Academic Michael Smith: Czech govt. is supporting education of well-off through “free” universities

Michael Smith, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

US political scientist and sociologist Michael Smith, who first came to Prague in 1996, is based at CERGE-EI, the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Smith’s research gives him broad-ranging insights into various areas in the Czech Republic, including class, education, corruption and democracy issues. But his principle focus at CERGE-EI is a huge sociology study, the first results of which should be published this year.

Michael Smith,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“My main task is to carry out a project called Dynamics of Change in Czech Society. It’s one of the largest research projects in the social sciences currently being carried out in this country.

“Besides basic research, what we’re aiming to do is to implement over the course of many years the Czech Household Panel Study, where we interview over 5,000 Czech households on an annual basis – which is over 13,000 individuals.”

What exactly are you mapping with this survey? And what are you going to use the results for?

“The survey provides the most comprehensive data for almost any social problem you can imagine, including household incomes and educational and occupational histories. Not only of individual family members, but of everyone in the entire family.

“We’re also looking at living conditions, family life, social and political attitudes.

“And this is one of the first Czech surveys where we are interviewing children, aged 10 and older.

“We found out for example that over 40 percent of Czech kids spend an hour or more on social networks like Facebook every day.

“If you look at grades, you can discover for example that 25 percent of children who get the best grades in math, the so-called jedničky [one, top grade], spend an hour or more on social networks.

“Twenty-five percent of children who get the best math grades spend an hour or more on social networks. But of kids who get a three or worse, its 75 percent.”

“But of kids who get a three or worse in math, 75 percent spend an hour or more on social networks.”

I’ve been reading that one of your early focuses working here in the Czech Republic was on democracy issues. This is obviously an enormous question, but what shape do you think democracy is in in this country today, two and a half decades after the fall of communism?

“Let me clarify. When I was first doing my research in the country what excited me was the development of local direct democracy.

“So, civic initiatives, often in small villages, in which Czechs were able to organise referendums in order to change local policies.”

But aren’t most of these referendums non-binding?

“No, they are binding. And in many cases they have overturned development projects that local residents felt, for example, damaged the environment.

“There have been many referendums against the siting of nuclear waste disposal sites in different villages.

“They have played a pretty important role, not only in democracy but in invigorating civil society.”

So for you at the local level at least democracy is working in the Czech Republic?

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“Yes. And even at a formal level it’s working nationally, in that you have a well-functioning system of government and you have a constitution that is robust and well-protected by constitutional institutions.

“But just like in other European democracies, there are major risks. There’s a fundamental risk of nationalism and populism.

“What’s at stake is whether or not the Czech Republic can live up to its reputation as a bastion of human rights, a reputation that was cultivated from the Velvet Revolution.

“What you have today is anti-immigrant discourse that basically keeps immigrants out of the country.

“And the Czech Republic very much needs immigrants, both for increasing employment and financing its pension system.

“There’s also a fundamental problem in terms of the disconnect between ordinary citizens and political elites.

“Ultimately the solution there is through more civic activism, the kind I was researching earlier in my career, and more education rather than less.”

Another big issue in this country is corruption. Over the years we’ve seen many big campaigns against corruption. In the late 1990s we had Mr. Zeman and his Clean Hands campaign and Mr. Babiš has also made a lot of noise about fighting corruption. But in real terms, do you think any progress has been made in this area?

“You have anti-immigrant discourse that basically keeps immigrants out of the country. And the Czech Republic very much needs immigrants.”

“Actually, there has been, quite recently. Going back to the Clean Hands campaign, that was mostly rhetoric. Very little took place in terms of anti-corruption reforms.

“In the course of the 2000s, the only significant piece of legislation that was passed referred to the conflicts of interest law, but that was a law that was relatively easy for politicians to get around.

“The current Czech government has passed a number of significant reforms, which were due to a consensus achieved by Czech anti-corruption organisations under the platform Reconstruction of the State.

“The key reforms involved transparency of public contracts, conflicts of interest of members of the government – the anti-Babiš law –, the abolishment of bearer shares and reform of the system of political party financing.

“It’s too early to tell what collective impact these laws will have. But I’m relatively optimistic that change will be made.”

I feel like we’re tackling basically every issue in the country. But next: education, which you have also been involved in. The Czech Republic has mostly what’s formally free education. But does that free education disguise actual inequality?

“Obviously no education is free. In the Czech Republic the problem is that it’s financed entirely through the government and the government funds the educational system.

“But the share of government expenditure that is invested into education is among the smallest among the world’s developed nations. So there’s a lack of investment in Czech education.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“There’s also no relationship between tuition fees and education equality. Countries with tuition fees at universities don’t necessarily have more or less inequality than other countries.

“But inequality in education in the Czech Republic is among the highest in the world, at least among developed countries.”

How does that manifest itself?

“Look for example at secondary education. About 95 percent of Czech kids whose parents have a university degree go on to get a maturita, the Czech school leaving exam.

“But only 40 percent of children whose parents do not have a university degree go on to get a maturita.

“That’s a huge gap in educational opportunity based upon family background.

“Those kids who have the maturita and well-educated parents and so on are the ones who can go on and apply to university, whereas those who have less educated parents and are not reared to value education as much are pretty much left out of all the opportunities available in this country.”

But isn’t that the same as in other European countries?

“No. It’s because in the Czech Republic you have a very stratified system of secondary education, composed of gymnaziums [grammar schools], technical schools and vocational schools.

“If you go to a gymnazium, as well as having well-educated parents your chances of going to university are tremendous.

“But if you don’t go to a gymnasium, especially if you go to a vocational school, you have almost no chance to go to university.

“So when you have such a rigid system of secondary education, it structures who can and cannot go to university…”

“All secondary schools should provide a similar type of education, both in terms of general critical skills and market-based, specific skills.”

So in a sense the selection process begins very early?

“Exactly – very early.

“Even if the universities are ‘free’, the Czech government is basically financing the education of kids from well-off families. Whereas the kids who are less well-off often don’t even have the opportunity to apply.”

So what’s the answer, from your perspective?

“There is no universal consensus among scholars on how to reduce inequality.

“But the most likely approach would be to increase opportunities at the level of secondary education.

“So I’m an advocate of providing similarly-structured, comprehensive schools to all children at secondary level.

“That means that you shouldn’t really have a system where at an early age everyone is funnelled into three different types or more of secondary schools.

“But all schools should provide a similar type of education, both in terms of general critical skills and market-based, specific skills.

“All schools should provide the same background enabling you to get a maturita and then, potentially, to go to university.”

The final enormous issue I’d like to speak about is party financing. I know you have been involved in a project called What is that? What does it do?

“ originated as part of a research project I led, in which a lot of scholars agreed that much more needed to be done to make information on the financing of political parties in the Czech Republic more accessible to the public.

“Information on donors and the amounts that people donated to political parties was available in the library of the Czech Parliament.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
“But you would have to there to the library, go through individual pieces of paper in order to figure out who donated what to whom.

“What we did was we scanned all that material, anonymised it and basically put it on the web along with other information, so that Czechs could get a much more accessible, coherent understanding of how Czech political parties are financed, the role of corporations in political party financing and what are the expenditures.”

“Now you do have a new law on political party financing – and that’s partly as a result of efforts like this.”

Is there a lot of what I might call dodgy donating to big parties in this country? And don’t the Czech parties get quite a lot of funding from the state, depending on how many votes they have had in previous elections?

“That’s correct. Public financing of political parties in the Czech Republic plays a much bigger role than in the US, where of course super PACs dominate the political system and those donations are largely undocumented.

“But nonetheless donations are important in the Czech Republic. And it’s important for Czechs to have confidence in their political system by knowing who is supporting whom – and also to know that they have the right to donate.

“Donating is also part of the political system and political expression. It’s not something I or anybody else wants to demonise.

“But the transparency of donations should be an integral part of the democratic system in this country.”