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Universities defy no-fees rule by requiring 'gifts' from students

PART-TIME study may be a thing of the past at Slovak universities unless a recent change to the country's Universities Law is overturned, say university presidents.
Amendments made to the law in April, pushed through by former Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, outlawed the practice of charging part-time university students fees. The change, the minister said, was in line with Slovakia's guarantee of free university education for every student admitted.
The authors of the law reasoned that a university student can cost his or her family as much as Sk4,000 ($90) a month to support, money which poorer families can already ill afford without the added burden of fees.

PART-TIME study may be a thing of the past at Slovak universities unless a recent change to the country's Universities Law is overturned, say university presidents.

Amendments made to the law in April, pushed through by former Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, outlawed the practice of charging part-time university students fees. The change, the minister said, was in line with Slovakia's guarantee of free university education for every student admitted.

The authors of the law reasoned that a university student can cost his or her family as much as Sk4,000 ($90) a month to support, money which poorer families can already ill afford without the added burden of fees.

However, Slovakia's cash-strapped universities counter that the fee-free rule means they will no longer have the money to offer part-time courses, depriving as many as 30,000 students of the opportunity to study. In the 2001-02 academic year, Slovak universities accepted 13,000 new part-time students, while they regularly turn away as much as 75 per cent of applicants for full-time study because of a shortage of space.

While the ministry remains obdurate, some universities are trying to continue their part-time programmes through alternative ways of getting money from their students.

The law faculty at Trnava University, for example has established the Fakultas Nova foundation, which collects money from students as a condition for accepting them to part-time study programmes - a step that has sparked protests among students who say the amended law guarantees them free university education.

By donating Sk200,000 ($4,500) to Fakultas Nova, students can assure themselves of five years of part-time study. Fakultas Nova now runs part-time studies at the faculty.

"Even if they don't sign the contracts, they still have the door open and we look for ways of educating them even in our difficult financial position," said Jozef Prusák, dean of the faculty.

"The law does not prohibit the universities from accepting gifts, but in this case, the question is whether the university makes study conditional on a payment," said Ftáčnik, who left his ministerial post in early spring to join the start-up leftist party Social Democratic Alliance (SDA).

The law faculty at Bratislava's Commenius University has also taken an alternative step to ensuring the survival of its part-time study programmes.

"The fees will be paid as before, but will arrive as an organisational-technical provision for study. From this money, organisations which run our bachelor's programme give some part of it in the form of a gift to the faculty, which is completely legal," said Mojmír Mamojka, dean of Law Faculty of Comenius University and a parliamentary candidate for the opposition splinter HZD party.

However, the Education Ministry maintains that such steps are illegal, and says the universities are heading for another showdown.

"If a university conditions registration of students on any kind of fee, it is a clear breach of the law," said Peter Mederly, director of the universities section at the ministry.

"If any organisation claims a gift or fee is necessary to study at university, students can ignore it," added Mederly.

While still in office, Ftáčnik said that universities defying the new law would face sanctions by the ministry.

"If universities [implement fees], the ministry will have to levy consequences against them. We only have economic tools, so the consequences will be economic. I also expect that students will not tolerate the enforcement of financial contributions, and that if something like this happens, they will notify the ministry," said Ftáčnik.

Given the continuing standoff, the future of part-time study in Slovakia remains cloudy.

While some universities say they will continue requiring money from their part-time students, others say they are ready to close their schools over the weekends, when many part-time classes are normally held, while Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica has already cancelled its part-time study programme altogether.

"Our decision affects approximately 1,700 students," said Matej Bel President Milan Murgaš.

Milan Dado, head of the Slovak Conference of University Presidents, said "we consider fee-free education unsustainable in the long term."

While the government has promised universities another Sk50 million this school year, school heads say this is far from enough, and the Education Ministry maintains that another Sk64 million is needed.

Ftáčnik said while in office that he could save part-time studies "only by writing funding into a budget proposal for the year 2003. We cannot do more."

However, as that budget will need to be approved by the next government, universities say that the necessary funding to assure free education for the current number of students is not guaranteed.

"We expect that we will have to return to the issue of paying for part-time studies," said Dado.

"I expect that there will be another change to new Universities Law," agreed Milan Botík, director of Centre for Lifelong Education at Trnava University.

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