Young graduate school carving out an international niche

Svätý Jur, a sleepy town just west of Bratislava, is better known among Slovaks for its vineyards than its schools of higher learning. However, according to the folks at Akademia Istropolitana, their "alternative, post-graduate school" is putting Svätý Jur on the international educational map.
"We offer a unique product," said Chris Klisz, an American economics professor at Istropolitana who used to teach at the University of Pittsburgh. "No one else has the combination of what we have."
The school's executive director, Katarina Vajdová, explained that Istropolitana strove to provide an alternative to what she deemed as Slovakia's faltering, sub-par university system - a practical graduate-level education in English.

Svätý Jur, a sleepy town just west of Bratislava, is better known among Slovaks for its vineyards than its schools of higher learning. However, according to the folks at Akademia Istropolitana, their "alternative, post-graduate school" is putting Svätý Jur on the international educational map.

"We offer a unique product," said Chris Klisz, an American economics professor at Istropolitana who used to teach at the University of Pittsburgh. "No one else has the combination of what we have."

The school's executive director, Katarina Vajdová, explained that Istropolitana strove to provide an alternative to what she deemed as Slovakia's faltering, sub-par university system - a practical graduate-level education in English.

Vajdová explained that Akademia Istropolitana was formed in Bratislava in 1993 after the foundation of the independent Slovak state. It was named after a Hungarian university which had been founded in the late fifteenth century on what is now Slovak territory.

The school ran into problems, however, because it was formed as a body under the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry, Vajdová said. As a result, when Istropolitana's former president Alena Bruvoková disagreed with the ministry on curricula or funding, she was fired.

Undaunted, Bruvoková left the school and, followed by a majority of her old staff, began things anew in Svätý Jur in 1997. After she died suddenly in 1998 of cancer, her dream of offering an alternative to the Slovak public university system was handed to Vajdová.

"Education projects [funded by the state] were just eating money with no results," remembered Vajdová, who used to teach journalism at state-funded Comenius University in the early 1990's. "It soon became clear that supporting the state was not a way of initiating educational reform. This is how alternative education began."

Today, the Sväty Júr Istropolitana offers four post-graduate programmes for students who already have an undergraduate degree. Three of them - Architectural Conservation Studies, European Studies, and Journalism - are one year programmes, while the fourth - Applied Economics - requires two years. The school's attendance this year in the four programmes stands at 105, with approximately 40% of students hailing from Slovakia. Istropolitana also has students hailing from 11 different countries including Kazahkstan, Georgia, Albania, Norway, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Besides the post-graduate programmes, which are taught only in English, the school also offers a 'distance education' (home study) course in Energy and Environment which can be completed over four months by anyone in the world via the Internet. According to course director Radoslav Vician, the programme is sponsored by PHARE (an EU support fund for eastern Europe) and will receive PHARE accreditation "by September or October."

Despite the Internet course's pending PHARE accreditation, however, none of the four post-graduate programmes are accredited by the Slovak government. That fact, combined with an expensive yearly tuition ranging from $5,000 to $8,000 (220,000 to 330,000 Slovak crowns), has likely served to keep Istropolitana from becoming a more popular scholastic destination in Slovakia. But according to Vajdová, it shouldn't.

"Accreditation really doesn't matter to me," she said, explaining that the main problem was that many of her teachers were foreigners who taught only for a term or two, which is not considered full-time under state accreditation rules.

In terms of tuition, Vajdová noted that only students from the West actually paid fees. The majority of the students, she explained, received "tuition waivers" made possible by the "significant grants" given the school by four separate organisations: the Higher Education Support Program, the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the Austrian Chancellor. Vajdová also noted smaller grants offered by the British Council, PHARE, the Know-How-Fund and SAIA, the Slovak NGO umbrella organization.

Economics professor Klisz agreed with Vajdová that the school offered an alternative to the underfunded, low-morale public system, although he said that the school has a long way to go before it is a well-known and well-respected institution of higher education.

"Right now, we're building a library, finding programmes that interest students... we're trying to find our niche," he said. "It's a dynamic process - the transition is more a process than it is an event. I'd say it'll be five years or so before we're really established."

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