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Comenius University short of cash for next year

An ever-growing number of students and an ever-shrinking budget allotted from the Education Ministry has Comenius University in Bratislava seriously considering not opening any classes for the 1998-99 school year or limiting the number of students at all its departments.
Comenius officials blame the state, arguing that the school is getting less money, while the government launches three new universities in Trnava, Trenčín and Banská Bystrica, spending a total of 380 million Sk.
The schools' creation has been opposed by both the Higher Education Council and existing universities. "They have invested a lot of money into universities that will take about 240 students [at the most]," said Ferdinand Devínsky, the rector of Comenius University, founded in 1919 and Slovakia's oldest university. "If they gave the money [to us instead], we could have accepted 1,000 more students right away,"

An ever-growing number of students and an ever-shrinking budget allotted from the Education Ministry has Comenius University in Bratislava seriously considering not opening any classes for the 1998-99 school year or limiting the number of students at all its departments.

Comenius officials blame the state, arguing that the school is getting less money, while the government launches three new universities in Trnava, Trenčín and Banská Bystrica, spending a total of 380 million Sk.

The schools' creation has been opposed by both the Higher Education Council and existing universities. "They have invested a lot of money into universities that will take about 240 students [at the most]," said Ferdinand Devínsky, the rector of Comenius University, founded in 1919 and Slovakia's oldest university. "If they gave the money [to us instead], we could have accepted 1,000 more students right away,"

Comenius's allotment from the state has dwindled for seven consecutive years - from 333.4 million Sk in 1991 to only 185.6 million Sk in 1997. The number of Comenius students, meanwhile, is moving in the opposite direction, growing from 16,993 in 1991 to 24,985 in 1997 (see table at right). Devínsky said that the school was short 250 million Sk before the end of this school year.

The Education Ministry, however, claims that the deficit is caused by inappropriate spending.

"Comenius University does not use the money in a proper way, and that is their problem," said Marián Tolnay, director of the Education Ministry's universities division.

"The government gives as much as possible to the universities, and it gives evenly to every one of them," Tolnay added

Devínsky described the way his school spends its money. "We use 78 percent of the budget to pay our employees," he said. "The rest serves for sponsoring scholarships, purchasing school supplies, or repairing the 176 buildings that are scattered all around Bratislava, most of them being in terrible shape. With a budget like this, it's hard to do miracles," Devínsky added.

Although primarily sponsored by the ministry, Tolnay said Comenius could raise more capital on its own.

"More active universities should be able to raise money to help themselves by doing research for companies that sign a contract with them, or in other ways," Tolnay said.

Devínsky agreed, but added that it is hobbled by bureaucracy. "This way of financing a university is very hard nowadays," he said. "Even when we are able to get a contract, we have to pay 40 percent taxes from it. The university can raise the money from overseas students' tuitions, but that money stays with the [particular] faculty. When a student applies for the university, he pays an entrance test fee (400-500 Sk), but the university cannot keep it - it goes back to the state budget. So when we add up all these additional ways of financing, it makes up about 10 percent of our annual budget," Devínsky said.

Tolnay said that the situation should partially improve in September, when the ministry will propose that the Slovak Parliament pass a new bill allowing universities to keep the money collected from entrance test fees.

But, for Comenius officials, that balm doesn't take the sting out of the fact that the government is funding three more universities.

"Each year, we receive requests from thousands of students from other universities who want to be transferred here [to Comenius] because they want our diploma," he said. "It will take a long time for those [new] schools to have that reputation, if ever. It was a political decision to launch them."

Hopes for a funding increase for next year are already gone with the wind. The ministry has announced that the budget is going to be the same for next year, with an additional 69 million Sk allocated to fixed capital.

If allowed to keep the entrance test fees, Comenius can count on an additional 10-12 million Sk, Tolnay said. "If the money is looked after as it should be, the university should maintain the level it is on now," Tolnay said.

But Comenius still needs about 2 billion Sk to buy the necessary equipment for teaching and repairing its buildings, Devínsky countered. "I don't expect to ever see the money," he said. "Some of our 20-year-old students use equipment that is 5 or 10 years older than them."

Together with the faculties' boards, Devínsky will soon decide what Comenius will do for the 1998-99 school year. But he remained confident. "We will surely find some solution," he said.

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