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Schools in cash crisis

Slovak university rectors say their schools and student dormitories will be forced to close before Christmas while teachers will stop receiving salaries by the end of the year if the Finance Ministry doesn't release blocked funds for the university sector.
"I accuse the current government of committing a crime against the universities, and thus against the future of our nation," said Juraj Stern, rector of Bratislava's Economic University. "We will not be able to pay our invoices, scholarships to post-graduate students or even the full salaries of our teachers."

Slovak university rectors say their schools and student dormitories will be forced to close before Christmas while teachers will stop receiving salaries by the end of the year if the Finance Ministry doesn't release blocked funds for the university sector.

"I accuse the current government of committing a crime against the universities, and thus against the future of our nation," said Juraj Stern, rector of Bratislava's Economic University. "We will not be able to pay our invoices, scholarships to post-graduate students or even the full salaries of our teachers."

The Finance Ministry has blocked 300 million Sk ($8.7 million) during 1998 from the 6 billion Sk ($167 million) the already indebted universities were supposed to get from the state budget. The cutbacks are cumulative, in that 2% has been withheld from the schools' budget each quarter.

Stung by criticism from university administrators, Finance Ministry officials protested that they were not responsible for how the cutbacks were applied. "Nobody at the Finance Ministry talked about freezing 8% of the universities budget - that's the responsibility of the Education Ministry," explained Finance Ministry Press Spokesman Jozef Mach. "It was up to the Education Ministry to decide whether the regulation of costs would touch universities as well and to what extent."

The Education Ministry, on the other hand, pointed to a government document approved on October 19, 1997, which reads that "any prospective restrictions of the budget in the education system won't touch universities."

The problem is that the Education Ministry no longer looks after primary and secondary schools, which have come under the jurisdiction of regional offices. In fact, 85% of the Ministry's annual budget now goes to universities, so any cuts in funding de facto affect higher education.

How it hurts

The restrictions have touched almost all Slovak universities. Ferdinand Devinský, rector of Comenius University in Bratislava, explained that due to the cutbacks, Comenius had already lost 90 million Sk ($2.5 million) in 1998. By October 1, he said, Comenius' account contained 50 million Sk ($1.4 million), but the university needs 90 million Sk ($2.5 million) monthly for basic operations. "The rest, 40 million Sk ($1.1 million), will most likely come from the teachers' pockets," said Devínsky. Comenius is attended by 20% of all Slovak university students.

Miloš Somora, rector of Technical University in Košice (TUK), supported Devínsky's claims with concrete figures of his own. "TUK's annual budget is 400 million Sk ($11.1 million)," he said. "[The state] has not paid four million Sk from the previous year, which, together with the blocked 32 million Sk ($0.8 million) from this year, represents our budget for an entire month, and that's something you can't overlook."

In a fall 1997 speech, Premier Vladimír Mečiar said his government's goal was to put Slovakia "among the top five world countries in the number of university educated people by the year 2010." New schools were duly opened, lifting the number of Slovak universities from 14 in 1996 to 18 in 1997.

However, the new universities meant that there were less budget funds togo around. "Due to the new universities, we were given only 48% of the capital we received the previous year [1997 - 6.3 million Sk ($175,000), 1998 - 3.0 million Sk ($83,300)], although our real need is 50 million Sk, " said Stern, adding that his school was short 41 million Sk ($ 1.14 million) that it needed for basic operations.

The Education Ministry has finally begun to react to the pressure from its university administrators and the Slovak media. "Last week [Sept. 28-Oct.4] we sent a request to the Finance Ministry to cancel the 8% freeze," said Viktor Bonislavský, director of the finance department at the Education Ministry, adding that if the Finance Ministry met the request for funds, the situation would stabilise. "They have 30 days to answer the request, but I'm convinced they'll give us an answer before then," said Bonislavský.

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