Academics lose freedom fight

October 4, 1996

The Slovak parliament has passed a controversial amendment to the law on higher education, which considerably increases the powers of the education ministry over the universities.

The move brings to an end the latest round in a long-running battle between universities and the government over academic freedom.

The amendment was passed after a long debate, during which over 100 changes were proposed, but only a handful accepted.

The most bitterly disputed clause - the right of the ministry to confer the academic titles of professor and assistant professor - was dropped.

But although the granting of these titles will be left to the academic councils of the universities, the ministry retains the right of veto for which there is no time limit. A scholar could therefore have his or her title of professor revoked years after it was conferred.

State control of higher education finance will be tightened in accordance with three policy documents: for employment, for development of higher education, and for science and research.

But none of these documents yet exists, or has been discussed or drafted. According to Ferdinand Devinsky, vice rector of Slovakia's premier university, the Comenius University of Bratislava, this means that in the absence of the documents, "the good and government-friendly will get everything; the others can beg".

After the passage of the amendment, education minister Eva Slavovska, hailed it as a "compromise" solution to the dispute, and confirmed that her ministry would approve university and college budgets in the light of the (non-existent) state employment policy document, putting the state interest for the development of higher education first.

This is of little comfort to the academics who opposed the amendment since, according to Professor Devinsky, "the ministry has been fighting against us as if we were its worst enemies and do not know how to manage higher education institutions".

They will, he said, continue to campaign for academic freedom: "We have lost the battle but not, we hope, the war."

They will not be alone in their campaign. Opposition MPs reacted to the amendment by calling for a vote of no confidence in the minister, which has been placed on the agenda for the October session of parliament.

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