Will Czech students have to pay for their university studies?

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It's exam time now at many Czech universities. Corridors that are usually abuzz with laughter and conversation are silent and empty. Students are busy revising for their essays and exams. But soon they might have other important things to worry about on top of their studies. University education has always been free in the Czech Republic, but many say the system is in need of reform and some suggest the only way to reform it is to introduce tuition fees. By Pavla Horakova.

Here at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts of Charles University in Prague, several students were waiting for their exam results. I asked, Jiri, Kveta and Jana, three students of English, whether they would be willing to pay for their university course.

"Well, perhaps, because it might help some students to get to a university. It depends on what the tuition fees would be. They would have to be reasonable, reasonably high and I think they should also differ from university to university, because not all universities are the same in terms of quality. It would be good if a system of loans was prepared and introduced."

"I think that tuition fees will be necessary in the future, but it depends on other conditions, for example to whom it will be paid; if it will be for the universities or if it will be taken by the state. And the other thing is how much they will be, and if the students will be able to take some loans from the state or if they will be given some credits from the bank and things related to it."

"Well, actually I wouldn't be willing to pay, no, I'm against it. Because I think that the state should simply enable the students to study for free."

In 2001 - as in every year in the last decade - more than 50 percent of young people who wished to obtain a university education were denied the chance to study at a Czech university. The chances of being accepted are no greater this year. Czech universities just can't cope with the huge demand for higher education which followed the fall of communism.

Although a number of new universities have been established since 1989 and the capacity of the old ones has increased, the percentage of the population with a university education is still lower than in other developed countries. Opposition MP Petr Mateju, one of the most outspoken critics of the country's education system, says that the fact that tens of thousands of young people wish to study but cannot is a great loss for the country in terms of human resources. Another thing is the quality of education Czech universities provide. Does Mr Mateju think Czech universities can stand up to western standards?

"It depends on the major. I believe that those technical or sciences are almost at the level, which is usual at European universities. Unfortunately, humanities and social sciences are still under the level which I would like to see."

Petr Mateju, a sociologist by profession, has taught at universities both in the Czech Republic and abroad. He says students who pay for their courses work harder than those who don't. He also says a system of bank loans would make sure no one is denied the chance of obtaining a university education. What else does Mr Mateju say will change for the better if tuition fees are introduced?

"First of all, tuition will increase motivation of students to work harder, will motivate universities to provide programmes which will fit better the labour market and both sides will definitely, and that's my strong belief, balance as every investment system the demand and supply and that's extremely important."

Probably the most vocal opponent of the bill is the ruling Social Democratic party and its youth section the Young Social Democrats. They say it is expensive enough as it is to support a university student and the introduction of tuition fees would make education inaccessible to young people from families with lower incomes. And bank loans, they say, would only mean a long-term burden to young people who might like to start a family. The Young Social Democrats also say the banks would benefit more than the universities themselves. Martin Skoda is the manager of the Young Social Democrats' campaign against tuition fees.

"We think that education is for everybody, that all people should be equal and the access to education should be equal. The second thing is that we think that school fees are a social barrier. Another thing is that banks will be the only one who will get money from the school fees. Most of the money will come to banks and to the state because the state has to organise it."

The Young Social Democrats believe in the solidarity principle. They say the society should be responsible for the education of its members and educated people then pay that debt back by creating wealth for the whole society.

Martin Skoda who speaks on behalf of the Young Social Democrats has first hand experience. Despite his successful political career, he is still a university student.

"I study civil engineering here in Prague. I'm not from Prague, I live in a dormitory, so I know the conditions. My family, of course, gives me money, but I have to work, because if I want to buy something more, I have to work, I don't want so much money from them. The first thing is that I don't think that students should get a job; they should study. This is the first thing they should do. Of course, they should do some job in their last years of study, because they have to practice. But the first thing they should do is to study."

Mensa Czech Republic, the Czech branch of Mensa International, the organisation of people with high IQs, is very supportive of the bill. Miroslav Jindrisek is the chairman of Mensa Czech Republic. At a Mensa-sponsored seminar held in the Czech Lower House to promote the bill, I asked Mr Jindrisek what he thought about the proposed piece of legislation.

"I think that this bill is very smart and can support students who want to study at university and nowadays there is no money for the students. A lot of students are studying only because they have some benefits from the status of university student and the tuition fees will be greater that these benefits. So the students will be rather at work than at university. I agree with this law because I think that the investment to my education is worth these fees."

Miroslav Jindrisek is not the only one who thinks tuition fees would deter perpetual students, who only study to enjoy the benefits of being a student, or people who study at more than university at the same time just because it's free. Many defenders of the law say it will motivate those who really want to study and obtain the kind of education that will increase their chances on the labour market. Like Mr Skoda from the Young Social Democrats, Mr Jindrisek is still studying at university.

"I am a student of the University of Economics in Prague and I am working too. I think the money, which I'm making is worth to study at the university. I would be willing to pay these tuition fees to my university, to my alma mater. Yes, absolutely yes."

It seems though, that things are not going to change in the near future. MP Petr Mateju promised to have the law ready before the end of his mandate, as he is not going to run in the June elections. He has found few supporters of the bill in other political parties, despite the fact that some other parties had included the introduction of tuition fees in their manifestoes. The timing is wrong, he says, and the chances of the law being passed before the general elections in June are slim.