With the new school year underway in Slovakia, the country's new university undergraduate students can breathe a sigh of relief, for they are among the chosen. At some Slovak university faculties, more than 90 percent of applicants were turned away in June 1997, their entrance exam scores not good enough to get them into school.
However, some new students may have more than their wits to thank for their good fortune. According to beliefs shared by many people both in and outside the academic community, students who have enough money or who bring enough influence to bear, can get around the strict admissions requirements.
"There is a certain amount of corruption, certainly," said an official who handles admissions at a major Slovak university, and who requested anonymity. "It exists, as it has for a long time, but it doesn't have just a financial form. These days it's more a question of a barter of services between the two parties, a question of influence. This kind of corruption is based on our economic situation - there is not enough money in the budget for everybody to study what they want, so various pressures exist for certain students to be accepted to a university."
University administrators publicly maintain that this opinion is frustration-borne rather than rooted in fact.
"I absolutely don't believe that such corruption exists, but if somebody else believes it does, why don't they take their case to court?" asked Ján Rudy, the dean of Comenius University's Faculty of Management (FMUK). "University officials are under public control. They simply cannot take the law into their own hands."
Rudy explained that FMUK entrance tests are "absolutely anonymous. Nobody but the author knows their contents," he added.
The whole admissions process, which may take four to five days, is completely computerized to prevent any favoritism, Rudy said. "The computer simply puts the figures together and makes a cut-off line, based on our admissions capacity."
Students don't believe
In spite of university officials' reassurances, students continue to believe that admission procedures are deeply flawed. Comenius University offers several requalification courses for non-accepted students who wish to continue studying and retake entrance tests the following summer. One such group, interviewed by The Slovak Spectator, contained 18 youngsters, not one of whom believed that university tests were fair.
"Corruption exists in schools - it always has and always will, and involves much more than just money changing hands," said Miriam, a girl who didn't want her last name to be disclosed, like all her classmates.
Added another student named Miro: "I have been told that at some faculties you can offer 300,000 crowns, and they will take you without any exam."
Other students were more specific in their charges. "My mother works at the Ministry of Education, and tells me a lot about what goes on," said a male student. "For example, at one school there exists a booklet of 3,000 questions that students may get on their entrance exams. Everybody has access to this."
"But there is another set of questions," he continued, "maybe 40 or more, that are known only to the professors, so even if you are perfectly prepared, there can still be many questions on the test you have never seen before. But for some lucky students, who have expensive 'consultations' with a professor, these questions are not a problem."
Other students reported even less savory practices - Miroslava told of a classmate who had offered the dean of one faculty 200,000 Sk and been told that "it's not enough money." Another student told of a "consultant" professor who stood beside one student during the entrance exam and whispered the right answers.
The question is, of course, whether these unsubstantiated student allegations can be taken at face value, or should be viewed as a product of the frustration felt by intelligent, capable people whose academic lives are on hold.
"I hope I don't share these opinions just because I didn't get accepted," said Martin, "but when I talk to other people, most of them hold the same views. It makes them very angry."
A new admissions policy
Milan Murgaš, vice-president for development at Banská Bystrica's Matej Bell University (UMB), claimed to have a way out of the present admission impasse. "For our new Linguistics Faculty, we have made the acceptance criteria more precise," he said. "We are not taking the classic [entrance exam] route, but we are basing our judgements on a student's results to date in language studies."
Working towards a maximum score of 300, Murgaš continued, students are awarded various points totals for their secondary school language grades, for the results of any state language exams taken, for international language certificates won, for the number and combination of languages mastered and for the length of stay in any foreign countries visited.
"It's very objective," Murgaš claimed. "Our interest is to find people who have been interested in languages from a very young age."
The change in admissions, he reported, has been undertaken in order to bring Slovak procedures more in line with those of American universities. "Academics are by nature a very conservative group, but I think that our present examination system is not good for selecting students," Murgaš said.
Many Slovak students would agree with him, although for different reasons. "I am absolutely not in favor of the admission testing system in Slovakia," said Alena, "not because it is necessarily choosing bad students, but because it contains a thousand little hidden ways to get around the rules."
Asked whether newfangled entrance tests, like the one promoted at UMB, actually eliminate corruption, the unnamed admissions official said: "In any society like Slovakia's, where people are not free to pursue their ambitions, mafia-style tactics are the norm. If any school wants to take a student for some reason, there is always a way."
9. Oct 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson