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Troubles of Slovak universities pile up

Budgetary and acceditation problems are mounting in the nation's beleaguered education system - and Slovak university students will likely suffer as a result.
On November 8, Ferdinand Devinsky, the President of Comenius University in Bratislava, announced that all faculties at the nation's largest university would be shut down by December 10, a full two weeks before usual, if the school does not receive more money from the state. Comenius finished 1998 at 21.6 million Slovak crowns ($520,000) in debt.
The problem, Devinsky explained in an article in the daily paper Sme, was that 4% of the money allocated by the state budget to universities had been frozen by the government to create reserves against the unexpected.


Comenius University in Bratislava threatens to shut early.
photo:Ján Svrček

Budgetary and acceditation problems are mounting in the nation's beleaguered education system - and Slovak university students will likely suffer as a result.

On November 8, Ferdinand Devinsky, the President of Comenius University in Bratislava, announced that all faculties at the nation's largest university would be shut down by December 10, a full two weeks before usual, if the school does not receive more money from the state. Comenius finished 1998 at 21.6 million Slovak crowns ($520,000) in debt.

The problem, Devinsky explained in an article in the daily paper Sme, was that 4% of the money allocated by the state budget to universities had been frozen by the government to create reserves against the unexpected.

The freeze, Devinsky said, meant that Comenius could not touch 37.6 million Slovak crowns that it was supposed to receive this year. To make matters worse, he said, economic austerity packages passed by the cabinet over the past year had raised expenses in areas like rent, electricity and heat by 15.2 million crowns.

"We'll see if next year's budget will be favourable to us," Devinsky said. "If not, we'll have to try to save money from the beginning of the year. To do this, we will not heat Comenius buildings, which will influence the exam period in January and February."

Devinsky said that if Comenius took such a decision, students would have to decide whether to attend classes in unheated buildings, and predicted that many may opt to study in the summer instead. If that happens, and the school is forced to temporarily shut down, more money would be lost because university employees would be at home while still receiving pay checks.

"The problem is that [Prime Minister Mikuláš] Dzurinda, [Education Minister Milan] Ftáčnik and [Finance Minister Brigita] Schmögnerová agreed on September 28 that they would discuss the critical situation in the universities and come to a resolution by October 15," Devinsky said. "But this has not yet happened."

Ftáčnik said that he has already proposed that the government cancel the 4% frozen fund policy, but that parliament had put the issue off for later debate three times. When contacted by The Slovak Spectator, Ftáčnik's spokeswoman Magdaléna Sedláčková said that a final resolution would be reached in parliament by November 15.

Meanwhile, accreditation problems continue to hound three universities (in Banská Bystrica, Trenčín and Trnava) founded in 1997 by the former government of Vladimír Mečiar. At the time that the schools were founded, opposition politicians and academics at existing universities said that the Mečiar government was simply trying to buy votes in the centre and west of the country, and that the new schools had no academic merit.

Now, the Accreditation Committee (CA), which is under the Education Ministry, has refused to grant accreditation to 11 faculties at the three schools, sparking accusations that the current government is seeking to revenge itself on the Mečiar-founded schools.

But Lev Bukovský, a professor at the University of Natural Sciences in Košice and deputy director of the Accreditation Committee, said that poor academic quality, not revenge, had been the CA's guiding principle.

"The CA doesn't care that the universities were founded by Mečiar," Bukovský said. "The CA only cares that they are of poor quality."

An Education Ministry audit showed that the Mečiar-founded universities had received more state funding then other established Slovak universities, Bukovský said, but despite the largesse, the schools were still staffed by poor teachers and offered an inferior level of education.

Education Minister Ftáčnik has asked the CA to re-evaluate the universities, but Bukovský said that students currently studying at the three Mečiar-founded universities had only two options - to drop out and then attempt to gain admission at an accredited university, or complete their studies without receiving an academic degree recognised by the state.

"Students will simply have to move to other accredited universites," Bukovský said, adding that doing so might prove a nightmare for the hapless students. "Those accredited universities are full right now, and these students should be forced to repeat entrance exams. But these universities may create very difficult entrance conditions which would make it almost impossible for the students to gain entrance."

Students attempting to gain entrance to a state-accredited university, Bukovský said, require an extra "two to three years of additional study."

Bukovský said that the students who now found themselves in this unenviable situation should not blame the government. "Students at these schools who have been studying for three or four years should ask themselves why they didn't check before enrolling if the university was, in fact, accredited."

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