Czechmate for Klaus tuition fee charges

October 6, 1995

Ministers in the Czech Republic have been forced into retreat over a plan to charge new students tuition fees. Opposition has proved so fierce that a law passed by the republic's council of ministers last February has proved impossible to implement.

For the first time in its 747-year history Prague's Charles University faced the prospect of charging fees despite an outcry of opposition from academics.

Prime minister Vaclav Klaus is trying to introduce what he sees as a practical funding formula for a financial headache but his plan is now back on the drawing board.

Jiri Kunc, a leading political scientist at Charles University, blamed the free-market philosophy for the reform. "If they are going to apply the market to higher education, they should also raise our salaries as professionals to prevent the mass exodus to better-paid jobs," he said.

The law required new university students to pay between 5 and 20 per cent of tuition costs for the year 1995/96, calculated at between Kr2,600 to Kr10,400 (Pounds 64-Pounds 256) according to the type of university.

Payment could not be staggered but students were offered a loan at lower interest rates backed by a state guarantee. The government hoped this guarantee would prevent banks from refusing loans.

Milan Knizak, rector of the Prague Academy of Arts, sent an open letter to all university rectors, the minister of education and MPs, condemning the government's decision to make the student-university relationship one of client and customer. It was "a degradation and vulgarisation of the education process," he said.

Opposition parties argue that the new university law will restrict access to universities and lower standards.

In the post-Communist reform process the Czech government has applied free-market principles to the economy and society at large, which most have absorbed but at a price. Universities, free in communist times, for example, have found themselves overflowing with students. There were 150,000 appllicants this year, treble the number of available places.

Paradoxically the departments with highest student demand - law and economics - are those which are short of teaching staff.

An education spokesman admitted in The Prague Post that universities were losing staff particularly in electronics, engineering, chemistry, biochemistry and computing. The main reason is the low salaries.

Dr Kunc, for example, is one of the country's most respected professors but he has to work in three places to get an income that can maintain his family.

Although lecturers won a 20 per cent salary rise last winter, an assistant lecturer today gets Kr4,000 to Kr6,149 a month compared to the Kr7,189 average salary - the minimum salary is Kr2,200. A full professor receives Kr14,000 compared to a bank secretary's Kr20,000.

Vaclav Prosser, dean of the US Business School in Prague, admits "none of our graduates want to be lecturers and some only do it part-time, as a secondary activity which means that they cannot spend time on research".

He says only a 400 per cent rise in salaries and improved working conditions can halt the brain drain.

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