Students, university professors protest against higher education system reforms

Photo: CTK

Thursday saw protests by students and teachers from Prague’s Charles University in the face of the government’s planned higher education act. Critics charge that changes planned in the legislation will choke academic freedom in favour of business and politics.

Photo: CTK
Five years of debate and a year-and-a-half in preparation, two bills planned by the centre-right government are expected to bring far-ranging changes to the university education system in the Czech Republic. Planned changes include the introduction of tuition fees and state-guaranteed loans, and changes to how Czech universities are run.

For example, until now key decisions were the bread-and-butter of the academic senate but under the current proposal a new school council would allegedly take key responsibility. Critics, including Charles University dean Michal Stehlík, have charged the method of selection to the new council by the Education Ministry would benefit members of the business sector and introduce politics while threatening academic freedoms and overall independence. Here’s what he had to say:

“We are talking about a board whose members would be chosen by the Education Ministry, nominating candidates from the ranks of politicians and business people and only a certain number from academic circles. Then, these in turn would the ones to elect the president of the school?”

Question marks also remain over tuition: while not expected to exceed 10,000 crowns per semester, students will be eligible for government-back loans. Previously, graduates were expected to have begun paying back their loans only after they had secured average-salary incomes. But the student body has warned that last minute changes by the government would see fresh graduates forced begin paying back their loans even at minimal salaries, something students say they will fight vehemently against.

And the protest has already begun: op Thursday several hundred teachers and students from Charles University demonstrated outside the seat of the government, passing a resolution to ignore the changes being planned by the Ministry of Education and its minister, Josef Dobeš. At the Law Faculty in Prague, students also threw watermelons from the balcony, each smashing on a white tarp below. ‘Meloun’ is Czech slang for one million and ninety melons were thrown to be exact - each symbolising one million crowns in EU funds that protestors charge were ‘thrown out the window’ on the government’s education reforms. The happening’s spokesman Marek Hilšer:

“We didn’t see a single comprehensive analysis that would properly gauge the situation at universities today.”

Photo: CTK
For its part the Education Ministry has denied many of the criticisms flat out or called them out-of-date, also reminding critics - professors and the members of the student body alike - that it had heard and implemented many of their recommendations. Whether some sort of compromise can be reached now is difficult to gauge but appears unlikely even as additional protests are planned for the end of February. In all, 20 out of 26 academic senates have already rejected the reforms ‘as is’, meaning the government will have a renewed fight on its hands very soon indeed.