Waiting for the Czech

July 14, 1995

A group of academics stands in line, like a Communist bread queue, to collect a monthly salary amounting to Pounds 100-Pounds 200. The money must be collected in cash on a particular day of the month, after which it is returned to the bank and locked up for another 30 days. Those who are sick or on holiday on this particular day must wait a month for their money, unless they can arrange for a proxy to collect it on their behalf. The proxy requires a signed letter stamped with the departmental seal, and the seal must be initialled by the head of department.

This is the situation in the faculty of philosophy at the Charles University, Prague. It is regarded as the most prestigious university in the Czech Republic and is certainly one of the oldest in central Europe, being founded by the Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century.

It is an image which will not be new to readers of The Thes who are already acquainted with some of the problems of higher education in the former eastern Europe. I suspect that a number of readers may, slightly complacently, sigh with relief "things may be bad in Britain, but they could be a lot worse".

Images such as these, of queues for cash under a primitive banking system, certainly do appear anachronistic. But those who see a large gulf between the situation in East and West should beware. In many other respects conditions in eastern Europe provide a sinister hint of what may yet happen in the West.

In the university virtually no one is full-time. They simply cannot afford to be - staff and students alike. This is openly acknowledged. When the timetable is prepared staff are consulted about their other work commitments. Students choose those options which do not clash with their other jobs - jobs which often run to 20 hours or more per week.

Naturally my own department (English and American studies) lends itself to this. Many students and staff work as translators (of legal and financial documents for firms, of pulp fiction for burgeoning firms like Harlequin, the local equivalent of Mills and Boon, or of popular Western television series and films for new private television channels).

Others exploit the tourist market, sometimes working as guides and sometimes selling knick-knacks or working in shops. The consequence is that university teaching and studying at university are essentially part-time activities. The degree course may be a five-year one, but the amount of time devoted to it is probably the equivalent of a three-year course in the United Kingdom.

Naturally this system is not without its supporters. People talk about the advantage of work experience (emphasising the translating rather than the knick-knack selling), and in a city where unemployment is virtually nil there is little difficulty in acquiring extra jobs. These jobs are not, on the whole, well paid (with the exception of the job of interpreter, which requires a very high standard of English indeed), but enough is earned to make ends meet, and no one spends his or her whole time in an ivory tower.

The down side is that no one has time enough to concentrate on their work for very long, and for many people it is clear that the university is the "hobby" or "extra job" which supplements their main employment elsewhere.

The second significant aspect of conditions in Prague is rather more subjective. It concerns the nature of the teaching. In the department of English and American studies, the average student has about 20 contact hours a week, a figure which in the West would be regarded as very high. What with this and the almost universal take-up of second jobs, there is clearly very little time for private study.

With due respect to the many students who do miraculously find the time, for instance, to read Joyce's Ulysses and a great deal of secondary literature on it, the majority of students do not do much more on their own than write essays.

The system of annual or even termly tests in each subject, heavy emphasis on instruction and absence of time for private study, is more that of a solidly reputable grammar school than a university. It is determined to instil knowledge the Gradgrind way, but less than willing to recognise the value of sending students off to explore, with help and supervision, particular subjects in depth.

The greatest differences to the West might be expected to be found in the facilities - as with the monthly queues for cash. Indeed, facilities for staff and student alike here are in many ways more "primitive". Halls of residence accommodate students in twos or even threes; no student has his or her own room, and those whose parents live within a large radius of Prague are required to live at home.

The faculty has a small stand-up buffet, there are no common rooms, cheap stationery, travel or other "union" facilities (a "union" in Prague is commonly conceived of as a Communist plot). Welfare services are also minimal. Teaching materials are in short supply, and services such as photocopying have to be paid for by staff and students alike.

It would be wrong, of course, to hold up eastern Europe as a nightmare scenario which the West approaches at its peril. There are many advantages to teaching here which make it attractive in spite of the disadvantages, above all the keenness to learn shown by students who before 1989 had very little encouragement to study English and a great deal of encouragement not to.

Indeed in some ways it is the bad practices of the West that are in danger of being imitated by the East, rather than vice versa. For instance, the introduction of tuition fees here from this autumn will increasingly make university education an experience for the children of better-off parents, a problem that in the United Kingdom is much more firmly entrenched in the system.

Yet it is noticeable how the universities here, which were poorly paid and resourced by a Communist system which saw them as dangerous, remain just as poorly paid and resourced under a form of capitalism which naively disregards the economic benefits of a well-resourced higher education system.

They process cheaply and efficiently a large number of students through a clearly programmed "five-year plan" of study that includes plenty of subsidiary work experience enabling everyone to make ends meet. Such a system ensures, its supporters say, that students remain well integrated with the rest of society and are not seen as a privileged elite free to lounge about dreaming of revolution (although the Prague students, it could be said, were well enough integrated with society to carry out a revolution!).

In the West, as governments of all political complexions labour to find ways of bringing more people into higher education (without, of course, committing more resources), full-time study with the facilities necessary for individual research will be increasingly replaced by part-time study with the facilities necessary for basic training.

Discussion about quality will be ignored; the issue will be quantity ("more people in higher education than ever before," etc.). But it is ludicrous to consider how many should go to university until it is clearly established what a university is and what purpose it should serve in society. It is something we often discuss in the monthly queue to collect our envelopes of cash in Prague. Is it still discussed in the UK?

Mark Corner has taught in the Charles University since 1992. He was at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1978 to 1989.

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