University tuition fees and student loans could be introduced in the Czech Republic by next year if controversial plans to overhaul higher education funding get the go-ahead.
Sociologist Petr Matejuk, an MP for the rightwing opposition party Freedom Union, has drawn up the scheme, which he says will allow a further 50,000 students a year to enter university. He believes his proposal could win backing from other parties and become law later this year. Its combined provisions would put 2.8 billion koruny (£50 million) of new money into the university system every year.
The main opposition party has already signalled willingness to back the law, and public opinion was beginning to favour the idea, Mr Matejuk claimed.
"This country had a strong tradition of education but now we are at the bottom of the league table for university participation, only just above Mexico and Turkey," he said.
His proposals, modelled on the Australian system and drawn up by a bipartisan group that includes university rectors, students and teachers, would charge students £200 to £300 a year for tuition. Private sector banks would provide low-interest loans for poorer students with repayments taken from payroll deductions once graduates had reached a certain income level.
University rectors are divided over the plans, but all agree more money is needed to increase capacity, improve study conditions and increase salaries of staff, many of whom take second jobs or leave academia.
Jiri Zlatuska, rector of Brno's Masaryk University and a member of the Matejuk group, said government promises to spend 6 per cent of gross domestic product on education next year would mean finding an extra 52 billion koruny.
"There's no chance the government will spend that much more on education," Professor Zlatuska said. "If you have a knowledge society then you need to fund it - otherwise you end up with a country in the centre of Europe slipping back to the status of the developing world."
The minority Social Democrat government is opposed to the plan on ideological grounds and the Czech national students union says it will deter poorer applicants. But the idea has been strongly backed by the World Bank and supporters of fees point out that students at the country's 14 private higher education colleges pay up to 100,000 koruny a year to pursue courses in high demand.