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Universtiy law passes in stormy Parliament session

Coalition parties in Parliament pushed through a controversial university law on September 26 that most academics and opposition deputies cried would tighten the government's grip on higher education by giving the Education Ministry expanded jurisdiction over university affairs. Out of 130 deputies who showed up for the vote, 75 members from the ruling coalition -the minimum number needed to pass the measure - supported the law. Seven deputies abstained, and the rest voted against. şşAll those who supported this law have stood up against the elite of this nation,'' said Ján Langoš, deputy for the opposition Democratic Party (DS).

Coalition parties in Parliament pushed through a controversial university law on September 26 that most academics and opposition deputies cried would tighten the government's grip on higher education by giving the Education Ministry expanded jurisdiction over university affairs.

Out of 130 deputies who showed up for the vote, 75 members from the ruling coalition -the minimum number needed to pass the measure - supported the law. Seven deputies abstained, and the rest voted against.

"All those who supported this law have stood up against the elite of this nation,'' said Ján Langoš, deputy for the opposition Democratic Party (DS).

şşI can't believe they passed it," said Roman Hric, 27, a university lecturer who is studying for a PhD in mathematics at Bratislava's Comenius University. "What is happening in this country is really unbelievable. It's high time one starts thinking about emigrating,''

What has many academics and politicians up in arms is the Education Ministry's newly-acquired right to veto a university board's awarding of a doctorate. Also, the ministry will be able to supervise and even oppose the election of a rector or dean by a university's academic senate. University autonomy had been one of the first things legislators established after the fall of Communism in late 1989.

Objections

During a stormy floor debate that lasted several hours, opposition deputies proposed more than 30 changes to the bill, which was drafted by the Education Ministry. The coalition approved four "of really minor importance,'' according to Ľubomír Harach, a former minister of education and currently a deputy for the opposition Democratic Union (DU). şşThe principle of the law has been preserved,'' Harach added.

Asked to comment on Harach's criticism, Jozef Tarčák from the coalition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and a former deputy minister of education, said, "All the suggestions were aimed to improve the bill. If someone divides them into important and unimportant, that's his problem.''

The crucial paragraphs that university rectors and deans wanted to change were paragraphs 15 and 34 of the law (see excerpts of them below).

The opposition also unsuccesfuly petitioned that universities not have to pay income tax on their business activities (such as selling software or special equipment produced in school laboratories, or providing consultancy) nor taxes and customs fees on gifts from abroad.

These measures, opposition MPs argued, would have saved the country's 17 universities 100 million Sk and allowed them to invest the savings back, like other companies. şşNot long ago, the ruling coalition passed a law that saves privatizers from paying income taxes if they invest the money to develop their companies,'' Harach said. "The universities were asking for practically the same thing.'' But coalition deputies argued that the state should distribute the money, and did not support the proposal.

Mobilization

Earlier in September, rectors, deans and professors of every Slovak university exceot one gathered at Bratislava's Comenius University to protest against the draft, warning that that if the law were passed, the universities would become state organizations submissive to the Ministry of Education and not autonomous.

However, Education Minister Eva Slavkovská told Radio Twist that her ministry's draft was "the most democratic one in Europe.'' She dismissed the protests against it as "politically motivated."

Later at the Parliamentary session, the opposition gathered the 30 signatures necessary to initiate a no-confidence vote against Slavkovská. The vote will take place when Parliament reconvenes at the end of October.

Christening

Another development that enraged a score of academics and students in eastern Slovakia and elsewhere was coalition deputies' vote to rename four faculties that were part of Košice's Pavel Jozef Šafárik University (UPJŠ) in nearby Prešov to become "Prešov University." The original bill did not include the proposal to rename UPJŠ's departments in Prešov, and that angered the univiersity's academic senate who released a statement, saying: The majority of the academic community [at UPJŠ] had no chance to express their opinion on the problem. It was a decision about us made without us.''

UPJS students also did not like the way the MP's changed a well-known name into an unknown one. In an open letter to President Michal Kováč, students implored him to reject the law and send it back to Parliament. "We began studying at a university that had a name because we wanted to be its graduates,'' the students wrote.


Where the Controversy Lies

Paragraph 15

The Ministry of Education:

a) Creates the conditions for universities' development and education.
b) Manages universities' activities.
c) Distributes financial sources from the state budget to individual universities and supervises the evaluation of the work of universities and their faculties through an accreditation committee which it will control.
e) Approves the establishment, unification, division and abolition of university faculties on the basis of a proposal from the rector after a previous opinion from the accreditation committe.,
j) Checks the validity of decisions by university academics outside of the withdrawal process.
The Minister of Education:
a) On the universities' proposal, proposes to the President of the Slovak Republic nominations and withdrawals of professors and rectors.

Paragraph 34

The Ministry of Education:

a) Makes decisions in the matter of PhD study, the granting of scholalarships, and disciplinary regulations such as exclusions from university study and the habilitating and naming of professors.

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