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University reform bill to have profs compete

In an effort to increase job competition and thus performance among Slovak academics, a recent proposal was added to the government's draft university reform bill which would reward university teaching excellence by giving both money and increased status to top-rated professors.
The Education Ministry - which has been working on the reform since March 2001 - said the proposed title of funkčný docent (awarded to the best professor in each university department, as judged by school administrators) would motivate educators to 'be the best' in their department. Recipients of the title would hold it for the following five years, over which time they would receive an undetermined salary bonus.


"The [introduction of competition] will only work if all professors and associate professors are at the same time forced to fight to keep their jobs."

Miroslav Beblavý, public sector analyst


In an effort to increase job competition and thus performance among Slovak academics, a recent proposal was added to the government's draft university reform bill which would reward university teaching excellence by giving both money and increased status to top-rated professors.

The Education Ministry - which has been working on the reform since March 2001 - said the proposed title of funkčný docent (awarded to the best professor in each university department, as judged by school administrators) would motivate educators to 'be the best' in their department. Recipients of the title would hold it for the following five years, over which time they would receive an undetermined salary bonus.

"We want to stir the stagnant waters around our academics," said Peter Mederly, head of the ministry's University Education Section, explaining that many Slovak professors or associate professors lost any motivation to improve once having received their professorial titles. "Our goal is to introduce a competitive environment at universities."

But many in the academic community said that the proposal would help little. Noting that life-tenures of professors would not be endangered, and that the 'competition' introduced would be artificial, since it would produce no losers, critics said the reform would produce no real change, and left many crucial questions unanswered.

"This is not key to the overall reform of the university system," said Miroslav Beblavý, a public sector analyst with INEKO, a Bratislava-based economic think tank. "The funkčný docent competition would only work [to improve the quality of teaching at universities] if all professors and associate professors were at the same time forced to fight to keep their jobs. Otherwise, the whole process will only be a formality."

According to Beblavý, the ministry would be better advised to motivate universities to deliver "quality services. This includes eliminating corruption, such as during admission exams or graduation exams [when bribes are reportedly often doled out - ed. note]. These issues are more important for people."

What is more, the ministry has been faulted for niggling over minor changes while major reforms languish, such as the implementation of tuition for university students. While Beblavý says tuition would give universities the increased funding they need to improve educational standards and accept more applicants, he added that "this has become a political question, and the majority of parliamentary parties probably won't risk losing voters" by instituting tuition so close to national elections in September 2002.

Professors split

Academics, meanwhile, were split on the funkčný docent proposal, with most saying they needed more information before they could respond.

"Increasing competition sounds like a good idea, but the ministry hasn't consulted the universities about this [funkčný docent] at all," said Ivan Ostrovský, vice-rector at Bratislava's Comenius University. "From what I've read in the media, it seems that the ministry is working on the law, but unfortunately we aren't directly informed about it."

The Slovak Council of University Students (ŠRVŠ) praised the proposal. The students said that by offering the title as a reward, the "questionable quality" of some Slovak educators would be improved.

"Many professors teach the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago," said Renáta Králiková, head of the ŠRVŠ, which helped create the proposal. "They don't try to keep up with the latest developments in their fields. Once they become professors, they have tenure for life, and end up preventing younger or better teachers from joining the ranks."

Viera Bajová, vice-dean at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Košice, on the other hand, said that "the hard work involved in achieving academic titles is proof enough of the qualities of our professors. These funkčný docent titles won't help anything."

Universities also argued that the proposal failed to address the real issue: wages. In 1999, the average wage of university teachers was 11,250 Slovak crowns ($230), slightly above the overall average Slovak wage; Bajová said that professors made about 5,000 crowns more than regular university teachers, while associate professors received 3,000 Slovak crowns more.

With teaching being the second worst-paid sector in the Slovak economy (after agriculture), the only way to create real job competition was to increase salaries, thus making the profession more attractive to talented professionals, Bajová continued. "We have a tough job getting people to even stay at our universities," she said. "And now they want to make them compete?"

"To make this work, we'd have to let universities become financially autonomous," added Comenius University's Ostrovský. "Otherwise, the universities can't decide what their educational priorities are, who to pay more. The Ministry should not dictate such things. But again, I don't know if the university reform bill intends to introduce this autonomy we seek."

The ministry's Mederly would not comment on the issue of financial autonomy, saying that "the bill is still in the process of improvement, no final decisions have been made".

Before the bill goes to parliament this September, the ministry has pledged to discuss the final draft with academics. It is expected to take effect January 1, 2002.

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