Slovakia strives to bring in the new

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.

Slovakia has passed proposals to make universities, rather than the state, the employer and to introduce rules to grant tenure only after three consecutive - and competitively tested - five-year appointments.

Ferdinand Devinsky, vice-president of the Slovak rectors' conference, said that the bill was only the first step towards reform but that it would allow Slovakia to move ahead with the Bologna Process as European Union membership loomed.

And while there is money to help fill the £25 million to £50 million deficit in university budgets for buildings and equipment, there is none for future development.

Slovak reforms of 11 years ago, designed to break the iron grip of Communist-era centralisation on academic freedom, pose a stumbling block to modernising universities in a country only just emerging from the cronyism of premier Vladimir Merciar.

The higher education law of 1990 freed faculties from direct university control, making them independent entities with the power to hire and fire and to control courses.

The 23 university institutions in Slovakia became individual confederations, with rectors and senates responsible for buildings, management, finances and relations with officials.

Professor Devinsky said it was the right solution at the time but that it had left universities with virtually no freedom to grow and to develop as institutional wholes. It had also fractured lines of responsibility between management and faculties, he added.

Professor Devinksy, rector of Comenius University in Bratislava and a former vice-rector for finance and development, said that ending the legal independence of faculties was essential for further reform at a time when the Bologna Process was being embraced.

Professor Devinsky, a graduate of university management courses at Oxford and Warwick universities, said: "It is quite a good law allowing for universities to be non-state, non-profit public organisations with greater ability to raise income from diverse sources, including property, which is currently entirely state owned, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of management reform."

He added that economic independence had encouraged enterprise in faculties. But he said that proposals to endorse the "guaranteed rights" - for example in recruitment and academic matters - without demanding financial responsibility in return could cause trouble in universities where management-faculty relations were poor or where rectors had no experience of delegation.

Education unions and deans of faculties are not happy with the bill, despite the fact that they played a part in drafting it and were integral to the year-long consultations that produced the 90-page bill.

Rectors such as Professor Devinsky see the new bill as a temporary fix. "It's a detailed act that probably solves the problems we have now, but allows no room for the development of universities," he said.

There are no provisions allowing for the introduction of non-accredited courses, which could stymie innovative areas such as e-business studies or new areas of science while waiting for ministerial investigation and approval.

There are provisions that grant external institutions the right to run PhD courses but that require the universities to issue the diplomas - with no control over content or quality.

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