Czech universities at a crossroads: questions of reform

With university entrance exams around the corner and the general elections only 4 months away, there is growing attention on the Czech Republic's system of higher education. There are some particular points of pride, such as the fact that Charles University's medical schools receive accreditation in the United States. Yet, there are also constant rumblings about the need to reform the system.

Faculty of Law
For some time now the Czech system of higher education has been at a crossroads. Universities have little money, and professors are poorly paid compared to their colleagues in other parts of Europe and North America (for example, a professor in the humanities field receives a monthly salary of as little as 12 000 crowns, or 550 USD). What's more, the system of academic promotions has many critics. Radio Prague talked to Anna Vitaskova, Vice-President for Academic and Student Affairs at the New Anglo-American College in Prague, and asked her about the criteria for promotion in Czech academia.

"We can not afford to have a system of higher education where the professionals in the field are awarded on criteria such as age, title—even though Ph.D. is necessary, but in the Czech Republic we really emphasize Docent, CsC., etc. We can not afford this approach because it doesn't necessarily mean outcomes, it doesn't necessarily mean deliverables. We need to have a system of higher education that's based on a much more egalitarian model, where people are being promoted on the basis of outcomes, meaning what they produce. This is the only real criteria by which people should be promoted because it's directly tied to the innovation processes, and directly tied to the society or the usefulness of their work. I'm specifically talking about their products of research such as articles, patents, research projects, because in the Czech Republic most of it is not really evaluated in terms of its usefulness for society."

We heard here today that basically once an academic reaches the title of docent or professor, they stop their research activity. Does that really work this way in the Czech Republic?

"Yes. According to the research that we have done, and also according to the research of my colleagues that I have seen, it basically works in this way: you start as an assistant professor and this is when you publish and produce the most. However, in some Czech universities or some faculties, we have found out that you do not necessarily need to produce as much as you would have to produce—meaning publish—in some other countries, and yet you keep getting promoted. The promotions continue until you are a full professor, and then there is no pressure on you to publish because you have fulfilled the requirement. Though again, as I said, some people got into these positions without even publishing, which is quite interesting."

How do you motivate someone who has acquired these positions to produce more—to publish, to do research—under the existing conditions?

"First of all, if you are a university professor, your job is to publish—to publish and teach. So your question about motivating people is basically irrelevant because this is part of the job description, but the reason this is relevant in the Czech setting is that under communism, we used to separate teaching and research. Therefore university professors or teaching assistants didn't feel the need to publish, but now we have moved into a knowledge-based society, we have moved into the post-communist mode where they are supposed to publish just like anywhere else. However, if we stick with the separation of teaching and research, then we will continue in this Soviet model of higher education which is not beneficial or effective for knowledge-based societies, which means that the Czech Republic will be losing in its ability to compete."

The problems in today's system of higher education concern not just the professors, but also students. Universities are in a financial bind and only just learning about corporate sponsorship that is so common in the Unites States. Although students in the Czech Republic currently pay only a nominal sum in annual tuition—about 10 000 crowns, or $450 USD—this is only a recent development and talk of increased tuition rates which would supplement state funding is a touchy subject.

According to Petr Mateju, a former MP and champion of tuition reform, the Czech Republic is among the worst-case examples of a society in which there is a high correlation between one's social standing and the chances for a university education—in other words, if you come from a wealthier family there is a higher probability you will attend a post-secondary institution. Petr Mateju, now of the Institute for Social and Economic Analyses, explains more about access to higher education in the Czech Republic, and the need for financial reform.

"The Czech Republic is among the three or four countries in Europe with the highest rate of inequality in access to higher education. The explanation is simple: the access to higher education is very limited, and when access is limited of course the competition is strong, and lower social strata tend to lose in situations of strong competition. The first task is to open the access, which means more money, but the government does not have enough money to open universities to all those who want to study. So the only way to open the universities is to bring money from the students. Now the question is how to open access with money coming from students without creating a social barrier, and the answer is absolutely clear: why shouldn't students pay from their future incomes, and not the current incomes of their parents? That's the solution which has been applied in Australia and other countries, and we are trying to implement this system in the Czech Republic."

How does the system work now?

"Very easily. Schools get money from the Ministry of Education, which means a limit on the number of students every year. Currently sixty percent of those who apply are rejected. When I talk to the students in the United States, for example, and tell them the story, they ask "You haven't had a revolution yet?" [Laughs]

The collection that you presented today is entitled 'Czech University Education at a Crossroads.' Now, you partly answered that question, but what are the options for the Czech education system?

"We certainly can not stay as we are. So what we have to do is either follow the so-called welfare model which is Scandinavian, provided that we have enough money—and we don't have enough money. So the other way is to open our system as liberal countries did, like Australia or the United States. This means bringing more money from students, but at the same time having money from the government for those students who can not afford to pay. It's very simple."

Radio Prague also spoke to Vaclav Hampl, the new rector of Charles University, to get his opinion on the introduction of full tuition fees.

"I think that a sudden introduction of full tuition would be quite difficult, because that would have to be quite a substantial sum. So I think it's more likely we can expect a gradual increase in the amount the students would pay. I think that's probably a good thing if care is taken not to exclude really good students who are not financially well-off."

Are there possibilities for that in this country at this stage? Using the North American example, students have regular access to student loans. Is this the case in the Czech Republic today?

"Well, the banks are ready to offer student loans, but the system doesn't yet work very well. Or it hasn't been tuned-up for the situation with tuition fees and I think this needs some work."

Vaclav Hampl there, explaining that the system of tuition fees and student loans has yet to get off the ground in the Czech Republic. Political parties are of course divided on the issue, with the Social Democrats calling for low tuition and increased state support for universities, while the right-of-centre parties such as the Civic Democrats support increased tuition fees. We can expect these issues to be key in this spring's election campaign.