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Comenius Rector Devínsky: Students are "the cream"

The Slovak University system is in serious trouble. Just ask Ferdinand Devínsky, the rector of Slovakia's largest and most prestigious institution of higher education, Comenius University. Even though it is the best-funded and most competitive school in Slovakia, the university still does not have the ability to buy modern computer equipment and supplies. The school's real budget is now at 1/3 the level it was at in 1991, the rector said.
Increasingly, people from international human resources firms are saying that a degree from a Slovak University carries little real weight due to deep problems in the sector. But Devínsky countered that claim, saying that the school remained highly selective and that of the nearly half-million people currently unemployed in Slovakia, only about 1,500 people with higher education degrees are among them. Students from Comenius, he added, also have the opportunity to study at universities around the world. The Slovak Spectator interviewed Devínsky May 5 to ask him about these and other issues.


Comenius University rector Devinśky wants more money.
photo: Courtesy of Comenius University

The Slovak University system is in serious trouble. Just ask Ferdinand Devínsky, the rector of Slovakia's largest and most prestigious institution of higher education, Comenius University. Even though it is the best-funded and most competitive school in Slovakia, the university still does not have the ability to buy modern computer equipment and supplies. The school's real budget is now at 1/3 the level it was at in 1991, the rector said.

Increasingly, people from international human resources firms are saying that a degree from a Slovak University carries little real weight due to deep problems in the sector. But Devínsky countered that claim, saying that the school remained highly selective and that of the nearly half-million people currently unemployed in Slovakia, only about 1,500 people with higher education degrees are among them. Students from Comenius, he added, also have the opportunity to study at universities around the world. The Slovak Spectator interviewed Devínsky May 5 to ask him about these and other issues.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How would you classify Comenius University? Are you more of an institution for academics, or are you more of a pre-professional oriented university?

Ferdinand Devínsky (FD): Comenius University is the oldest, largest and most important university of humanities in Slovakia. In fact, we are the only one which is fully developed in the field of humanities. The mission of the University is to give the students a broad universal knowledge in all the fields the university has approved. This mission requires a very good research background, so Comenius University is a research university. It is not a university like you can find in Germany, where they have something like a "Fachhochschule", which is polytechnic. We are not strictly focused or oriented on certain topics.


TSS: In terms of funding, how adequate are your financial resources to properly accommodate students with suitable equipment such as books, computers and Internet access?

FD: Have you ever heard of one single university in the whole world who would say, 'OK, we have enough?' I can't ever recall even the richest private universities in the US saying that they don't need any more. So, it's a common problem.

But I must say that, unfortunately, in this country because of the economic situation since 1992, the real budget of the university has declined, even if optically you think it is rising. When you consider all factors, including inflation and so on, the real budget is 1/3 of what it was in 1991. So we definitely wish there would be more funding.

It is very bad concerning equipment. Even though the situation is as it is, we recognise the high importance of information technology introduction, and the Senate last year approved a project for the introduction of information technologies; we call it the Integrated Information and Communication System. So we've gotten something since 1991, but we now have to renew it and upgrade it.


TSS: Do you receive any support from independent companies?

FD: Not as much as we'd wish. Probably you know the great hall of the university "Aula" , which was built in 1932. We launched a public fund to help save the Aula and the cost for saving it, which hasn't been reconstructed since '32, was something around 20 million crowns and public funds of only one million Slovak crowns were raised. We have asked the big companies, like Slovnaft and Volkswagen, but they are not prepared to help us. It is not a common habit here in Slovakia, it is not like in the US.


TSS: Have you ever considered tuition implementation?

FD: Yes, definitely. But it is a political decision because the constitution states that higher education must be free as long as the state can provide it. So, parliament would have to say, 'now we are introducing tuition fees'. Of course, we know that tuition cannot save the situation.

Even in American university systems, the tuition fees do not cover more than 25% to 30% of the expenses and the tuition is very high. And we cannot introduce tuition because of the economic situation here in Slovakia. It is a very difficult political decision but we are very quickly approaching this step because one day, I am sure, the government will be forced to say 'OK, now we do not have enough money to support the higher educational system so that it can be free.' I am not sure about introducing [tuition] - we are not very happy about it.

TSS: Some human resources firms have said that a degree is not as important as the knowledge of English and real experience. Do you agree?

FD: I participated in a meeting of a student organisation which organised a meeting with people from the industry, such as representatives from Slovnaft and Volkswagen. I asked them what they were looking for, and they said they were looking for employees with degrees. It doesn't matter which university, because the companies have their own tests and they test you. They have an introductory period of maybe three or six months to tailor the graduates to serve their proposes. They are also looking for someone with knowledge of some language, because if you are in an international company you have to communicate, mostly in German, but also in English, of course.

TSS: Have you noticed a trend of young graduates to prefer international instead of domestic market places? Are graduates staying in Slovakia or are they leaving to go abroad for further studies or jobs?

FD: It depends, but we have noticed such a movement. Fortunately, we are able to send many students to study abroad. Unfortunately, not all of them are coming back. They are very bright students; they can find their place in a very competitive environment, in the US for example. I have had personal experiences with such people - we send them to visit Cornell University (in Ithaca, New York) because we have good relations with Cornell, and the students who went there got some of the best marks and the best results in the history of this university. So, those are the people which never come back to help us here.

I must say that there is a danger upon being integrated into the European Market that these people will have even more possibilities, because the work force market will be open for everybody.

This is related also to one of your former questions. What is better, to tailor people immediately for an enterprise such as the automotive industry or to prepare people to be universal? Because it is clear that after graduation you will spend your whole life doing different things. In fact just yesterday I was speaking to a young lady, a journalist, who's [educational] background and training was in agriculture. It is known that during your life you will change jobs three or four times, so in the long run I would say that the university should prepare you to be able to change your mind because you will transform during your entire life.

If I prepare you to be an expert for drilling holes in a tank, like in Martin and Dubnice, [you become] specialised to the point that while an expert in, for example, working with triangles, you can't work with rectangles. Therefore such people can't transform, and then you have 6,000 unemployed because it is very difficult to retrain these people.


TSS: How effective, well-prepared and successful are Comenius graduates in the work place?

FD: We do not have specific statistics, but we do have statistics from the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family. Out of the total 470,000 to 500,000 unemployed in Slovakia, only about 1,500 people with higher education degrees are unemployed. In terms of long-term unemployment- and these are people who just don't want to work and never will work- there are virtually no unemployed with university degrees.

So, our graduates, from any faculty, are very successful. Each year we have 26,000 applications and from these applicants around 20,000 appear for entrance exams, all wanting to study here. Maybe 3,000 or 4,000 [of the 20,000] are not suitable to study here, but the other 16,000 to 17,000, I would say, could enter the university more or less on equal terms. But of these 15,000 or 16,000, we take just 4,000. So we are taking the cream.

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