Education minister unveils plans to overhaul the country’s universities

Ondřej Liška and Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK

Czech universities can expect big changes. On Monday, Education Minister Ondřej Liška presented a ‘bílá kniha’ (‘white paper’), which proposes sweeping reforms of the country’s higher education system. His proposals include a complete restructuring of the way Czech universities are funded - which could eventually lead to tuition fees - as well as calls for universities to cooperate more with the private sector. The plans are now up for public discussion until the autumn, when new laws will be drafted. Earlier today, I spoke to Education Minister Ondřej Liška and asked him what he thought the problems were with the Czech higher education system today:

Ondřej Liška and Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK
“Firstly, the management of universities is currently very ineffective. Secondly, there are huge socio-economic barriers stopping students from gaining a tertiary education. We want to get rid of these barriers by introducing financial incentives – tax incentives - and by opening up the tertiary education sector to more students. We also aim to raise the quality of the education these students receive.”

It’s still early days, but how does the group of experts who drafted this ‘bílá kniha’ think that these problems can be solved?

“We need more participation, not only from students, but also from external stakeholders – in order to steer universities and give them feedback. At the moment, universities are not judged on their quality, nor on their ability to provide students with an education which helps them find employment. Of course we can not reduce universities to merely providing people with job opportunities. University is for other things too. But at the same time, it is certain that if we want to steer our future towards anything other than car-construction, which will move to China or to Belarus soon anyway, then we are going to have to create a knowledge-based society, and we can’t do that without an effective system of tertiary education.”

This ‘bílá kniha’ sets out to map the development of the Czech higher education system for the next 15 to 20 years. Now, if everything went according to plan, in an ideal situation, where would Czech universities be in 20 years time?

“They would be more democratic, more competitive. They would be able to reflect better not only the interests of students but also the external stakeholders’, the private sector’s, interests. I think the choice will be much bigger than it is right now. Not only in terms of research, but also for those people who want to gain a bachelors degree which will then help them in, or train them for, their future job. This is something that universities don’t really offer so much at the moment. I hope that there will be a significant move towards this in the future.”

Today you opened a discussion about this document. There are some things in there that might be quite controversial – tuition fees being one of these things. Do you expect a lot of heated debate with the public now?

“I do, but I don’t have a mandate to introduce tuition fees. It is only after we see and analyse and come to a conclusion about the new system of very complex university finance reforms that a discussion about tuition fees might take place. This discussion is one which has taken place in many other European countries. So, maybe we will have this discussion, but not at this moment, not during this political term.”