Czechs are left in a tight spot

December 21, 2001

Nick Holdsworth looks at the battles and victories of former Communist countries as they move towards joining the EU and the Bologna Process.

Charles University rector Ivan Wilhelm quit smoking 20 years ago. He started again a couple of months ago at the height of a confrontation with education minister Eduard Zeman over a broken 2 billion koruna (£38 million) funding promise.

The extra money - to be paid during 2002 - was designed to help the Czech Republic's 25 public universities fund a 10 per cent increase in admissions.

Professor Wilhelm, who urged the universities to go ahead with the increase before the money was in place, felt compelled to threaten to resign unless the cash was found. Staff and students at Olomouc University went on strike and Charles's ruling body ordered Professor Wilhelm to organise a Prague protest.

Unrest grew as Vaclav Klaus, chairman of the opposition Civil Democrats and a key figure in the power-sharing government of prime minister Milos Zeman (no relation to the education minister), said that giving more money to universities when there was no sign that the government was moving towards reform of the financing system was like "pouring petrol into a car with a leaking fuel pipe".

Professor Wilhelm, who championed the increased funding as the first step towards addressing one of the key challenges to Czech universities - tackling massive demand that sees nearly one in two would-be undergraduates turned away each year - found himself at the centre of the storm.

But the crisis put the issue of university reform on the front pages and on the political agenda.

Professor Wilhelm has not been on speaking terms with the education minister since autumn. He said a wide public debate was the only thing that would force the government to take reform seriously.

"We need to speak frankly, without diplomacy, with the minister of education and put on the table proposals for how the universities should look in five, ten or 20 years' time," Professor Wilhelm said.

The key issues are reforming curricula to allow for a two-level system of bachelors and masters degrees - something that is happening thanks to a law adopted following the Czech Republic's ratification of the Bologna Process two years ago. Funding must be found to match demand for increased access and institutions must be reformed to allow for a balance between research-based "full universities" and colleges designed to deliver bachelors degrees.

The last proposal was likely to be the most controversial, the rector concedes: with 25 public universities in the Czech Republic and a population of 10 million, he believes there is room for only some dozen "full universities".

Forcing change on the remaining institutions would have to be a government role, but politicians, more concerned with next May's general election, had failed to grasp this, he said.

Whether or not politicians met the challenge for university reform, Professor Wilhelm said that pressure from students would drive change: 55,000 places for 95,000 applicants a year leaves a lot of disaffected young people.

Jiri Zlatuska, rector of Brno's Masaryk University, echoed Professor Wilhelm's frustrations about the failure of politicians to understand the need for reform. "I'm not sure to what extent the government is ready to support Bologna, because supporting it means having a really firm vision for change in higher education and that is not there," he said.

He said that moderate tuition fees were the only way forward for resolving the funding issues central to widening access.

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