Anyone who has taught at a university in Slovakia need not be told that the higher education system is in crisis. Textbooks simply don't exist, unless one counts the disintegrating Communist-era tomes in short supply in underfunded libraries. Photocopies are considered a luxury, chalk is as precious as gold, and in the winter students come to school bundled up, as much against the outer frost as against the clammy cold of the nations' classrooms.
The Education Ministry issued a report in early May describing the calamity fairly and accurately, and outlining proposals to correct the graver ills. Two of these deserve close attention.
Perhaps the most important innovation is to put universities on a credit footing, meaning that students will be given electives and can pick and choose among the various disciplines on offer. Apart from making it possible from students to transfer from one university to another and not repeat semesters or entire years, it will introduce an important element of choice to how the system works.
Until now, students have been told by their faculties which courses they must take, and which professors they must study with. Some of the courses required to complete a degree have naturally been a joke - post-graduate students at Comenius University's Institute for International Relations, for example, have been required to take a diplomatic protocol course, involving such pearls of wisdom as what cutlery to use for which dishes and how to behave at diplomatic bun-fests (ie. don't spill red wine on the ambassador's new carpet). Were they able to choose which courses gave them the best chance to succeed in the foreign service, many might opt for another language course instead.
If the credit system takes hold, it will obviously put many aging and incompetent teachers out of work, as well as force university managers to rethink how well the courses on offer are serving the nation's best and brightest. It's for this very reason that, over 10 years since 1989, universities haven't had the courage to make the switch - few young PhD candidates are choosing to enter the ranks as professors, meaning that the country's aging academics have been able to block changes to a system that suits them well.
The credit system, in essence, is an important step towards putting universities on a more competitive footing - students become consumers rather than drudges, and begin to look at the education they are receiving more critically. In this new consumer relationship, it is vital that students begin paying fees for the service they receive - the other most noteworthy pillar of the ministry's new plan.
It is interesting to note, however, that in the 35 page ministry document, the amount of fees students might be expected to pay - and when - is not specified. Indeed, little mention is made of the fees question beyond the fact that some form of student contributions must be introduced.
This is a grave mistake, and one likely due to the fact that Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik hails from the former communist Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), which is against asking fees for regular university education.
Ftáčnik's position is that bachelor and masters degree students should be schooled for free, while part-time and PhD students should pay. But since the first group is the focus of the credit programme, putting these students in the position of consumers who get an expensive service for free makes little sense.
The ministry's plan is just one more example of paternalist thinking that doesn't work in a modern economy, and for which the SDĽ continues to make its name. If students don't pay for their education, they will remain the apathetic bunch they have been for a decade. They won't demand value for their money, and the greatest force for real change in the higher education sector will be blunted for another generation. One wonders if this is the ministry's hidden intent - to promote cosmetic change while containing a real threat to the jobs of education sector fossils who have been drifting around university halls for untold decades.
As we went to print, the government was to discuss education policy on May 26. There are many ways that the SDĽ's concern that poor students not be cut out of university education by high fees could be addressed - for example by setting aside 25% of each student's fees for a bursary fund that would assist lower-income students - but it's more than likely that politics once again will derail substantial reform of the crumbling school system.