Government backs radical school reform plan

Ondřej Liška, photo: CTK

On Monday the government backed wide-ranging reforms in the education sector, which could radically change how universities in the country are run. Among the most marked proposals: the introduction of student tuition fees, offset by a new system of student loans. The idea? To improve the quality of education students can expect while helping them get on their own two feet. But not everyone, so far, is happy: critics of the reforms say there are grey areas that have been left unaddressed.

Ondřej Liška,  photo: CTK
If Education Minister Ondřej Liška has his way, the Czech Republic could soon see a major overhaul of its schools of higher learning, from Charles University in Prague to Palacký University in Olomouc. According to the minister, the reforms main aims are to provide “equal opportunities” for all students, regardless of background, while improving the quality of education at schools. Under the plan, the minister has stressed, tuition fees would be introduced - but not before 2014. He stressed that a new safety net needs to be established first. That would be a system of government-sponsored loans and scholarships which would make students less dependent. Tomáš Bouška, the Czech EU presidency spokesman for the Education Ministry, says that the system would boost the number of those able to study at university, many of whom have been at a disadvantage:

“Currently only around nine-percent of young people from working-class families apply and study at universities in the Czech Republic. This isn’t enough and the system isn’t fair to all applicants. This is why we need to reform the system. Of course, in the longer perspective tuition will be discussed. But it is not the first step. It is the financial support of individual students that is the minister’s priority.”

Not everyone is happy even with the introduction of student fees – even if only in 2014. Social Democrat shadow education minister Jiří Havel on Monday called the target date “unrealistic”, not least given the current economic crisis. Other aspects of the plan, meanwhile, have been criticised by others, charging, for example, that the reforms fail to take into account financially-troubled faculties such as the Humanities. One of the parties within the government, the Christian Democrats, is itself divided over the proposal, while some in academia, namely at Charles University, are openly against the reforms.

On the other hand, many agree a proposal to reclassify schools according to academic focus, would be an improvement, as well as backing other changes, such as schools in the future covering insurance for students past the age of 26. Finally, in the future, Czech universities should cooperate more closely with the private sector, similar to institutions in other EU countries. The Czech EU presidency spokesman for the Education Ministry Tomáš Bouška makes clear the current proposals will see broader debate:

“Different nuances [are likely] be brought into the debate from different area: from the perspective of the state, the business sphere and the universities themselves, who might disagree with some of the plans. But that’s the point: to bring them together in debate to find a common perspective that will help facilitate much-needed reforms.”