New education minister inherits a difficult situation

Petr Fiala, photo: CTK

The long-vacant post of Minister of Education, Youth and Sports has been taken up by Petr Fiala, political scientist and former chancellor of Masaryk University in Brno. Currently the science advisor to the prime minister and a political independent, Dr Fiala has been roundly praised as an excellent choice to lead a ministry facing an exceptional number of hurdles.

Petr Fiala,  photo: CTK
President Václav Klaus officially named 47-year-old Dr Petr Fiala Minister of Education on Wednesday, and said he believed that the important post was being given into the right hands. That was only the latest congratulatory remark for an appointment that has been highly praised by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum and, crucially, by academics.

As the head of the second largest university in the Czech Republic, Dr Fiala was credited with weaning the institution off its dependence on attendance-based grants, and having it make money on its own by joining research and applied science. The daily Hospodářské noviny writes that the university’s budget under Dr Fiala more than doubled to six billion crowns and the value of its property increased by seven billion. The number of students also increased during his tenure from 30 to 45 thousand. For comparison, Charles University has 50,000 students and a budget of 7 billion.

Václav Havlíček is the chancellor of the Czech Technical University in Prague:

“I think the selection of Professor Fiala is a good one. I have worked with him for more than six years in the Czech Rectors Conference and he is a prudent person with insight and an understanding of the situation in education at all levels.”

Jiří Kuhn
The Minister of Education is of course responsible for all of the levels of education in the country; head of the association of Czech high schools Jiří Kuhn says he too is pleased with the choice of Dr Fiala.

“There is no doubt that he is very knowledgeable where higher education is concerned. He will have to familiarise himself with the issues of regional education right from the beginning, however – its financing, the completion of curricular reforms and similar things. Those are matters that are so pressing that Petr Fiala will have to deal with them very quickly.”

Even the shadow education minister Marcel Chládek said Fiala was one of the top experts in the country, but noted he was sitting in an “electric chair”, with seemingly no end to the pressing matters that the new head of Czech education will have to deal with very quickly if he is to avoid the mass protests, lawsuits and persistent bad press faced by his predecessor, Josef Dobeš. Among them is the worrisome situation around EU funding, under threat due to alleged mismanagement. Equally urgent is the issue of budget cuts - which former minister Dobeš cited as the reason for his resignation, saying he refused to accept the fact that the cuts would mean decreases in teachers’ salaries. Another hot issue is that of student tuition, the complicated handling of which has brought students and teachers out into the streets in recent times. Fiala has so far said only that some form of student financial participation would be essential.

Photo: European Commission
“I would be the last person to think that I can resolve all of these problems. But I do promise you that I will carry out the position that has been entrusted me with all my strength… I will be dealing with all of these issues very soon, however, my first goal is of course to familiarise myself with the situation at the ministry in detail.”

Dr Fiala added that the education reforms commenced by his predecessor Josef Dobeš were, for the most part, headed in the right direction. Critics would hold otherwise. Mr Dobeš, of the Public Affairs party, was one of the most beleaguered members of a troubled cabinet. With that party out of government, the new ruling coalition will now be hoping for a very fresh start.