SCHOOLS of higher education say that a recent University Law amendment, which outlaws fees for part-time courses, will force them to close faculties and turn away thousands of students.
University officials agree with the Education Ministry that aspects of the rewritten law are a move forward, particularly those giving financial independence and greater autonomy to universities. But they warn that many clauses, including the ban on paid education programmes, will either have to be amended or will seriously harm the school system.
According to the Education Ministry, 39,000 university students, or 42.3 per cent of the total student body, attended part-time or 'external' courses in 2001. Of those, some 27,000 paid for their education, providing an important source of income for cash-poor universities.
The decision to ban payments was pushed through by Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik from the former communist Democratic Left Party (SDĽ), who argued that fees discriminated against poor Slovaks: "Every citizen must have equal access to university education," he said.
As a result of the ban, however, access to higher education for many students may actually decrease.
The Education Ministry has estimated that schools collected around Sk400 million ($8 million) last year from external students. The rector of Comenius University in Bratislava, Ferdinand Devínsky, said on March 12 that the figure was closer to Sk500 million.
The payments help schools cover maintenance bills and buy teaching equipment, as well as offer teachers - among the nation's worst-paid professions - a chance to earn extra money by teaching external students.
"The rapid increase in external students at Slovak universities dates from 1995. It was on the one hand an attempt to satisfy an increased social demand for education, and on the other a response to a drop in state financing of education of about 40 per cent between 1993 and 1994," wrote Libor Vozár, head of the Council of Universities, in an opinion column for the daily paper Sme.
With payments now about to become illegal, many schools have decided to shut down external courses because they can not afford to continue running the programmes.
Matej Bel University (UMB) in Banská Bystrica was among the first to decide to shut down its external study programmes after the new University Law was passed. All eight of UMB's faculties decided to close part-time studies, quickly followed by faculties at universities in Trnava, Prešov, Nitra, and Košice.
Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik promised after the University Law was signed by President Rudolf Schuster on March 6 that the schools would collectively be given Sk50 million in compensation this year for the lost income.
The figure was criticised by school officials as only a fraction of what faculties had collected from external students. UMB alone collected Sk88 million in the last academic year.
UMB rector Milan Murgaš said: "This populist law makes it impossible for thousands of students to study." He also called the compensation "wholly inadequate."
Devínsky added that "it's even unclear on what basis the Education Ministry would distribute the money to individual faculties and whether the new cabinet which takes over after September parliamentary elections this autumn will continue to pay such compensation."
University lecturers and students also rejected the ban on payments. While teachers said the courses gave them a chance to earn a decent living, students said the payments, which vary from Sk11,000 to Sk30,000 depending on the school and programme, motivated them to take their studies seriously.
Viliam Koóš, 27, who teaches at UMB's Humanities Faculty, said that teaching external students 20 hours a month added Sk10,000 to his base pay of Sk8,500 a month before tax (the national average wage last year was just over Sk12,000 a month). But he said external studies were more than just a way of making extra money.
"Schools paid their water bills, electricity, they bought educational tools with the money. The programmes were also an ideal mixture of practical experience with theory, as many external students work and study at the same time," he said.
Koóš said he thought setting free university education in law was a "misguided leftist move".
"Everywhere in the world it's common to pay for university studies. There are stipends and various support schemes for students from weaker income backgrounds," he said.
One of Koóš's students in his external courses, Peter Kutiš, 50, is also head of the Social Services Centre in Nitrianske Pravno. Kutiš said that fees were not as resented by students as politicians believed, particularly if they opened a door to university study: "If students don't financially participate in their studies, they tend not to value the education they're getting.
"I've already invested Sk32,000 into my education, which is why I'm very serious about finishing my education and getting the most out of what my teachers tell me in the lectures."
Devínsky added: "Sooner or later the law will have to be amended, and in my opinion the students will simply have to pay fees."