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SOME SAY SCHOOLS FILL LEARNING NEED, OTHERS SEE POLITICAL MOTIVE

Public universities' creation fuels funding debate

Even as three new, government-funded Slovak universities open their doors to students from around the country this fall, the debate surrounding their creation is being played out between two main camps - those who claim that the decision to open the schools was apolitical and a response to genuine educational needs in the country, and those who argue that the law is part of a clandestine design to create a new pro-government university system and to let the old schools wither on the vine through lack of funds.
The root of the issue lies in the Slovak Parliament's July 1 passage of a law calling for the establishment of three new centers of higher education: the University of Trenčín, Cyril and Methodius University in Trnava and the Academy of the Arts in Banská Bystrica, disbursing 290 million Sk for the project.


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Even as three new, government-funded Slovak universities open their doors to students from around the country this fall, the debate surrounding their creation is being played out between two main camps - those who claim that the decision to open the schools was apolitical and a response to genuine educational needs in the country, and those who argue that the law is part of a clandestine design to create a new pro-government university system and to let the old schools wither on the vine through lack of funds.

The root of the issue lies in the Slovak Parliament's July 1 passage of a law calling for the establishment of three new centers of higher education: the University of Trenčín, Cyril and Methodius University in Trnava and the Academy of the Arts in Banská Bystrica, disbursing 290 million Sk for the project.

Two sides of the school coin

Marián Tolnay, director of the Education Ministry's university section, claimed that the government's aim had been to distribute university facilities more evenly around the country. Bratislava, he said, had been hogging state education funds for long enough. "Comenius University has become a giant, compared to the other universities. It has become difficult to lead, and its financial future is uncertain."

According to Tolnay, Slovakia's regions have as much right to state money as does Bratislava, and opening new schools would allow the brightest students from the provinces to stay closer to home. "In Trenčín, Trnava and Banská Bystrica, we realized that there should be some form of artistic education on offer," Tolnay said. "Arts students who come to Bratislava to study usually end up staying in the capital after their studies. But if they had a chance to study in Banská Bystrica, they would decide to stay there."

Dr. Ferdinand Devínsky, rector of Comenius University, could not agree. "The decision to build new schools...was motivated by purely political reasons," he said. "Universities are always the birthplace of new ideas and future-oriented movements, while governments usually try to secure the status quo. This government is working for its own ends, and a general feeling is coming back from the old days, not only in university but in society."

The universities debate has become so politicized that administrators at the new schools are refusing to participate in it. "I was hired to prepare and open a new academy," said Dr. Anton Melicher, statutory representative for the Academy of the Arts in Banská Bystrica. "I have nothing to do with politics."

The new schools

Housed in cramped quarters above a restaurant while the new school buildings are being prepared, the Academy of the Arts is preparing feverishly for its October 3 opening. "We will be accepting about 70 students into two faculties, Music Art and Plastic Art," Melicher said. Asked if he was satisfied with the school's budget, he replied "it's not a question for me. We'll take what we've been given, and we'll be ready on time."

The other two new schools are also quietly going about their business. The University of Trenčín, which held its inaugural celebrations on September 13, 1997, has organized four technical faculties to receive some 600 students for the coming school year. The University of Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, struggling to be ready by October 20, plans three faculties and around 300 students.

"University centers"

Opening new schools was only part of the government's plan. It also wants to create an educational triad. "Our idea is that Slovakia will have three main university centers: Prešov-Košice, Bratislava and Zvolen-Banská Bystrica," Tolnay relayed. "These centers will offer doctoral-level studies, in order that all the country's regions are covered."

Construction on the new "centers" is proceeding apace. Matej Bell University (UMB), situated in Banská Bystrica, "is now being built up because it was not attracting students to the region," explained Tolnay. "That is why Banská Bystrica is getting funding, and why Košice will have a new Faculty of Applied Art."

Milan Murgaš, vice-president of development at UMB, approves of the government's decision to bolster Slovakia's regions. "From my point of view as a manager, Bratislava's infrastructure cannot support the country's educational needs. New capacity is not being built there, so it should be done elsewhere."

Murgaš said he sees "an educational vacuum" in the Slovak public university system. No school, he said, had been preparing students for the complex demands of the international job market until UMB began its program of expansion three years ago. Now, to its existing Faculties of Finance, Law and International Relations and Political Science, UMB is adding a Linguistics Faculty and next year a Faculty of International Business. "We want to offer our students complex training in economics, law, languages and international relations: that is the model we have for our graduating experts."

UMB's expansion is costing a lot of money. And since the funds for such projects do not come out of each school's normal operating budget but as a special disposition from the state, it is easy to see why the development of the new "university centers" has become as contentious as the establishment of the new schools.

"It's normal that when you open a new faculty, you advise the [Education] Ministry of your plans and they make provisions in their budget," Murgaš explained. "The university budget is being divided fairly, but some schools have to economize on the services they provide. It's a question of using the money you get effectively."

But admonitions to use funds more effectively ring hollow at Comenius, whose dilapidated dormitories and run-down facilities stand in urgent need of repair. Devínsky, for one, is tired of hearing that the state can't afford to give more money to Bratislava's universities.

"It won't solve anything, to create a music academy somewhere which will accept 20 or 35 students," he said. "But from all of these big plans, one thing is sure - the money exists, it is there. But it is not being spent in the right places."

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