Impoverished Comenius University in Bratislava has received generous funding from foreign education programmes.
photo: Ján Svrček
And yet, as richer western schools embrace the computer age with well-funded programmes and highly-trained staffs, Slovak students are somehow managing to keep up with their foreign peers. Despite a desperate shortage of funds and technology, Slovak universities are still winning awards.
Research performed by the World Economic Forum in July, 1999 found that the management skills of Slovak business students were the second best of 59 countries tested. Slovak university students also consistently place in top 10 rankings charts compiled for European countries, and excel in mathematics and physics.
According to education experts, it is foreign educational programmes that are giving students the learning experiences that Slovak universities cannot. Foreign funds are buying expensive classroom equipment and paying for study trips abroad, while foreign lecturers are challenging existing teaching methods.
Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, western countries have been active in the central European region helping socialist era universities make the transition to the modern age. In Slovakia, the most important educational programmes have been funded by the European Union's PHARE programme for non-EU countries, and go by names such as Tempus, Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci and Youth for Europe.
Viera Farkašová, head of the Socrates and Tempus agencies, explained that these programmes have played a very important role in the transformation of the education system in Slovakia. "We assist in those educational areas where Slovakia lacks the financial means or know-how," she said.
The Tempus programme, the wealthiest foreign educational venture in the country, focuses particularly on higher education; since 1990, it has pumped 40.3 million euros (1.7 billion crowns) into Slovakia, mostly towards buying classroom equipment and funding trips for students and professors to visit foreign universities. According to Farkašová, over 2,000 Slovak university students have been sent to study abroad by Tempus since 1990.
For Education Minister Milan Ftáčník, projects like Tempus address one of the most serious deficiencies in Slovak education - teaching equipment. "Our worst problem, in comparison with other countries, is classroom equipment," Ftáčník told The Slovak Spectator. "We just don't have enough money for it."
Marián Veselý, vice-rector at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, agreed that PHARE was helping the country bridge important gaps in its education system. "Tempus has helped us buy equipment for our university, and has increased the number of study abroad trips our students take," Veselý said. He added that interaction with the western educational system was the key to the successful transformation of Slovak universities. "These programmes serve as a tool for this interaction," said Veselý.
And yet, while the foreign funding gives Slovak students many chances they would not otherwise have, some university officials believe that well-educated graduates are being lost to the private sector and better-paying professions. More should be done, they say, to attract bright young minds to university teaching posts.
Richard Repka, head of the English Language and Literature Department at the Education Faculty of Comenius University, says that PHARE programmes raise the quality of education at his school. "They support intensive work at departments, and encourage both students and teachers in their scientific work," he said.
Repka's department, however, is having a tough time finding new, young people willing to teach at the Education Faculty. "A big gap has opened up," he said. "We have a lot of old, experienced teachers who are on the verge of retirement, but no one is following behind them."
Given the scarcity of new teaching talent, Repka said, the quality of language teachers has fallen rapidly. "Almost 50% of English language teachers in Slovakia are not qualified," said Repka, one of the first Slovak co-ordinators of the PHARE programme. "However, if only two or three out of the thirty students who graduate [from the Faculty of Education] each year end up teaching, what do you expect?"
Ftáčník played down the seriousness of the teaching standards problem. "We want to maintain our educational standards, especially at the faculties of education," he said. "Not all the graduates of these faculties work as teachers, but that's a common trend also in the countries of the European Union."
Despite Ftáčník's assurances, however, several foreign educational programmes are working to bring fresh blood - and ideas - to aging Slovak university staffs.
David Reichardt, an American visiting lecturer who has taught for two years in the Political Science department at Comenius University, believes that the key to saving the Slovak educational system is to bring up a new generation of teachers.
"This department is a new one and it has a young staff, so the way of teaching here is comparable with that in the US," Reichardt said. According to him, the Slovak education system still tends to cast professors in dominant classroom roles, while in US universities education has become a more interactive process, with a combination of lectures and seminars. This US influence, he said, has begun to make itself felt in the Political Science department.
"We put great stress on critical thinking skills, meaning the ability to analyse problems," Reichardt said. "It's a question of trying to get out of the old frame of thinking, something which takes a little bit of initiative to overcome the fear, but finally, when you get over the hump, you come to the conclusion that what you were afraid of was not so bad after all."
Reichardt works for the Civic Education Project (CEP), one of the many international organisations founded after 1989 to help reform the education system in central and eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Rather than simply send money to needy universities and institutions of higher learning, CEP elected to send young western academics instead.
Each CEP visiting lecturer usually stays with a university for two years, and during that period looks for a suitable local candidate to replace him when he leaves. "In this way, CEP is helping to reform the education system," Reichardt explained. "I think it works quite well at this faculty and at the two other universities in Slovakia where CEP has its visiting lecturers."
Reichardt said that some universities in Slovakia were reluctant to have CEP lecturers teaching at their departments both because there was a cost to the university and because some teachers are reluctant to change their old teaching methods. "We can see a bit of pride (causing reluctance) at some faculties... (But) according to the experiences we have from other countries, it's worth investing not only into co-operation with CEP but also with other programmes like Tempus and PHARE, which CEP strongly supports."
4. Oct 1999 at 0:00 | Peter Barecz