"Private education has one advantage. If students have to pay for instruction, they are more demanding, and the schools can build on their eagerness."
Anna Hlavňová, Director, Žilina Univ.'s language dept.
Tuition as motivation
"Private education has one advantage," said Anna Hlavňová, director of the state-run Žilina University's language department. "If students have to pay for instruction, they are more demanding [of their education], and the institution can build on the students' eagerness."
The main problem with state-run education, Hlavňová claimed, is that "many students are in the classroom because it is warmer than outside. They are passive because they don't have to pay." Passive learners, she continued, hold back the more serious students and frustrate any attempt at systematic instruction. "I can only dream of the situation where students have paid for their education and are eager to get what they paid for."
Ján Rudý, dean of Comenius University's Management Faculty in Bratislava, feels that tuition fees would improve public education, and said it was the government's job to come up with a solution to the public schools' financial crisis. "If they don't charge money, they should provide sufficient budgets [from state funds]. If they don't have enough money in the budget, they should create an alternative system - this is something that normal governments are able to do."
The management faculty's budget is so hamstrung, Rudý said, that it's able to accept annually only 120 to 150 new students from more than 2,000 applicants.
"Our budget is probably 50 percent of what we had five years ago, in real terms," he said. "We don't have any way to improve. Sometimes there is barely enough money for salaries, and we have nothing for development, research and texts. It is absolutely necessary to increase budgets, and it's beyond any debate."
Tied to state funding, public universities have seen the quality of their education decline dramatically. "You cannot put three hundred students together in one classroom and keep their attention - this is not a professional approach," Rudý said.
The dwindling money has also affected the quality of teachers. "Professors are getting fewer financial rewards, and the best among them are leaving," said Ferdinand Devínsky, Comenius University's rector.
Proliferating private alternatives
In the last seven years, a number of private institutions have sprung up in Slovakia to satisfy demand not met by the public system, so much so that almost every city now has several private learning outlets. City University Bratislava (CUB), for example, opened its doors in 1990 as the first non-state university in Slovakia. "Our activity involves adult education, distance learning (where students do their coursework at home) and life-long learning," said President Ján Morovič. "We represent a shift in the educational paradigm."
One example of 'paradigm shifts' that Morovič offered was the inability of the cash-strapped public system to admit enough students. "Often our September enrollments are higher because of some students who have not been accepted to [public] university [apply for us]," he said. "Sometimes we are regarded as a 'second-chance' university - that is how we came to be."
But CUB has also set itself the task of educating and retraining people of all ages, something far beyond the purview of the state university system. Managers, executives, government officials and ordinary citizens "who for hundreds of reasons might not have been studying at 18 years of age," Morovič said, study subjects in 'modules,' while their learning is "facilitated by instructors who have good synergy for different learning methods."
The new-fashioned language used to describe learning at CUB underscores the alternative nature of private education in Slovakia. For Morovič, the public system is being held back by the staid thinking of its employees. "If you want to be a good university, it is better to start fresh with no basis [in the past] than to try to change the thinking of old professors," Morovič said, admitting: "They are working on themselves, trying to improve, but there is still a gap."
Old methods rejected
Of the 120 instructors that CUB employs, only 3 are former university professors. "Our system involves provocative and creative thinking," said Morovič, "and university professors are only used to giving lectures."
Agnes Benková, director of the private school Academy of Education in Žilina, agreed that her academy owed its popularity to rejection of "old, authoritative forms of education." Clean, bright, warm classrooms, modern teaching materials and methods, and above all, the absence of rigid forms of evaluation "all mean that students don't have the stress they have in the public system."
Benková too described the academy's "open learning" policy as one that caters to the needs of "citizens of all ages, anyone who wants to learn," but who cannot find a place in the more traditional public system.
There is some evidence, however small, that public and private schools are beginning to cooperate. Comenius University's Faculty of Management houses an Executive MBA program (WEMBA) administered by the University of Pittsburgh. The three-year course costs 100,000 Slovak crowns a year, and is assisted by a sizeable grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Eva Beňová, WEMBA's assistant director, said that "the grant pays for our education costs, while the tuition fees go to help the Faculty of Management." Given that WEMBA also pays for the training of Comenius's staff, as well as for upgrading Faculty of Management facilities, Benková is right to say: "We are a private school helping a public one."
11. Sep 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson