble away our regained sovereignty, but will use it well and work for the advancement and prosperity of the people living here. This is crucial because we are a small country. Big empires can afford letting a generation or two fail because they can survive simply by virtue of their size and inertia, but this is a luxury we cannot afford. Every generation must have a well-prepared, talented, patriotic-minded elite that sees the world through Hungarian eyes. This is the approach we would like to strengthen and support, and this is what we expect from our students as well. Let them learn everything, get to know everything, but then may they use the knowledge they have acquired for the benefit of the Hungarian homeland.
Did the State, which transferred the assets to MCC, set any expectations or deadlines for the Collegium, what to achieve by which time so that it may conclude that it was worth the money?
Mathias Corvinus Collegium has two founders, the founding family and the Hungarian state. It was them who decided to initiate this transformation and entrusted the Board of Trustees with the task of carrying it out. It is the Board of Trustees who can really be held to account. On the other hand, the point of this structure is also to create a system that truly makes Mathias Corvinus Collegium independent of both the founding family and the Hungarian state in legal terms, in its organization and management. This is why we needed the transfer of assets. It ensures that the possibilities are not determined by the year-to-year budget management and the current political or macroeconomic situation, allowing for long-term planning. We are working on the implementation of a professional program, and the responsibility lies with the Board of Trustees, but neither the Hungarian state nor the founding family can set any expectations beyond the implementation of what is laid down in the law.
Who is the founding family?
The Tombor family. They are the ones who, through the Tihanyi Foundation, started to build this institution for talent promotion in 1996. The development path followed so far by the foundation is a tribute to their commitment. In the Western world, foundations are well-established organizations, specifically suitable for talent nurturing, education and training. The situation in Hungary is a little different. At the time of the change of regime, colleges for advanced studies played a major role. In the 1980s, the students of these colleges became the leading elite and then took an active part in the change of regime. Currently, all three public dignitaries of Hungary were the students of the same college. But regardless of political affiliations, many people came from these colleges for advanced studies. The most talented young people came together at that time because they wanted to learn about things their teachers had not even heard of, because they could not learn about it, because they did not speak languages, because their ideological convictions did not allow them to do so. Nevertheless these young people wanted to become acquainted with these things, and set up colleges for advanced studies and organized workshops, which were initially half-amateurish grassroots initiatives, but enabled them to follow this path. Therefore, as early as the 1990s, it became clear that we needed to create institutions with professional management that undertake the operation of a college, with a network of contacts to invite the best foreign lecturers, and to ensure funding for students to go abroad. One of the flagship organizations in the 1990s was the Tihany Foundation and later Mathias Corvinus Collegium. From 2020 onwards, these institutions will be the ones that can become the real strongholds of talent development. There are several of these institutions, mainly in the form of foundations, and the most important of these is MCC, the large national institution system for talent promotion.
Could the government of the day find any grip on this foundation if it happens to dislike the way it operates?
I would be very sad if at any time in the future a Hungarian government would see it as its priority to get a grip on this institution for talent nurturing.
What if they want to see other teachers there, or even someone else in the Board of Trustees?
These education-type initiatives can work precisely because they have predictable management and independence over decades. If someone tries to interfere with that from outside, that is not a nice thing to do. We have to let the teachers and the students work, we have to let them develop and follow the path they are meant to follow. Otherwise, any foundation that has an asset management function must do its job properly, it must manage the assets entrusted to it in an accountable and responsible manner. I, as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, will not give an inch on this. In this respect, I will be stricter than any outsider, but I will reject any other political interference, because we have to understand that this is not an issue of party politics. It is a question of survival, because if we do not have these institutions, our most talented students will go abroad. That is what the big university centers are set up for, for brain drain, and then these talented young people will be lost for the Hungarian nation because they will go off to do something else in another part of the world. We cannot afford this loss.
Who are the members of the professional management team that is able to manage significantly greater assets than in the past?
At the moment there are five members of the Board of Trustees of Mathias Corvinus Collegium, and if I include the Supervisory Board and the trustee, there are people who have been involved in this work almost from the beginning, and people who were students at Mathias Corvinus Collegium. For example, the chairman of the Supervisory Board is Gergely Deli, who is the youngest appointed university professor in Hungary. He was one of the first students of MCC and then director of the Collegium. Professor András Lánczi has also been involved in this work for more than a decade, and remains a member of the Board of Trustees. Professor László Madarász, who is also a member of the Supervisory Board of the Hungarian National Bank and one of the doyen of Hungarian economic life, has been involved in the running of the Collegium almost from the beginning. And Zoltán Szalai, who has been the director of MCC for more than ten years, is also a member of the Board of Trustees. There are people from the world of business, science, government, talent development, and they bring in their expertise and they also have a very strong MCC identity. We're making this big leap forward with a number of leaders who were MCC students themselves, have come up through the ranks, studied here and abroad, made careers on their own, and now they're coming back to this organization, putting their skills to work on this plan. As chairman of the Board of Trustees, I am always very pleased to see this because it is in some way a sign of healthy, normal functioning.
Do you have a plan for how to use the 10-10% shareholder rights in Richter and MOL and how to cooperate with the management of the companies, when the chief operating officer of Richter was previously very concerned about the share allocation?
We have a very good relationship with both company leaders, and they have both worked with Mathias Corvinus Collegium in previous years. I understand everyone's sensitivities, because obviously Richter is in a market position where it is crucial to avoid hostile foreign takeover attempts, and from that point of view, any change creates some degree of uncertainty. But in recent months we have managed to dispel this uncertainty, because at both groups they see that we do not want to sell these shares. We are not ordinary shareholders who are free to manage the assets at their disposal, we are very much rooting for these companies. We see them as a Hungarian model of success, and we hope that as many of our students as possible can make a career at these companies.
Will you attend general meetings?
Obviously, as shareholders, we want information about the operation of these groups of companies, but our attitude is not the same as that of the shareholder who sees the shareholdings as a portfolio to be managed freely.
What are your plans as a minority shareholder in the Libri-Bookline group, the largest publishing and distribution network in the country?
This model will also allow us to enter related businesses that otherwise have revenue-generating potential. For example, we can reinvest the revenues from the Libri-Bookline group in the running of the talent nurturing programs. In this way we can also diversify the portfolio and strengthen sustainability. I myself am a firm believer in the power of books, and I do not believe that books are an anachronism in the 21st century. It is of national strategic importance to make Hungarian-language publishing and book distribution as strong as possible, especially as there are large international conglomerates in this field which, with a very aggressive business policy, can achieve very strong positions for themselves in every country. We saw that Libri-Bookline was the market leader, it was worth investing in this group of companies. It is worth supporting them, and through this, it is worth strengthening Hungarian-language reading, publishing and book distribution. It is part of the long-term strategy that it is worthwhile building a group of companies operating all over the Carpathian Basin and Central Europe while the old owners stay, and we have serious plans in cooperation with them, once the transaction is completed. For the time being, a letter of intent has been signed and due diligence and related legal and other procedures are being conducted, but I hope that we will be able to close this phase in the first half of the year.
What are your plans for the port of Révfülöp and the large area attached to it?
It is a very important part of this type of talent development program that these tiny units, a few dozens of students with a few teachers, can get away for training weekends, weeks, intensive sessions, as a creative camp. So far we have not had the institutional background to do that. Moreover, we will have four thousand high school students, so we also need to think about organizing summer camps for them. It is very important to exploit synergies, so that a student from Cluj-Napoca can meet a student from Vienna, Miskolc, Győr, or Budapest. So we need a place where these students can meet and participate together in very intensive professional sessions. And it was obvious that we could realize this by restoring a former state holiday resort near Lake Balaton that is in need of renovation. I hope that we will be able to use it partly this year. It will be ready to fulfill its function mainly in 2022-2023, when the programs and the infrastructure will be in proper condition.
Will the training courses at MMC be free of charge?
It's a tuition-free system from elementary school to the beginning of professional careers. It's meritocratic, so it's talent-based, and once you get in and you show commitment, and your work meets the expectations, you can benefit from scholarships, apply for dormitory accommodation and summer camps. It is an explicitly non-profit activity.
We've been talking about strategy all along, and you've just published a book entitled A magyar stratégiai gondolkodás egyszeregye (The Basics of Hungarian Strategic Thinking), published by Mathias Corvinus Collegium. What is the nature of Hungarian strategic thinking in an age when there is a strategy for everything?
Strategic thinking in previous centuries, millennia, was a term with military roots. If someone talked about strategos and strategy, he was thinking about generals and military maneuvers. Somehow, this has turned around in the last decades and become a fashionable buzzword, from weight loss strategy to various business strategies and life coaching strategies. But they lack real strategic thinking, which is about first of all being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, being able to assess and analyze the environment around you, being able to identify your goals and being able to assign tools to them. This is a very important skill, and I intended the book to be a discussion starter, since naturally there are many statements in it that can and should be debated. My argument is that the capacity for strategic thinking in Hungary needs to be strengthened in the 21st century, because in previous centuries there was either no room for strategic thinking, or if there was room, the country lacked independence that there was little need to think about where we were going. Recently, we have achieved the strategic goals we set in the past, our sovereignty is now complete, or even if we give up certain things, we do so voluntarily. In such a situation we have a responsibility to know exactly what the strengths of the Hungarians are, what our historical experience is, what the geographical conditions are, what the international context is, what the geopolitical imperatives are, and how we can help the people of the Carpathian Basin to prosper and secure themselves. These are the elements of a strategy of thinking, which I have called 'basic'. I wish it was that easy.
But how can you involve the people in this thinking structure, the people who are not necessarily so well informed on some of the details that are needed to make a good decision?
You cannot formulate a strategy without the people and without the people's spirit. This is precisely the mistake that many people have made many times over the past decades, thinking that there is a universal recipe for success, that all countries should follow the same strategy. This paradigm has failed. Each country has to find its own recipe for success. It has to build on its own geopolitical, geographical, historical and sociological particularities. In all this, we should not forget about the people, the people's spirit and thinking. It is precisely the thinking of the Hungarian people, the accumulated experience of the past thousand years, which can be used to understand certain features and movements in Hungarian politics today. Why, for example, is Hungarian politics conflictual? Why is it not consensual? Why is Hungarian politics freedom-loving? Why is the expansion of sovereignty an important element? How are the Christian cultural foundations and the nation-building aspirations related? These are all things that can be read in the minds of the people, in the minds of ordinary people, in our historical and geographical context, and this is what the book is about.