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Does Free Tuition Work?

In the Czech Republic, education is, for the most part, free. For many students, particularly those in the United States, the idea of attending university tuition-free is a dream.

In theory, students should be able to learn and to pursue careers unhindered by massive student loans and other financial barriers. However, this can only work if the system accepts students regardless of their social standing. Even free tuition can still create a divide between the haves and have-nots. That’s one reason why the ever-increasing tuitions of universities in the United States might not be the only problem facing today’s society.

In the Czech Republic, tuition is payed for by the government, but there are problems with the system. The school system is fairly similar to other countries until children exit primary school at age 15, and are put into a more rigid curriculum, which consists of a standard secondary school, grammar school, or a vocational school. Some say that this limits the potential of many students, particularly those who are placed into programs that do not motivate them to succeed. Others note that students, particularly in vocational options, leave schools without critical skills, such as basic math, reading, and writing.

At the same time, some schools may be underfunded and thus do not encourage growth. Bob Kartous of EDUin, an organization that seeks to promote education in the Czech Republic and teach others about the current Czech education system, says that simply having access to school without tuition does not necessarily translate to equal opportunities for students; “Yes, the public education system here is free, all citizens and inhabitants have a right to educate their children or themselves in public schools from the age of 3 up to the age of 26 without paying tuition. When we focus more precisely on the topic, there are some transparent or hidden costs, i.e. in kindergarten there are smaller expenditures paid by parents. It can differ from school to school and also regarding the municipalities … At the level of elementary (middle) schools and high schools, parents are expected to participate when it comes to the textbooks or some another complementary needs.” This may be a problem for poorer families. Kartous also notes that there is a disparity between those that can enroll in higher education versus those who don’t. In his opinion, some policies marginalize specific groups in society.

Some government officials are now considering instating tuition in universities, which could make the divide even bigger. “There has been a longtime political debate about tuition for universities when some of the right wing politicians point out that it would lead to an increase of students’ responsibility… On the other hand, there is a remarkable relationship between wealth of family and education achievement in Czech Rep., which makes for a complicated social situation (according some research, 40% of families are narrowly above the poverty line), and university tuition could add the next burden” notes Kartous.

With society already divided, charging tuition would make it even more difficult for disadvantaged children to secure an education. Furthermore, it appears that the divide between the educated and uneducated may be defined by more than just an access to money: though cheap education may result in more liberal access to education, the very structures of the country and its system of education may limit a student’s success.

At the same time, data suggests that due to the rigidity of the education system in the Czech Republic, students aren’t receiving the attention they need in order to be ready for both work and other areas of their lives. Kartous notes that “the education system… is not fit to a rapidly changing technological and social reality. Especially for students of vocational schools left behind in terms of general education skills (language literacy, numeracy) or soft skills. This is not my opinion, this is based on strong evidence.” He continues to say that “there is an upside-down approach in not adapting schools to students’ needs but adapting students to the needs of schools.”

Due to the fact that students are split into either grammar school or vocational programs early on in their educational career, most of the choices of what they will study have already been made for them. This severely limits their potential. With increasingly limited spots in more advanced programs, upward mobility is difficult for those who are placed in specific programs that do not motivate them. Kartous notes that the present state of the education system in the Czech Republic is not sustainable in a globalizing world that is increasingly technological.

Government should provide not just free education, but also help citizens become informed and independent. Current policies seem to keep students back rather than push them forward into the global world. Though this is possible, it is difficult for the Czech Republic to break away from its past. In the wake of the Communism, many still feel that having a limited choice that is dictated by the government is best for all. According to Kartous, if there is anything that other countries can learn from Europe, it’s to create a system in which anyone can prosper, regardless of wealth or privilege.

As an example, the 2015/2016 Amnesty International Report on the Czech Republic reports that the Roma population has been increasingly marginalized by school officials. A nomadic diaspora that originated from India but has not been directly linked to a specific location, the Romani people have been struggling to be seen as equals in the eyes of other citizens in Central Europe. They are also described as the ancestors to the Gypsy population in many Central European countries. Sadly, Roma children make up about one third of all students in classes intended for students with mild mental disorders, which violates EU Race Equality Directive to promote equal rights based on race. Within the past year, new amendments have been proposed to change the situation, but they will not be put into effect until this fall.

Another issue regarding free tuition is that many professionals will receive their degree and then leave to work in other countries. If too many of them leave the country then it could have a drastic effect on the economy of the Czech Republic. For this reason, there has been a push to consider requiring tuition in schools, but it is tough to say whether this will help increase funding to empower schools or if it will restrict talented students from pursuing higher education. Others also make the case that students also migrate into the Czech Republic to continue their education, so the influx of talented students may offset those who leave the country. In the end, it is clear that the current education system in the Czech Republic will not be sustainable unless it changes to adapt to the modern world.


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