Back to Slovak future

April 12, 1996

Universities the world over have their own problems, worries and joys. In Slovakia we not only have to tackle financial problems (who hasn't?) but also have to live under the threat of losing autonomy and academic freedoms - or at least having substantial curbs on them.

The changes in the former Czecho-Slovakia in November 1989 were set in train by university students, so it was no surprise that one of the first acts passed to correct distortions created by the communist system restored autonomy and academic freedoms to universities.

The 1990 Act was soon overtaken by rapid changes and positive developments both in the country and in universities. From early 1992 to mid-1995 several proposed amendments to it were sent out for consultation with, and approval by, the academic community. The Slovak ministry of education, which directed the process, submitted proposals to the government in 1995. These were approved by the legislative committee, which recommended government approval for their submission to parliament.

To everyone's surprise the government did not approve the amendment but returned it for revision with observations which signified the destruction not only of the spirit of the 1990 Act but also the actual removal of universities' autonomy. It meant a partial liquidation of academic freedoms and a return to the pre-November 1989 period. Essentially it meant that most decisions concerning the universities as a whole, and also their individual internal activities and administration, were to be made centrally at the ministry. The ministry was to be given the right to revoke and change the decisions of self-governing academic bodies and academic officials; to direct and control universities; set the numbers of students admitted to individual faculties (the so-called numerus clausus); approve study programmes; interfere in the elections of deans, rectors and the appointments they make; revoke and change the decisions of universities and individual faculties on student admission and other similar competencies which are unthinkable in a democratic system.

Resistance by the whole academic community resulted in the so-called third version of the amendment, which was not made public and open for discussion by the ministry because it originated from the government and cannot be subject to any discussions without the government's approval which, of course, has not been given.

Now the academic community does not know which variant the government will submit to parliament. However, it is very clear that higher education, as one of the very few small islands of democracy, causes a real headache to those in power.

The government's proposal, effective in the 1996/97 academic year, involves changes to more than 40 out of 45 articles in the 1990 Act - hardly an amendment, more a completely new act.

The right to vote for and to be elected to academic bodies and offices is a basic academic freedom, laid down in international documents signed by Slovakia and thus binding on our government. Originally the right to vote and to be elected was left to the members of the academic community of a faculty or university, but this is substantially curbed in the amendment.

Primarily the academic senate of the faculty elects the dean, and the academic senate of the university elects the candidate for the post of rector. However, one of the provisions deals with what happens when the faculty has no dean and the university no rector for a transitional period, for example, if the original dean or rector was removed by the senate, resigned from office or his or her term ended.

The amendment solves the problem in an unprecedented and outrageous way by interfering with academic rights, freedoms and autonomy. A rector for a transitional period would be appointed not by the senate but by the minister of education, until confirmed by the president. The situation is similar in the case of deans, where the rector appoints the new dean, not the senate of the faculty which elected him.

Formally rectors are appointed by the president and when we take into account the "speed" at which official documents travel from the ministry to the president's office, a temporary period may turn out a very long time. (We still remember vividly "the temporary stay" of the Soviet army on our territory when "transitional time" meant 22 years). De jure all will be well but de facto the school will be "temporarily" run by appointees of the ministry.

There is a certain piquancy in all this: this year and early next year, most deans and rectors will end their terms of office. It would be very easy not to appoint an elected rector temporarily and to put in a loyal person who will, for this transitional period, appoint the new deans?

Slovakia likes to declare both inside and outside the country that it is a law-abiding state and it is generally expected that all its laws will be mutually compatible. This does not apply to some provisions of the proposed amendment, called "socialist" by members of the academic community in Slovakia. These provisions mainly deal with university admissions and control of the decisions of academic officials and bodies (including senates) over legislative and administrative affairs (this legislation dates back to 1967). We believe that the ministry and its staff have no right to determine if the laws are observed. This is the job of independent law courts.

Slovakia's higher education institutions are directed and controlled by self-governing academic bodies and are independent legal entities, as stated in the 1990 Act. To enforce the law concerning university administrative affairs conflicts with the act itself while depriving the university of its autonomy. It is completely absurd to give the ministry authority to interfere in a university's internal matters such as checking and revoking the decisions of boards of examiners or scientific councils on granting or not granting degrees; promotions to senior lecturer or professor; and postgraduate and scientific degrees. These are purely professional decisions. They are university, not state, titles and degrees.

If such a provision is passed, no one outside the university will know whether a degree has been obtained through regular proceedings or if it was granted by the ministry after an appeal. I am convinced that the compatibility of Slovak university diplomas could be considerably damaged abroad.

It is acknowledged internationally that PhD studies are the sole domain of universities and higher education institutions, but one of the provisions of the amendment states that the Slovak Academy of Sciences independently provides education of scientific workers by doctoral studies. Other provisions mean that the academy can award PhDs together with the diploma to graduates of doctoral studies. The authors of this provision were not aware that it would mean two types of degrees awarded for the same title of PhD. Every postgraduate student will have to explain which institution awarded the degree and I am firmly convinced that diplomas from the academy will not carry as much weight and will not command as much respect as university diplomas. This approach is absolutely unacceptable to the universities and explains why no agreement has been concluded between the universities and the academy.

We still hope that the final version will not contain these provisions. Were it to be passed in its present form, it would be largely incompatible with European legislation on universities.

Ferdinand Devinsky is vice rector of Comenius University, Bratislava.

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