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over-my-czech-body
The protests. Photo Courtesy of Zbyněk Machát.

Over my Czech body

Thousands of university students flooded Prague streets this spring, clad in plaid pajama bottoms, bathrobes, and even boxers. “Nespíme, bdíme” — We’re not sleeping, we’re keeping a look out/watching — read one protester’s sign as she solemnly stood amongst the crowd of bodies, all turned in attention toward the man with the megaphone.

 

“Without free universities, you cannot have free societies,” said Miroslav Jašurek, 29, poised like one of the Queen’s guards on his lunch break as he stared at the crowd through his rectangular-framed glasses. The multitude hollered in agreement with the Charles University PhD student, eager to participate in one of the many demonstrations during the self-titled “week of protests” against the proposed education reform.

 

Jašurek is one of the chairmen of the National Students Union, an organization that aims to defend students’ rights and interests and advocate welfare, democracy, and higher standards of education, according to the International Union of Students’ Constitution. But in a time of academic crisis, Jašurek preaches like a modern-day Robin Hood: supporting taxes on the Czech Republic’s citizens (the richer) to provide for higher education for the youth (the poorer). As chair, he attempts to not only represent the students, but fight for their interests, making him the insider for all things political in the university system.

 

“Higher education is a very important issue in [Czech] society today, because without good higher education, we don’t have a good [democratic] society,” Jašurek said. College institutions, he continued, are what introduce and cultivate autonomous values, which very well may be why the Education Ministry tried to change them in January.

 

Four months ago, Former Education Minister Josef Dobeš proposed a series of higher education reforms that would change how Czech universities would be run. They would introduce tuition fees and state-guaranteed loans, as well as a council — made up of Ministry-selected members — that would be able to override the academic senate.

 

Upon learning of the ministry’s plans, students were quick to gather in what was the first major protest since 1997’s “Děkujeme, odejděte!” — Thank you, please leave — student campaign, which expressed frustration over corrupt and old politicians.

 

Jašurek and his supporters believe that the proposed laws introduce hidden privatization in which the government would gain control of the universities’ millions of dollars in assets as well as the budding minds of future generations.

 

“[The reform] violates the basic principles of universities by introducing direct influence of external stakeholders, like business and politicians — changing the environment so that education becomes a product rather than a service for society and for people,” Jašurek said.

 

Using an analogy to illustrate his claim, Jašurek explained: A pharmaceutical company hires researchers to test the safety of their medicines. The scientists find something wrong or harmful with the company’s product. The pharmacy can do one of two things: They can either spend the money to fix the medicine, making it safer for its users, or they can release the drug and try to cover up the side-effects by not publishing the results. Like the pharmaceutical company, the ministry could selectively publish students’ research based on their agenda.

 

By introducing such stakeholders to the governing boards, which take part in the most important decisions on campuses, students fear that the government will have too much influence on what people study and teach.

 

Not everyone believes the ministry’s proposed reforms were meant to trick students into giving the politicians more power.

 

“What I see in the reforms are efforts to put more money and grants into schools that are recognized around Central Europe,” said Tomáš Vašíček, a chemistry student at Charles University. According to a Bruegel study in 2007, which Vašíček cited when making his claims, Europe invests too little in higher education and is, therefore, growing far less than the United States. Vašíček reasons that altering the educational governance is just the change Czech universities need to catch up with their American counterparts.

 

Yet one of the most unpopular aspects of the proposed reforms is one of the sources of money that would begin funding colleges: the students. Many Czech university students fear that if they allow the ministry to charge even a minimal tuition fee, it will  increase dramatically over time and affect what they will be able to study. Protesters use other countries as a model for their claims: The United Kingdom introduced tuition in 2002, only to increase the fees by 15 times by 2010. In addition, the UK made several cuts to departments based on private funding.

 

Vašíček, however, believes tuition fees could bring positive changes to the universities in the Czech Republic, including more funding for professors’ research. Vašíček proposes that the real problem behind the fees is not that they are unmanageable but that students and parents are unwilling to pay for their schooling if they don’t have to. But as the ministry has implied, tuition fees may be an answer to the economic crisis in the education sector.

 

“If we had the resources to pay for every college student, I think we would not have to talk about reforms,” Vašíček said.

 

Protesters do agree with Vašíček in that something must change. According to Jašurek, the ministry should focus on diversifying the institutions, meaning that the individual faculties should specialize, focus on specific majors rather than try to cover a wide variety. This does, however, contradict with Jašurek’s definition of academic autonomy, which he defines as students having “variety to do research, teach, and learn what they want to.”

 

Back at the rally, Jašurek pauses his speech to take a moment and admire the scene. With just six, seven days of preparation, thousands of students and staff from 12 cities, in 22 institutions prepared lectures, presentations, and posters to protest what they believed to be an attack on higher education. To Jašurek, it was a testament of the fact that the ministry was wrong: Students do care about their education. Students are aware of what endangers academic institutions. And, most importantly, students have voices, and they aren’t afraid to use them. But the question remains: Were these student protesters using their voices in the right way? And what exactly did they manage to achieve?

 

About the author:

Stephanie Scerra is an intern for The New Presence. She is the former Managing Editor for the newspaper at Mills College, where she is also majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. She spent a semester in Prague in the spring 2012. To read more of her work, visit www.stephaniescerra.com.

 

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