“Universities in Czechia are open to whole new generations of young people”: Third-level education 30 years after the fall of communism

University of Pardubice, photo: archive of University of Pardubice

Czechia is aiming to boost its college student numbers. Even though the proportion of university graduates in the population has grown steadily in the past 30 years, the country still lags behind the European Union average. Czech universities are ready for the challenge.

University of Pardubice,  photo: archive of University of Pardubice
The corridors of the University of Pardubice are teeming with students. This might be a relatively small and young regional institution, but it gives young people in the area the chance to further their education close to home. Krystýna is studying economics and business management. She explains why she chose this particular university.

“No-one in our family has ever studied at a college. I am the first to get this level of education. I think it is very important, both for getting a good job and for getting ahead in my future career. I don’t think that a degree from the University of Pardubice is any worse than degrees from other universities. The main thing is to get a degree. If I achieve that, I don’t think that I will be looked down upon or seen as having a lower quality education than graduates from Brno or Prague.“

In the past 30 years, Czechia has seen a number of newly-opened universities. Whereas in the 1980s college education was for a restricted number of carefully selected young people who had to go through a very strict admissions process, these days universities and especially technical colleges are much more open. Professor Jiří Málek is the Rector of the University of Pardubice:

Jiří Málek,  photo: archive of University of Pardubice
“I think it is a good thing. It means that universities in Czechia are open to whole new generations of young people from families where they did not have any experience of university-level education. It is very important that at our university we do not provide only the typical form of education, meaning lectures and seminars. We are constantly striving to involve the students in creative work. That is a key element of our work.“

I traveled further east. Palacký University in Olomouc is an institution that is more than four centuries old and has grown considerably in the past three decades. Its rector, professor Jaroslav Miller explains why:

“The Czech Republic still has a lower percentage of people with college-level education than the OECD average. Indeed, our government was unpleasantly surprised by these statistics. It started supporting universities with various financial incentives to increase admissions of young people and, of course, it motivated them to kind of pump up student numbers.“

In 1990, Palacký University had barely 5000 students. Since then, the number has multiplied. With such an increase in the number of graduates, is the school able to maintain a high quality of education?

Jaroslav Miller,  photo: Gabriela Knyblová
“Palacký University now has about 20,000 students. Some four or five thousand come from abroad, which I consider a true triumph. But compared with the past we have also a much larger number of teachers – professors and assistant professors – than we had back in 1990. We have about 10 students to one professor, which is close to what I consider the optimal ratio. Generally, we do not have problems with the quality of our courses. And when there are some exceptions from this general rule we deal with them. To put it simply: We want to maintain our reputation as a prominent university in Central Europe.“

There is one thing about the Czech educational system that may be surprising for foreigners. Public educational institutions such as Charles University in Prague or Palacký University in Olomouc command greater respect and have a better reputation than private schools–both at home and abroad. Why is that? I ask Czech deputy minister of education Pavel Doleček:

Palacký University in Olomouc | Photo: Gabriela Knyblová
“This stems from the completely different traditions in college education. This is especially true when we compare our system with English-speaking countries. In Czechia, private colleges and universities started quite recently, in the past three decades, and they are concentrating on providing courses that are not financially too costly. For example, you cannot find private colleges teaching technical- or science-oriented programs. In the United States, the whole system was first based on a network of private and financially strong institutions. The European continental tradition of higher education, not only in the Czech Republic, was built on strongly supported public schools. Private schools are important, but rather new and still in the process of development. These two systems are impossible to compare.“

So if you are thinking about sending your children to Czechia or studying here yourself, don’t be afraid to select public universities. Their degrees will probably have more international weight than those from private schools.