Fly away patrons

January 26, 1996

In central and eastern Europe irritation is growing with western experts and consultants who jet in, tell people what they ought to be doing, and draw fat fees that can come to more for a few days' work than many local academics earn in a year. Few are paid enough to make ends meet, some have not been paid for months, some teach in as many as seven institutions to earn enough to live.

"They treat us as if we were ignorant, as if these were third-world countries. They know nothing about the history and make-up of the countries they are advising," said a speaker from Poland at a European Union financed seminar organised by the Central European University in Prague last weekend on "Education for Market Economics and Pluralist Democracy".

The same resentment was reported at the "Environmental Sciences in Europe" conference at the University of Hertfordshire last week when Andrew Bennett MP, chairman of the House of Commons Environment select committee, warned of complaints from eastern European and former Soviet states about environmental experts telling people what they ought to do - which they already know - without attending to the day-to-day political problems faced in getting anything done at all.

People in central and eastern Europe, well-educated and sophisticated, have every reason to be tetchy with the consultancy jet set. The comeback of the communists in these countries (page 6) is attributed by many to crass implementation of economic reforms at the behest of eager westerners.

That central Europeans are beginning to resist patronising western advice is hardly surprising. What is sad is that it should be ventures like the CEU in Prague, rooted in the region and committed to staying there, that suffer. The CEU, still reeling from the loss of its director Ernest Gellner in November, is concentrating its efforts in Budapest and Warsaw. The Prague centre is being scaled down. It has only about a year to see whether it can forge a new mission providing self-financing short courses and conferences to meet local demand.

It faces a difficult choice. Its founder and funder, George Soros, is interested in the big questions of how an open, civic society can be fostered, and has not got on comfortably with Czech prime minister Vaclav Klaus. Hugely generous in his support of those pursuing the new intellectual agenda, he and the CEU are much less interested in providing what emerging companies in the region are eager to buy - training in law, business studies, information technology.

As the director of the Anglo-American College in Prague told last weekend's seminar, the way to viability for private institutions lies in meeting these immediate commercial requirements. The college, one of the many new private colleges springing up throughout central and eastern Europe, nearly went bust 18 months ago but has now transformed its prospects by deliberately tailoring its courses to company requirements.

Growing private competition of this kind is putting traditional universities in this region in a bind. They cannot move into the commercial market: research is often separated off into discrete institutes and cannot therefore be commercially exploited to support the university - as is done so successfully by some UK universities.

Charging students fees is difficult. In Poland it is forbidden under the constitution. In the Czech Republic higher education legislation recently failed because it included the introduction of charges.

Meanwhile academic staff are all too willing to moonlight in private institutions which can at least pay for their services. This further reduces the traditional universities' ability to respond to new demands.

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