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Academics unhappy with proposed university law

The highest-ranking representatives of every Slovak university except one, many of them clothed in robes denoting their rank, converged in the ceremonial hall of Bratislava's Comenius University on September 6 on a mission against the government's draft law on universities. Their message was this: "We in the academic community reject attempts to limit ... rights and freedoms in academic life." With that salvo, school administrators heading back to school this month - and politicians to parliament - are locked in a head-to-head battle over the government's proposed law on universities. While the Education Ministry says the bill was largely adapted from university administrators' own draft and is liberal by international standards, the academic community is framing the bill as a governmental attempt for control over the country's higher education community, lumping it with last year's controversial law on foundations that is vehemently opposed by the non-profit sector.

The highest-ranking representatives of every Slovak university except one, many of them clothed in robes denoting their rank, converged in the ceremonial hall of Bratislava's Comenius University on September 6 on a mission against the government's draft law on universities.

Their message was this: "We in the academic community reject attempts to limit ... rights and freedoms in academic life." With that salvo, school administrators heading back to school this month - and politicians to parliament - are locked in a head-to-head battle over the government's proposed law on universities.

While the Education Ministry says the bill was largely adapted from university administrators' own draft and is liberal by international standards, the academic community is framing the bill as a governmental attempt for control over the country's higher education community, lumping it with last year's controversial law on foundations that is vehemently opposed by the non-profit sector.

The outcry against the foundations bill had taken the government off guard, but this time officials at the Education Ministry, who wrote the bill, seized the initiative by translating the bill into English and circulating it to the diplomatic community - and crafting a public relations platform. "This law is one of the most democratic and liberal in Europe," Marián Tolnay, the head of the Ministry's section on universities, said from behind a tower of law books from Denmark, France, Germany, and Great Britain. "A lot of countries want to have this kind of law."

The law's latest version, Tolnay explained, is a text drafted by the leaders of Slovakia's 14 universities and technical schools, in which they asked for two amendments to the 1990 university law. Academics wanted the title "Candidate of Sciences" (CSC) to be aligned with the Western PhD, and they wanted PhD students to have employee status, thus exempting them from paying for health insurance out of their small stipends.

The final say

The new law accommodated both wishes. But the Cabinet added language giving the Education Ministry the final say in a multitude of university affairs, such as admitting students, nominating professors, and expelling troublemakers . The bill bluntly states that it strengthens "the Ministry of Education's right to intervene in matters belonging to the jurisdiction of universities and faculties, deans and academic senates, and the right to re-examine their decisions [using] extra-appeal procedures."

This worries the academics. They hold up the law as an example of an attempt by Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar to consolidate power in the government's hands over citizens in various spheres in society. "Unfortunately our society is turning back to the past," said Ferdinand Dedinský, vice-rector for development at Comenius University. "Not just for academic institutions and universities, but also in terms of theater and culture."

The universities are making their case to Western diplomats; the Association of University Rectors met with U.S. Ambassador Ralph Johnson and representatives of the European Union in Bratislava last month. And while the participants remained hesitant about commenting on the law, Western observers say that there are questionable sections, particularly paragraphs 15 and 34, which grant the Ministry of Education veto power over a wide range of schools' decisions (see chart). Members of Bratislava's foreign diplomatic corps, especially the Europeans, are closely monitoring the debate and readying themselves for the next step, which could range from quiet comment to a full-blown demarche. According to diplomatic sources, a European study on the draft university law is being carried out.

In the meantime, the government remains convinced that the bill is democratic and does not limit schools' freedom. "This law gives every person in the country the right to appeal to a higher office if a bad decision is made," said Tolnay. While the deacons, rectors, and scientific boards of the universities will still decide on the schools' behalf, he said, any person who feels wronged by a university can appeal to the Ministry of Education.

The academics, however, argue that ministerial control can be too easily abused. As an example they proffer a dark vision in which any citizen can argue that another never deserved a university degree and ask to have it revoked. An extreme example, perhaps, but Ivan Ostrovský, vice-rector at Comenius University, argues that this was the kind of thing that happened under communism. "This is the way things happened in the past, and they could happen again," he said.

Tolnay accused the academics of paranoia. "Seven years from revolution is a short time," he said, "and some people are still afraid that of what used to be in old times. But I say that the democratic process is such that that kind of thing would never happen."

Opposition politicians are not so confident. "This government likes to concentrate power, to concentrate responsibilities in every possible area," said Ivan Rosival, a member of Parliament for the Democratic Union (DU) who also teaches at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Košice. "This is not just at the university level, it is a general tendency." His party, under the leadership of fellow DU MP and Comenius University Rector Juraj Švec, plans to present an alternative version of the law in the September session.

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