Comenius wants cash to stay on top

BRATISLAVA'S Comenius University is the oldest and biggest university in Slovakia, and the highest-rated according to the Webometrics ranking of European universities, coming in 227th on the top 500 list.
But in spite of its prestige in Slovakia, Comenius University faces exactly the same problems as any other Slovak school.

BRATISLAVA'S Comenius University is the oldest and biggest university in Slovakia, and the highest-rated according to the Webometrics ranking of European universities, coming in 227th on the top 500 list.

But in spite of its prestige in Slovakia, Comenius University faces exactly the same problems as any other Slovak school.

"Slovakia's unfavourable ranking in the amount of financial resources allocated [to the educational system] can be compared to the Slovak national football team's situation in FIFA," František Gahér, rector of the Comenius University, told The Slovak Spectator.

Government promises are never really transferred into the budget figures, Gahér said, so the Slovak educational system stays underfinanced in the long run, especially compared to the member states of the European Union or the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Nevertheless, there are faculties at Comenius University that work hard to achieve the European standard, mostly thanks to funding from non-government sources, according to Gahér. He listed the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics and the Faculty of Natural Sciences as the top quality schools.

"The number of times they are quoted, together with the high level of their scientific publications, ranks them among the most prominent schools on our continent," Gahér told The Slovak Spectator.

The university is also very proud of the unique programmes at the Faculty of Philosophy, and the stable position of the relatively young Faculty of Management (FM UK), he added.

One thing that makes the FM UK stand out is the e-Europe Research and Development Centre (ERDC). The centre works on EU-financed projects related to information society technologies. According to centre director Dušan Šoltés, ERDC is one of the most successful centres that is carrying out this EU development strategy.

The ERDC has managed to do what the EU actually expects from the university research process, he said.

"That means the institutionalisation [of research] and a systematic approach, unlike the common approach that is often based on the individual enthusiasm of single, often isolated researchers," Šoltés told The Slovak Spectator.

The ERDC resembles university research centres in the US, which are research stations specialised in certain projects linked to practice and teaching.

Students also get the chance to contribute to projects. For instance, the Pan-European Survey for iWebCare project completed in all the EU25 countries was to a large extent carried out by Šoltés's undergraduate students. The iWebCare project aims to develop advanced tools to assist public administrators in detecting and preventing fraud.

According to Šoltés, the ERDC contributes to the Lisbon strategy aims of making the EU one of the most advanced information societies in the world, and catching up to the American way of organising research at universities and transferring the results into practice.

"This is one of the weaknesses of research in the entire EU and not only in Slovakia," Šoltés said.

International links

There is a widening gap between the overall quality of the educational system in Europe and at the top educational institutions in the US, Japan and increasingly other Asian ountries, Gahér said.

"Achieving the so-called European university level means - if Europe doesn't make fast, positive changes soon - falling down and down again in terms of the world's top schools," Gahér told The Slovak Spectator.

More troubling is that Slovak universities have a long way to go to catch up with Europe, he said.

On top of that, there are specifically Slovak problems - namely the number of universities, which in Gahér's opinion is too high. The universities are all granted a part of the state's limited financial resources without accounting for their quality in any real and fair way, he said.

Making education more international is one way for Comenius to come closer to the top European schools, Gahér said. He suggested the university should expand its portfolio of study programmes taught entirely in English, in order to become more international. Only the university's medicine faculties, the Faculty of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Management offer English programmes now.

"This could not only open our university to applicants from EU countries, but also bring multi-source financing through the tuition fees paid by other [non-EU] foreign applicants," Gahér said.

With that in mind, the university is focusing on maintaining good international relations. Comenius University has partner institutions in various European countries, as well as the US and Canada. It has more than 200 bilateral agreements, mainly used for student and teacher exchanges, he said.

It also has multilateral projects in the field of Dutch studies and cognitive sciences.

"Recently we have established a Turkish language unit in cooperation with Turkey, and there is a possibility of developing it into a separate department," Gahér said. And there are similar efforts in cooperation with Korea, he said.

Comenius University is also preparing to launch joint degree programmes in cooperation with major European educational institutions, starting with the University of Vienna.

Gahér said his university is doing everything it can to prove it deserves its prominence in Slovakia and improve its European standing.

"In well-equipped science labs, at smoothly working workstations and with well-paid teachers we can put the standards high - and insist on fulfilling them," he said.

Founded: 1919
Faculties: 13
Rector: František Gahér
Webometrics ranking: 1 (Slovakia), 227 (Europe)

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