Ministries divide and rule

March 6, 1998

THE symbolic importance of Santiago de Compostela's central square is often commented on. Around the square there is the university, which recently celebrated its 500th anniversary, the cathedral with the tomb of St Jacob, the town hall, a hotel housing economic offices and, nearby, a government palace. The location of these institutions represents relationships: university, church, city, economy and government. The bishop, the rector, the mayor, the governor and the president of the chamber of commerce symbolically meet there as partners.

This structure is a symbiosis of interdependent, autonomous partners determining their relationships responsibly, with equal rights and by agreement and contract. Tradition and mutual respect further guarantee respect in legally and ritually defined mutual relationships.

On paper the constitution of the Republic of Slovenia gives state universities autonomy and local groups and communities the freedom to form organisations and take economic initiatives.

In 1990-91 a law was adopted to protect university property from the uncontrolled greed of some individuals on the understanding that the new Slovenian constitution guaranteed full university autonomy in line with European cultural traditions, adapted for local conditions.

However, while a later law on higher education defined the university in accordance with Council of Europe and the European Rectors' Conference suggestions, the old state of affairs persists and the formation of an autonomous, integrated, scientific and open institution is thus inhibited.

The universities are "subordinated" to various ministries, making relations with government less rather than more transparent.

The practical question is how to prevent bureaucracy from creating conflicts between Slovenia's two universities, Maribor and Ljubljana, and within the universities between faculties, professors and students, old and young, social and technical sciences, and pedagogic and non-pedagogic workers.

Just over a year ago a European Rectors' Conference in Prague identified some common problems among universities in post-socialist states. Rectors were asked to present their institutions in the form of basic data: university name, year of foundation, number of students and staff and their budget. Only two rectors did not have much of this information at their disposal: the rectors of Ljubljana and Maribor.

Now there are new contradictions in Slovenia: between the university as an institution, an integral community of professors and students that is internally divided into organisational units, and the university as a corporation, a non-integrated university, like the former socialist models of "basic organisations of associated labour".

In European culture the university was a free partner to the state. The state recognised the university's right to conduct its business independently and look after its property.

The university as a public establishment started in the late 18th century with the growth of state interventionism, which reached its peak this century in the form of fascism, nazism and communism.

To be regarded internationally, a university must guarantee lecturers and students mobility, according to both tradition and today's thinking. A complete university has a scientific infrastructure (libraries, presses, journals and other media); a student infrastructure (residences, scholarship funds); and an extracurricular infrastructure (sports, the arts, media).

A limited university is a public establishment, normally serving a specific public purpose. In these circumstances, the university can lose its library, residences, student media, property, information systems, and extracurricular programmes. The title of professor is linked to the post by labour laws. The status of the students is regulated by special acts. The university is prevented from fulfilling the whole range of needs of its academic community.

A university with a transparent relationship with the state is clearly organised and financed. It has mutually defined boundaries with the state. The opposite is to have unclear relations with the state in terms of financing, legality and organisation. The university structures are badly defined. Research, personnel and financial planning are carried out by state institutions and the flow of information is one way.

The modern European university is returning to its original values. The following characteristics are found: autonomy, integrity, openness, universality, property, internationally comparable structures. This contrasts with a publicly established university, which is locally and politically dependent, without ownership rights, specialised, unclear in structure, non-integrated and partial in scope.

Where does Slovenia stand and what ought to be done? The laws defining the system must be adjusted; faculty should be given the legal status of free creative agents. The legal status of the universities and their students should be brought into line with Europe.

Universities should be guaranteed their own budget and oversight of their sources and uses of funds. Registration procedures must be speeded up and the stability of work and decent salaries assured by short- and long-term contracts between the university and the state.

They should also have restored their libraries, halls of residence, student social welfare institutions and other components of the university. They should be assured of financing and information about all activities linked to the university, from enrolment to salaries.

Slovenia should enact other measures in accordance with recommendations from special task groups of the Council of Europe, especially on quality assurance.

In particular a special joint committee should be established to oversee the formation of links between the university and the state (along the lines of the committee already established between the state and religious bodies). The committee should be capable of solving questions on all relations between state and university in Slovenia.

The way state administration is organised should be simplified by creating one responsible unit. Such a university would be comparable at a European level and would enable open communication between intellectuals, the transfer and use of knowledge and innovation, student and faculty mobility, and quality of life affecting the cultural and material wellbeing of Slovenia.

Ludvik Toplak is rector ofthe University of Maribor, Slovenia.

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