Is a free higher education feasible in the Czech Republic?
Independent evaluators rank the Czech Republic among the feeblest of education’s funders. Beneath every European Union country save two—Slovakia and Liechtenstein—the Czech Republic allocates a paltry 4.1 percent of its GDP per year to education (according to a report with an excruciatingly long name: the Educational, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency’s Key Data on Education in Europe 2012 report).
Efforts to reform higher education have been met with significant protests across the Czech Republic as students and teachers organize against what they perceive to be a foreboding decline in the quality of higher education. Throughout February, students and teachers in Brno, south Moravia, Hradec Kralove, and East Bohemia protested the perceived commodification of higher education. Many demonstrators question the decision to increasingly privatize education following repeated decreases in student stipends, educational materials, tax relief and subsidized meals. Students and many academics oppose the planned introduction of tuition fees and proposed changes to the powers of academic bodies. They wish to address constantly decreasing finances allocated by the state to education and have highlighted the need to create an effective financial aid system as well as the need to introduce a system of financial co-payment for university graduates.
Attempts to reform the education system began in earnest with the 1998 education reform act. The reforms introduced competition to the system by permitting private universities to exist alongside the public ones. Since then, the Czech Ministry of Education has discussed strengthening links between higher education institutions and employers. Bridging these two spheres—education and the job market—is seen as a necessary step in the reform of education. Proponents argue that students need to better meet employers’ criteria for hire in order to find satisfactory careers. In other words, students must gravitate towards fields in which there still exist viable employment options. The proposed reforms aim to create competition among institutions for students, creating an incentive for institutions to develop programs to attract students.
As it stands, the Czech Republic’s state budget cannot adequately support free public education. The most renowned university in the Czech Republic remains Prague’s Charles University—a university known for several centuries as one the premier institutions of higher learning in Europe, but that has since fallen far below its international competitors. Times Higher Education’s most recent iteration of its World University Rankings places Charles within the 300-350 bracket. (Note: after number 200 the rankings cease parceling out individual rankings to universities, opting instead to cordon them into groups of fifty). Times Higher Education bases its rankings on “research influence,” reputation,” “the learning environment” and a few other factors, meaning that Charles University falls well short in these areas when compared against hundreds of universities on every other inhabited continent.
Significant shortcomings in funding have helped to prolong the institution’s ongoing academic stagnation. Professor Jiri Pehe, Director of New York University in Prague and the head of NYU's Prague Institute for Democracy, Economy, and Culture (PIDEC) described the crisis in the Czech Republic as being a problem characterized by excess demand. Demand for university education is high in the Czech Republic and has grown as education becomes more important for social and economic actualization. Professor Pehe also spoke on the side of the teachers, claiming that current debate often does not consider the relatively poor salaries paid to educators in the Czech Republic. When adjusted for the costs of living, the average Czech fulltime faculty position pays only 1,899 euros per month. Free education is, in theory, an alluring concept, but, claimed Pehe, “at the same time [the system] makes it impossible for Universities to pay top professors top dollar.” The current structure of public education has led professors to take multiple teaching positions, some at private universities. The system forces overworked professors to compete for grants in order to ward off economic disaster, thereby stymying individual research.
Universities receive funding first and foremost on the basis of student enrollment—that is, the more students an institution educates, the more money that same institution receives from the government. Therefore, Charles University enrolls some 50,000 students, a number that rivals those of the very largest American universities and that, by many accounts, decreases the quality of education by spreading thin the institution’s faculties. According to Kristyna Cermakova, a student at Charles University, the skewed student-teacher ratio contributes to an overall atmosphere of apathy. Professors direct their apathy toward a giant, faceless mass of students with which they cannot hope to have individualized interactions, and their apathy begets and encourages student apathy. Describing her lecture classes, Ms. Cermakova declared that there is “no way for students to participate” given the size—300 to 400 students—of some lectures. Of course, large lecture halls bursting with several hundred students are common in many renowned universities the world over. The chief difference at Charles, as well as at institutions like the University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice, rests in the size of seminars, which can enroll anywhere from twenty-five to fifty or more students each. While the low end—twenty-five—does not pose too significant an obstacle to higher education, the upper limit—fifty—does. Salim Murad, professor of pedagogy at the University of South Bohemia, teaches one such seminar, a class focusing on political pedagogy. With nearly fifty students occupying a stretched lecture hall-classroom hybrid, the class fails to involve the majority of its students. Overcrowding and lack of access to professors combine to engender in students like Ms. Cermakova the feeling that professors do not particularly care about students.
Most Czechs acknowledge that the system faces significant problems, but people are rigidly divided on how to approach reform. Divisions have been most pronounced in ideological discussions regarding the purpose of public institutions. Students tend to view education as a public good, but many believe that they should finance at least a small portion of their studies. Supporters of reform claim that modern education requires alternative methods of financing in the wake of government pressures to limit funds in other areas. Privatization, they argue, eases the burden on governments to meet increasingly high demand and relieves the same of excessive costs. Pehe stands among those advocating the implementation of a fee system but says that students “are of two minds” on the issue. By Pehe’s estimations, many reasonable students understand that if they paid something for their education it would improve, but, he says, “many are comfortable not paying anything.” The unshackled governments can then, they argue, allocate resources with greater flexibility and, ultimately, provide superior public education.
Professor Jiri Pehe believes that at this point the “discussion is timid because they are certainly not in the process of introducing real tuition and fees but simply charging something at the beginning of semester, a relatively small contribution.” While the discussion highlights the need to develop new means of financing higher education, proposals are still in their nascent stages.
The concrete proposals that do exist point towards imposing fees of 10,000 crowns (approximately 400 euros) for a semester of study. The new funds would go to the institution directly, while the state would provide for student loans for those incapable of paying the fees. The current system, which bases financing solely on enrollment, desperately needs student contributions, a fact made abundantly clear by the state’s inability to pay its educators a satisfactory salary or to compete with top tier universities in other parts of the world. It would seem that fees for higher education, so long absent from Czech public universities, are on the horizon.
But the Czech government, too, must do its part. Increasing funding for public education even by a few tenths of a percentage of GDP, could do wonders for a system of higher education incessantly plagued by underfunding and pervasive discontent among students and staff alike. Augmenting government spending on the public university system would also serve as a show of good will by legislators and would thereby indicate to students that they, the educated, should pitch in as well. With no singular solution in sight, a combined effort on the part of parents, students and the state is the Czech Republic’s best bet in handling an issue that has so far festered in legislative limbo.