Students continue protests over university reform proposals

Photo: CTK

The student protests that formed a key component of the 1989 Velvet Revolution serve as a stark reminder, even more than twenty years later, that the imagery of any Czech government upsetting its student population is going to create a major headache. Recent reforms proposed by the Czech Education Ministry under Josef Dobeš have achieved just that. Students are crying foul, with banners draped in universities across the country accusing the government of putting profits before education. This week, many Czech students have taken matters a step further with a self-titled “Week of protests” against the legislation. Tuesday sees students attending countless workshops and debates while protests marching on the offices of the Czech government are scheduled for Wednesday. Dominik Jůn spoke to Charles University student Matouš Turek, one of organizers of the protests, and began by asking Turek to explain the background behind the controversial legislation:

Photo: CTK
“Well, there have been two laws proposed by the Ministry of Education and they aren’t very well prepared. They are basically a very rushed effort to get some bang into the situation. The first one is a reform of the system of university education in the Czech Republic and the other one is a reform of the financing of students, meaning student loans and that is connected to the first law, because that presupposes a system of paid university education, which is something new to Czech education.”

So what are your main issues with this system? How would it negatively affect the Czech education system in your view?

Josef Dobeš,  photo: CTK
“The first thing is that it changes the entire autonomous structure of universities. And that it totally unacceptable to us. Because if you look at Czech politics, it’s all a matter of lobbyists and behind-the-scenes influence and these proposals would just institute this into the university system. The universities are one of the last places where lobbyism and political influence hasn’t yet entered. Another thing is the effort to change the financial situation of universities – which is terrible – with a simple pouring in of money from students. And that is just not the way to do it. We’ve seen in places like England that people are starting to have problems in paying off their loans. And as for the financing part, we feel that that is just a favour to the banking sector and not society.”

Photo: CTK
Do you think that politicians have been surprised at the level of protest that has arisen from students around the country?

“There has definitely been some reaction – finally. Because when it was just academia and university officials taking action, it wasn’t considered that huge. But now that the students have joined in, I think that it has changed the views of some of the politicians that there are actually votes in there – that the people behind this may not vote for you ever again.”

There’s been word recently that Education Minister Dobeš may be looking to slightly modify the proposals. What are the changes he is suggesting and do you feel you are getting through to the government?

Photo: CTK
“He’s retracting some of the ideas on the financing side, which is definitely a positive development. But that’s only the financing side. It is sometimes said in the media that the students are only concerned with the financial side of this. But that is not the main issue. I think that autonomy is the greater issue really. So in that sense there is no stepping back on that front so there is no reason for the demonstrations to be called off because if the economic lobbies get into Czech tertiary education, then that’s probably the end of its autonomy.”