Prague students on following their forebears, and cheap lunches in the city centre

Photo: European Commission

Student life is inextricably linked for me with rather grotty living conditions and a whole lot of Kundera books; a story I think I share with numerous other, recently-graduated, Brits. But how does the Czech student experience compare? And what is it like for young Czech academics to study at the same institutions, where, just 20 years ago, this country’s undergraduates brought about the Velvet Revolution? To find out, I visited ‘Prague Student’ – an exhibition honouring the role that students have played throughout this country’s history – accompanied by three of Charles University’s finest, who I’ll leave to introduce themselves:

Charles University
“I’m Sylvie and I study English and American studies in second year.”

“I’m Martin, I study Danish and political science and international relations at Charles University, and I’m just one semester before the final exam.”

“I’m Jirka, I study philosophy and sociology, and I’m in the fourth year. I’m the vice president of the student union, and I also coordinate a group called Inventura Demokracie, which organizes a lot of events to mark the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. So that’s me.”

Martin: “I’m the president of UK Media, which is a student media association, and I’m a member of the council of the student union, the executive body of the union.”

Sylvie: “I’m not really involved in the student union, but I work for Inventura Demokracie, and for the student council of the Faculty of Arts.”

Charles University
Before we even have a look at what is on display, perhaps you can tell me this: Charles University has a really long and rich history, of around 660 years, did this affect your choice of university?

Martin: “I’m from Prague, and the university is one of the best in this country, even though the political science department is better in Brno. But, if one is interested in foreign affairs and diplomacy, then Prague is the base of most of those organizations and embassies. And so even though the department is better in Brno, you have better access to the main players here in Prague, and so therefore I study in Prague.”

And when you came to study here four years ago, were you very proud of the history of the university you were coming to study at?

Martin: “Sure, I’m very proud of the university, even though this sentiment is not very typical in the Czech Republic – the pride which you, or which Americans really often feel towards their universities, that is something very different. And it is something which we miss, and which we should get.”

Photo: European Commission
Jirka: “It is very important to be in an environment which does have some history and, for example, I’m also a member of the student council of the Faculty of Arts, and we have our meetings in precisely the same room where, in 1989, the students were having their meetings during the Velvet Revolution. So, if you sit there, then it gives you a different perspective, let’s say. It gives you a feeling of accountability and it is good to be there.”

And while we are on the topic of student unions, can I ask you what today are the biggest issues that you discuss when you sit in that room where students were planning the overthrow of the Communist government in 1989? What is the student council dealing with the most at the moment?

Jirka: “Well actually, at the moment, it is the Faculty of Arts’ ball. But for me, and for all of us, the big issue is really the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Because we want to plan some events which are not just for fun and which don’t just celebrate that it is all over. But we want to follow the students of the Velvet Revolution. We want to come with some questions, with some reflections upon democracy today, because it isn’t good enough yet.”

Sylvie: “Here we are in a room with a display from the start of the 20th Century – and I’m interested in it because this is when the first women students went to and graduated from Charles University. And that is great. I remember that at the Chemical University here in Prague the first female graduates were in 1961 – that sounds horrible to me and I’m glad today that at Charles University, there are more female students than males.”

But despite that, would you say that there are still women’s issues that have to be fought for?

Sylvie: “I don’t feel there is any need. Perhaps at higher levels, amongst professors. I don’t know how it is there with women, but I think they might have slightly harder conditions when it comes to getting a professorship.”

Martin: “One of the only positive things about communism was that the gender roles were pretty much equalized. And you know, things were really redressed and so women here don’t perhaps have the bad position they have in other countries.”

A lot of politicians here are talking about implementing tuition fees, you are all involved in the administration of the university, at the student level at least, so how do you feel about this plan?

Jirka: “I would say it is not the most important question. The most important thing is that there is not enough money in our universities, and we need to bring them more money. If it is tuition fees which are going to do this, then why not? But the system has to be worked out properly.”

Martin: “I sometimes feel that students study something which is very abstract - too abstract - and that they would behave differently, a bit more reasonably, if they had to pay for it partially. And they would also care more how the teacher behaves towards them – whether he comes on time or not. Right now they don’t care because they don’t have to pay for that.”

And what about you Sylvie?

Sylvie: “Everybody enjoys lectures with famous personalities for free, and cheap lunches and cheap accommodation in Prague city centre, but obviously we can’t keep it like that anymore. Charles University especially needs money and it has to get that from students.”

Let’s move through to a room with slightly more modern photos and artifacts and perhaps can you tell me whether your parents also studied at Charles University a generation ago?

Jirka: “My father studied in Prague for five years, but not at Charles University, but at the polytechnic, let’s say.”

Martin: “I come from a technical family – we are architects and chemists and so on – and I am a weird product of that, because I studied humanities. But they both attended and dated each other at the Faculty of Architecture at the Czech Technical University in Prague.”

Sylvie: “My father studied at Charles University, but not here, in Hradec Králové at the Medical Faculty. My mother studied in Prague at the Chemistry University, and she wasn’t really from a political family, so she wasn’t an active student.”

November 1989
Okay, so that was my next question, were your parents politically active while they were at university?

Martin: “Not at all, they were not active at all. Because being active meant being in the Communist Party – that was the only possibility to be active, or otherwise being a dissident and then imprisoned like Václav Havel and others. So, not at all, no.”

In Britain at least, students are very often portrayed, in comedy at least, as being these people who lay about, do nothing, and drink a lot of beer. Would you say that students are perceived in the same way in the Czech Republic?

Martin: “British students are. In Prague metro I’ve seen them throw up.”

But no, what I mean is this: is there a social stereotype of a Czech student? Because it sounds like if there is, then it is very different from that of a British student.

Martin: “I think if there is any stereotype then it is a positive one. Because right now I am watching the funeral of Jan Palach, and students were the main actors in our political life in a positive way. So they are seen as a good force in society.”

Jirka: “Actually, the image of students in society is better than the reality is, I would say!”