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Storm over uni fees

EDUCATION Minister Martin Fronc is determined to go ahead with his plan to introduce fees for university education despite growing opposition from students and university officials.
The Slovak Rectors' Congress (SRK), a body uniting university functionaries formed to represent the interests of Slovak higher-education institutions, recently said it disagreed with the measure, arguing that a number of students would not be able to afford university education if the fees were introduced.
On April 29, hundreds of students gathered in Bratislava's Námestie Slobody (Freedom Square) to express their objections to the proposals, adding their voices to those of their teachers.


Education minister to push throughunpopular measure, despite protests
photoTASR

EDUCATION Minister Martin Fronc is determined to go ahead with his plan to introduce fees for university education despite growing opposition from students and university officials.

The Slovak Rectors' Congress (SRK), a body uniting university functionaries formed to represent the interests of Slovak higher-education institutions, recently said it disagreed with the measure, arguing that a number of students would not be able to afford university education if the fees were introduced.

On April 29, hundreds of students gathered in Bratislava's Námestie Slobody (Freedom Square) to express their objections to the proposals, adding their voices to those of their teachers.

Fronc wants to see universities charging students as of January next year, with proposed annual fees ranging between 10 to 20 percent of the total annual expenses per student currently covered by the state. This means students would end up paying between Sk7,300 (€177) and Sk14,600 (€365).

Following a meeting of the SRK on April 22, the body's president Juraj Sinay said that the fees would result in "a decreased interest [by students] to study at universities".

However, the right-wing Fronc insisted that the measure could earn universities about Sk1 billion (€25 million) per year, money they could use to increase the quality of education. He said it would also put pressure on teachers and universities to compete for students.

"The system we will introduce will create pressure for quality [of university education], and for the responsible management of taxpayers' money," Fronc said at a recent meeting with university students in Bratislava.

"I am convinced that the [financial] participation of students will considerably improve the quality of university education," he said.

When [students] pay, they will always ask what they are getting in return. Teachers will no longer simply read out from textbooks instead of giving proper lectures, and they will no longer only appear for lectures twice per semester."

The SRK has proposed that instead of all students paying, only those studying part time should have to contribute financially, as most of them are employed. That is already happening in a semilegal form, because part-time students often give so-called sponsorship gifts to schools they want to attend.

The SRK has suggested that if the ministry does not accept that proposal, universities should at least be given the choice to collect the fees or not. Universities should thus be able to set their own price up to the 20 percent limit including zero fees.

Fronc, however, hopes that the cabinet will discuss his proposal in its original form in May. If it is approved by the cabinet, parliament will also have to vote on the change before it is sealed into the Slovak universities law.

Observers point out that the introduction of fees may result in a brain drain of Slovak students to neighbouring states such as the Czech Republic, where university education is free.

But Fronc insisted that under his plan, which includes a new system of grants that will be available to a greater group of students than such assistance is today, poorer students will not suffer and will continue to enjoy as much access to university education as richer students.

Under his proposals, students from poorer backgrounds will be able to receive twice as much money as the current Sk20,000 (€480) per year in grants. In total, Sk500 million (€11.9 million) will go to stipends per year, up from Sk120 million (€2.9 million) at the moment.

Fronc said he was aware that in the current difficult economic situation his proposed plan is not going to win him any popularity points among the public. Several reforms are underway in this post-communist country, including the introduction of fees for various health-care services as of July this year.

"I want to say that I am not particularly happy that it is me who has to carry out this [unpopular] measure. However, I am doing it in good faith, with the belief that it will help university education [in the long run]," the minister said.

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