Money lacking for Czech universities

Graduation ceremony at the Charles University in Prague

Monday's cabinet meeting was anticipated with high hopes by university students and teachers. The cabinet was set to deal with some public funding questions, and it was hoped that the lack of money for Universities would be addressed. Olga Szantova has the story.

Czech universities are really facing major financial problems. Jitka Herinkova heads the international liason office at the Palacky University in Olomouc. It's one of the country's most prestigious universities, the second oldest in the Czech Republic, being founded in 1573. It has 7 faculties, with 12 000 students and 900 teachers. Yet, it is facing funding problems that affect its most basic functions.

"This year, 2001, we did not get money for 700 students. We cannot cover overhead, like electricity, heating, maintaining the university buildings, etc. We also have problems to keep up the quality of education. It is difficult to support students going abroad, sending students abroad with the financial help of our University. We can hardly afford to pay our teachers well enough so that we can attract young people to come to University and teachers are getting older."

The shortfall in funding is felt in all aspects of university life throughout the country, and by all universities. Even though the number of university students in the Czech Republic has doubled over the past ten years, from 100 to 200 thousand, the number of university teachers remains the same.

Earlier this year education minister Eduard Zeman promised that in the new budget the universities would receive fourteen billion crowns instead of the initial pledge of twelve billion. In turn, the universities banked on the increase. Jitka Herinkova again.

"For this academic year, 2001-2002, we have accepted 8 percent more students because of the promise of this additional money. I think that in the whole Czech Republic it is 30 000 students."

And then came the shock. The budget for the year 2002, as approved by the cabinet, did not include the additional two billion crowns the universities had been promised. Minister Zeman says he tried hard, but that there had been other priorities, including defense. The opposition points out that the cabinet had promised to make education its top priority, a promise it seems to have forgotten. Political disputes are growing and the universities themselves are protesting strongly. At Olomouc University, over two thousand students interrupted lectures and gathered at a protest rally last week. Other universities are preparing for similar action. University Heads are even threatening to resign.

But the new academic year has begun and those additional 30 000 students are starting are attend lectures and seminars, making the situation even worse. Jitka Herinkova says that the Olomouc university, like many others, is at a loss how to cope.

"The quality of education, or the quality of teaching will be lower. We are thinking of merging study groups, and for example in the field of foreign languages this is not desirable. If we have no money to pay bills, we could interrupt the teaching process, but we hope that we will not have to do this."

On Monday, though, the Cabinet did not approve the extra 2 billion crowns the universities were expecting. The budget, as it now stands, is being passed on to Parliament which, some hope, will find a way of helping Czech universities.

Author: Olga Szantová
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