University protests continue despite Minister's offer of money

Graduation at Charles University

You only have to visit the ancient buildings of Prague's Charles University to see that the Czech university system has a long and rich tradition. But today higher education in the country is in crisis. Academics are leaving for more lucrative professions, and there are nowhere near enough places for able young high-school graduates hoping to study. Last year the Education Minister, Eduard Zeman, promised to create 10 000 new university places, with a cash injection of two billion Czech crowns. His announcement this summer that the money would not be available after all led to huge protests at universities across the country. This Thursday he succumbed to pressure and promised that one way or another the money would be found. But as David Vaughan found out when he visited the Medical Faculty of the Charles University, the protests are continuing in full force:

On Friday morning several hundred students and their teachers flocked to the main lecture hall of Prague University's First Medical Faculty, to take part in a two-hour strike and protest. No-one seemed impressed by the Health Minister's latest promise of cash. I asked two fourth year dental students why they had come:

"I want to support all of the other students and teachers to get more money for our schools. The problem is that we don't have the means to get bigger classes, more teachers, and computers, for example. We are 20 students for one teacher. It's possible for the first two or three years but not when we are in a hospital."

"I'm here for the same reason as my friend. Last year, for example, our professors took on more students because the government promised that we would have the money for these students. But now we do not have the money, the students are here and we do not have any money."

But why was the protest not called off, following the Minister's promise of cash? After all, the money will finance not only new student places, but also direct investment into the universities' infrastructure.

"Well, how many times has he promised it? Many times. We have to protest until the time we get the money and not until the time he promises it because he has done it many times before."

"I agree with my friend. We can't believe that we will get the money before we have it."

When it came to power three years ago the Social Democratic government promised a massive investment into education: its manifesto stated that the Czech Republic would only be able to compete in international markets, by investing in the life-long education of its citizens. The government argues that it can only act within the possibilities offered by the economy, and has laid part of the blame with the universities themselves. They should follow the example seen in many other countries of finding viable commercial partners. This view is only partly shared by the vice-dean of the First Medical Faculty, Dr Otomar Kittnar, who was one of those addressing the protest.

"For many universities the problem is how to think commercially. Technical universities have some advantages in this system but classical universities do not have many possibilities of getting money commercially. In the case of medical faculties, especially, when there is not a system of university hospitals which are part of the university, this possibility is very limited."

The post of Education Minister is a poisoned chalice in just about any country, but Minister Zeman finds himself in a particularly tough position. He can make promises to the universities, but it is up to his colleagues at the Finance Ministry to decide whether the country really can afford to keep those promises. At this stage neither students nor professors are convinced.