Photo: Daniel Kroupa, philospher and politician.

A reform to improve cramming

In February, the Czech Ministry of Education submitted a proposal of reforms to the government. The reform package was a major step in re-structuring the current higher education system. The academic community, led primarily by university students, reacted very negatively to the move, threatening an all-out strike if the reforms were not scrapped. In the week of February 27 major protests took place at universities throughout the country. The main points of contention were the proposed tuition and enrollment fees and the changes to the structure of the university senates, which are a part of every state university. Currently, university senates, which make decisions about various aspects of university life, are made up equally of professors and elected students. The proposed law would decrease the proportion of students in the senate to one-third, and would place ministry-appointed members in the senate seats.
So far, the government has not passed the reforms. Prime Minister Petr Nečas admitted that members of the academic community were not sufficiently consulted in the preparation of the proposed law. Nečas is planning to lead further talks to find a middle ground between universities and the ministry. Many critics however say that all the reforms should be scrapped.
Přítomnost editor David Bartoň spoke to Daniel Kroupa, Professor of philosophy in Ústí nad Labem, who took part in the writing of the preceding law on higher education in 1998.

Firstly, could you please explain the current state of negotiations between the academic community and the Ministry of Education from your point of view.
Negotiations are at a standstill. The ministry’s proposals are hugely unpopular among academics and students. The whole discussion is now about ideology, which is why what is being actually debated is not the main problem of higher education. On the one hand, opponents of the ministry’s proposals fear that education is being commercialized, whereas on the other, supporters of the proposals claim that reforms are necessary to maintain a competitive edge. It is important to note that the latter are wrong, because the ministry’s proposals will only cause chaos in the current environment. The former, though, are not actually that concerned with fighting commercialization. If they were serious about protecting education, they would be seeking to make philosophy a required course for students of technical disciplines.
Tuition fees are also a marginal problem. Students in private universities, for example, pay their own tuition without a problem. What is actually missing is a long-term plan from the ministry for institutions of higher education. The discussions are skewed and some parts of the debate are just bizarre.

So what should happen at universities so that it would not be just another bizarre discussion? Should the ministry be addressing individual problems instead of proposing overall reforms?
The current proposals of the ministry will not actually lead to the desired goals. They are a mixture of things that had to be done a long time ago and intentions that, given the current situation, will not bring any positive changes.
Currently, we have public and private institutions of higher education. When we were preparing a reform of the higher education law 111/98 in 1998, we assumed that private institutions would be the top tier of our education system. We thought that people who were willing to pay for their education would be paying for what public institutions could not offer. However, as a result of the inaction of the ministers since that time, private universities have opened up ways of purchasing degrees, because they usually offer education on a lower level than do public universities.
The national accreditation committee did not obtain the support needed from higher education policies to prevent private institutions from falling into the business of selling a low-quality product. This actually had a calming effect on the under-financed public universities. The more competent professors at these institutions would pick up courses at the private universities in order to supplement their family budgets. I knew professors with three or more full-time positions. Everyone ignored this problem for a while, but after ten years restrictions were introduced. This is essentially a good thing, because it forced schools to re-evaluate the requirements for professors and assistant professors. But with the introduction of a whole new system of evaluations, chaos ensued. This is just an example of a change that did not require any major legislative changes and could have been introduced along with the new law on higher education, but was not, and is now causing problems.
Another example, which is quite important, has to do with the long-term under-financing of public education. When you want to improve the quality of education, you have to start by building a strong team at the faculty. When, as the head of the faculty, I have no money and no prospects, all I can do is advertise job openings, not actually looking for people I want. No one wants these jobs, because the pay is so low. There would never be competition for these positions. If you want to have enough money for the faculty you have, you need to constantly make sure that you have enough students for whom you will be receiving funding – a certain amount per head. If the ministry lowers that amount and allows more students at the faculty, we have to take more and more students each year just to retain the faculty we have. This is no way to build a serious faculty. Of course, the average quality of students also goes down, while the strain on professors increases. One teacher might have to advise thirty bachelor’s theses at once.

What positive aspects of the proposed law do you see? Does it in some respects improve the law that you came up with in 1998?
With this proposal, it would be possible to get rid of some of the limitations of the internal university structure that were made part of the 1998 law against our advice. As a result, the executive body of the university could make decisions more effectively, given the local context. Every university should not be administered in the same way. In this respect, the reform could bring about a positive change. But the technocratic spirit of those who prepared the new law decided to link this good intention with a change in the government of universities.
I am aware that in academic circles as well some bizarre things take place. For example, some time ago, our senate spent considerable time debating the issue as to whether or not a dog could take part in the meeting. I am not against changes, but a single solution for everyone is not going to do it.

What is the mission of higher education institutions? Or is it better to speak of it as a minister with the president would about the task they are supposed to fulfill?
The current debate is not actually about education. Preparation for a future job or a profession is only part of education. Professional training without education that can change a person would mean not only a decline for schools, but for society as a whole.
I often give lectures to people from the business sector. There is one interesting category of people among them. They are people of about 40 years of age, who have built a company worth hundreds of millions, and are very rich. They worked twenty or twelve hours a day, and now that they have everything, they realize that they are left with nothing and are asking if it was all worth it. These are the types of questions that people should already be asking themselves at university, when the student’s personality is being formed. Philosophy and the other humanities teach students to think, they teach creativity and the fact that education cannot be reduced to cramming.

So do you see these reforms as reforms of cramming and teaching methods rather than actual education?
I mentioned philosophy just as an example of how both critics and authors of the reforms only see the aspect of education that is concerned with preparing students for future professions, whereas the rest is completely beyond the scope of the discussion.
It was always the case that ministers of education paid little attention to higher education because primary and secondary schools had stronger unions. Those unions actually scare them, so they try to pacify them in any way they can. There are, on the other hand, very few teachers in higher education. They are unable to get almost anything for themselves and they pose no political threat to the minister. Another reason why ministers paid almost no attention to higher education is because they did not actually understand it.

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