These university students are among the one-quarter of annual applicants who are accepted to study.
With no jobs available in her town or region, Gondžárová has spent the last 12 months living with her parents and receiving 1,700 Slovak crowns ($35) per month in unemployment benefits. "I was sad, angry and disappointed, but I didn't want to give up," she recalls of her first university rejection.
She says she wants to try again next year, and the next, "until I'm finally there. I know many people who have given up, and although they have the talent, they won't try again. It's too bad that universities can't accept more students."
Every year, thousands of university applicants in Slovakia suffer the same fate as Gondžárová. This year, the largest university in the country, Comenius in Bratislava, received about 20,000 entrance applications, but had the capacity to take only 4,500 students, 22.5% of applicants. The national average is 27.5%, while the mean across Europe is 35%. The Education Ministry has labelled those turned away as "wasted talent".
Even though universities will get seven billion crowns from the state budget next year as opposed to 6.2 billion this year, many schools say that limited numbers of teachers, space and educational equipment means they simply cannot afford to accept more students. They say they lack the money to attract the former, and to buy and provide the latter. Some colleges are now calling for fees to be introduced for students, arguing the extra income raised will allow Slovakia to take in more university students and stop wasting so much of its human potential.
But Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik insists this is not an option. "[By introducing fees] we'd limit access to higher education for a large group of [lower income] applicants, and that I will simply not allow to happen," Ftáčnik told The Slovak Spectator September 11.
Instead, an amendment to the University Law, to be discussed in parliament in October, projects that Slovak universities can double the amount of money they raise themselves by undertaking a wider range of business activities and, importantly, by winning control of university real estate from the state. The draft amendment, which was prepared by Ftačník's ministry, contains three funding variants for higher education, ranging from a full slate of student fees to continued free education. The ministry supports the last variant, and emphasises the need for schools to raise their own cash.
"[In the law] we offer a multi-source financing model to universities," Ftáčnik said.
Although insisting that "fees wouldn't help universities," Ftáčnik admitted that the potential of many young people was being wasted because of the lack of resources at existing universities. A solution to the problem, he suggested, could be to follow a trend in many western countries: establishing specialised schools of higher education (known in some other countries as technical colleges), offering two- or three-year Bachelor studies programmes instead of the traditional five year Slovak university course.
"These [schools] would be bound much closer to actual regional needs for a special type of education, while they wouldn't be required to produce as much scientific research as traditional universities have to," Ftáčnik said. The minister estimated that around 60% of western European higher education students enrolled in such courses, while only 30% of Slovak students followed similar programmes.
But university chiefs remain convinced that fees are the only realistic solution to their cash problems, and thus to slowing Slovakia's annual stream of rejected university applicants back to its jobless regions. They argue that if fees were introduced, they could use the money to hire more teachers and eliminate their 'innovation debt' - a lack of modern equipment in classrooms, labs and libraries. With more teachers and better facilities, universities could then expand their student bodies.
"The fees wouldn't save universities from [all] financial problems, but they'd allow them to equip their study facilities with missing technology, research tools, textbooks and so on," said Pavel Sura, Comenius' vice-rector.
"Wherever students pay for their education they are more active and try to get the most from their teacher. I'm not a fan of the theory that education is a national treasure and should therefore be provided for free. If only about 25% of the population study at universities, why should all taxpayers pay for it?" he added.
Many students have said they are willing to entertain the idea. Gondžárová said she would be ready to pay the 5,000 to 6,000 crowns per school year the Education Ministry estimated was the maximum that could be reasonably asked of students (the figure represents about 10% of the real costs of each university student's annual education).
"My parents couldn't afford to pay for me, but I'd make the money myself on part-time jobs for example. I do want to study," Gondžárová said.
But for the moment, the Education Ministry is clear on its stance towards fees: none should be introduced.
"It's possible we might consider [fees] in the future, but at the moment the situation does not allow for such a step. People expect the state to create conditions for quality education for free, and we [the government] won't shirk from fulfilling this expectation," said Ftáčnik.
17. Sep 2001 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová