Czech list for reform

February 10, 1995

For better or worse, continuity has proved a factor to be considered much more seriously in the process of transforming Czech education than either outright pessimists or rather naive optimists thought after 1989.

Despite the inadequate communist educational system - and there is still a great deal in the heritage that school reformers will have to cope with - it is important to maintain it and to remind ourselves that it was the traditional educational capital in the nation which could be activated and which made political and economic reforms possible and successful.

Despite the fact that the old regime aimed at a total thought control of the young generations, and a lot of harm and waste had been done over the decades in this respect, all-in-all a state of mental paralysis remained wishful thinking on the part of the communist authorities rather than a reality.

After all, the Czech people do not boast in vain of their long tradition of not only reading and writing but also teaching and learning "between the lines"; and history gave them plenty of opportunity to cultivate the art. It is the number of teachers from the "grey zone", those who were still tolerated within the communist system but never really joined it, who deserve the credit, which is not recognised frequently enough.

It is hardly possible to use the term reform if we want to describe the changes in higher education after November 1989; there was no blueprint, no scheme or plan worked out by anyone. Ideas of and for improvements, reforms, innovations, and transformations started rushing in from all quarters; in the flux, however, a few tendencies soon became more discernible, namely those fed by the desire to liberalise universities and colleges from the ideological straitjacket of any political nature, to decentralise if not abolish bureaucratic governance of education and research, to democratise life at the institutions through the introduction of academic self-government, and to reclaim autonomy through the restoration and recognition of traditional academic freedom.

Written in less than half a year and passed by parliament as early as spring of 1990, it soon became obvious, though, that despite all the notions of freedom and autonomy it comprises, the higher education Act also suffers from having been hastily conceived and reveals quite a few gaps and loopholes. The gravest of them is the rather unreasonable distribution of checks and balances, ie competences and responsibilities given to representative bodies of the institution and its self-government. As a result the institutions were often reduced to the simple sum of their parts, and what was lost was not only integrity but the capacity for more effective action.

Historians will have a better chance to judge to what extent the post-revolutionary Act helped and to what extent it impeded the process of transformation. At present it appears that it has been doing both simultaneously.

What follows from these remarks and observations is the idea of the unquestionable relevance of investing in education to keep the potential high for adaptability and flexibility in the nation. Important as it is for society in a time of fundamental changes to secure an immediate response from the educational system to the needs of practical life and the market under current conditions, it remains at least equally important to meet the requirements of a long-range vision of development.

It has been proved again in recent years that valuable education provides experts and professionals with a capacity for dealing adequately not only with the problems of today but of tomorrow and, hopefully, the days to follow as well. There is a feeling in the country, however, above all in the educational quarters, that not all political decisions of the past five years, including the allocation of annual budgets for education and research, seem to be in line with such a vision and understanding of reality.

Although there may be legislative, psychological and administrative obstacles hampering the more effective and faster transformation of Czech higher education, it is ultimately the shortage of financial resources that matters most as it makes it close to impossible to attract high-quality staff to universities and to retain them. Academic institutions are hardly capable of competition for the best of the brains with more practical job offers, considering the current level of salaries and the quality of equipment and standard of information sources at university departments and research centres. It is clear that at the time of an economic transition the country can spend on education only what it can truly afford, although this, consequently, turns out to be an argument with two sides to it.

What seems objectionable to Czech education reformers is not the hesitancy and natural scepticism of the government to put, unconditionally, more money into the schools which still have not developed everywhere the most economic ways of utilising resources; it is rather the repeatedly manifest lack of trust put in the general community of educators and lack of real faith in the seminal importance of education for progress and development of the country that is disturbing.

This general mood is also reflected in the current discussion of a few issues in the newly prepared Act of higher education. It becomes apparent, for instance, in the issue whether representative bodies of the academic community and the institutions of higher education, such as the rectors' conference and the council of higher education, should have legal status and thus become by law partners of the government in the blueprinting of an education policy; another closely related issue is the role and the competences, as well as the rules of appointments of the accreditation commission; yet another one is the very hot issue of tuition fees, especially the amount, the purpose, and the relationship of the collected tuition money to the institutional budget.

Whatever the outcome of the discussions it is high time for the institutions and the government to work out an inventory of the general state of higher education. Attempts have been made at evaluation and accreditation initiated both from the top and the bottom. The evaluation project is also getting some attention and support from international networks, which is a very desirable development. For the Czech Republic, where the focus has been in the past five years on increasing the number of educational institutions and, consequently, the numbers of enrolled students, the priority should turn to quality and above all the quality of training in the stage of graduate studies.

To create a few graduate centres of excellence with adequate research and information equipment and salaries corresponding to international standards seems to be an indispensable condition for the education and training of a new generation of university teachers and researchers who, in turn, will enhance the success of the transformation process in the country. In addition, it is such a task that could bring together in a constructive way the still quarrelling parties of universities and institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, another feud inherited from the old days when teaching and research was purposefully severed by the totalitarian regime.

Josef Jarab is rector of Palacky University, Olomouc, Czech Republic.

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