Education Ministry representatives spent much of a recent academic conference in Bratislava defending a proposal for university reform which, if implemented, would force Slovak university students to pay for their education.
"It's the eleventh hour. We really must hurry with this reform," said Education Ministry State Secretary Martin Fronc at the February 22 Education Reform Conference, organised by the Bratislava-based NGO Central European Institute for Economic and Social Reforms (INEKO).
Educational reform - an 80-page bill which was co-authored by three ministry officials and 22 Slovak university employees - is expected to be submitted to the government within three or four months, Fronc said, and then passed by parliament before the end of the year.
The law's authors said that the existing law, prepared in 1992, must be changed to make Slovak universities less dependent on the state, and to diversify their sources of finances; once the bill was passed, they said, universities would be better able to provide quality education.
But several conference delegates attacked the reform, causing a heated five-hour debate on the law and its three main points: fees, the quality of the Slovak university system, and a proposed Management Council which would control universities' major financial operations.
Education Ministry officials said that fees would be capped at 8,800 Slovak crowns per year ($183), 20% of the annual expenses for a single student. Representatives of Slovakia's 18 public universities were themselves divided over the idea of fees.
"The 1998 programme proclamation of this government says that education is, and will be, free of charge in this country," said Branislav Liška of the Slovak Universities' Council. "But now we're talking about concrete fees as if that proclamation didn't even exist."
"We haven't been consulted on this [fees] issue and we don't want to be connected in any way with the introduction of payments," added František Gahér of Bratislava's Comenius University. "We think it's absolutely unacceptable in the current social and economic situation to require money from students."
Meanwhile, representatives of the Natural Sciences Faculty from Košice's P.J. Šafárik University said they supported the proposed changes, including fees. Comenius University Vice-Rector Ivan Ostrovský also said he supported fees.
But the "acute moral and financial crises being experienced by Slovak universities" could not be solved by fees alone, he continued. Because the universities were struggling financially, just 'getting by' had become more important than achieving real quality in education.
"Quality is suffering," he said, noting that only 1.8% of university funds went towards "pedagogical expenses" like research and printing academic publications, while 80% went towards teacher wages, and 18% towards university maintenance. "The universities are [consequently] not trying to compete amongst each other for academic superiority."
INEKO analyst Miroslav Beblavý agreed, saying that due to the decreasing quality, Slovak university students were attending universities "just to be given the diploma at the end of their studies", rather than striving to attain "real knowledge".
Other education officials said that the law's goal of giving universities more sovereignty was flawed in that the Education Minister would nominate members to the Management Councils. The councils would be composed of only one university representative, with the other members being local municipality officials and direct ministerial nominees.
Several experts at the conference said that such a system would create Management Councils susceptible to political and state interests.
"Besides the one member [from the universities], all other members would be appointed by the minister, who is a political representative," read an official statement of the Comenius University Academic Senate. "The law creates no checks to prevent the possible misuse of state influence through these council members."
Beblavý agreed. "Theoretically, the minister could nominate and name anyone he'd want to be on the councils."
As the objections mounted, Peter Merdely, head of the Education Ministry's Universities section, said the ministry was open to suggestion and asked the academics to submit proposed changes to the ministry.
"But time is quickly running out. If it's not approved in parliament this year, there's little chance of it happening in 2002," he said, predicting that politicians would not be willing to support a controversial law before that year's September national elections.
Added Ivan Mikloš, Deputy Prime Minister for Economy, who spoke in favour of the reform: "This could become a major source of social and political demagoguery, especially because this reform, like many other economic reforms, won't bring results until four or five years down the line, while causing social discontent in the short-term."