SLOVAK universities are still too far from actual practice and often ignore the real needs of the market economy. Officials thus highlight the need to connect universities with the business community, and ensure their three-source financing from state, private, and European Union funds.
"There are comments from the business community that we also need investment incentives in the form of a flexible and qualified workforce. I must say that I found support for closer cooperation between universities and businesses more in entrepreneurial society than in the educational sphere," Education Minister Martin Fronc told the press.
Slovakia is expecting a boom in the automotive industry in forthcoming years. Apart from the German carmaker Volkswagen, two other vehicle producers are heading to Slovakia: French PSA Peugeot Citroen and Korean Hyndai/Kia. However, analysts say that Slovak labour may not be prepared for such a sudden demand for industrial and technical professions.
The new French plant plans to hire about 3,500 workers directly, and its subcontractors are supposed to create thousands of additional job opportunities. The Korean carmaker will need similar numbers of technically educated workers.
However, students choosing their higher education in Slovakia still tend to apply more for the humanities than technical and engineering educations, Fronc said. This stems mainly from the past, when Slovak industry was almost devastated after the market of former socialist countries fell apart.
"We have to admit that, currently, the smartest people are not applying to technical schools. There was, in fact, no motivation for them to study to be, let's say, a good car builder, as they hardly had a chance to become one. They rather applied for economics or law," said Juraj Sinay, president of Slovak rectors conference.
This issue is also connected to the very low knowledge of foreign languages among technical school graduates. "We have to change the practice at technical universities. Students are learning foreign languages in the first years of their study and then they stop. And also, we cannot do much about the poor knowledge of languages at universities. Students should speak at least one foreign language when finishing secondary school and this is often not so," added Sinay.
"The times when there were no opportunities for people in industry are over. Now there is an opposite situation; we need specialists in industry," said Jozef Uhrík, president of the Federation of Industrial Associations in the Slovak Republic.
Officials agree that the situation could be partially solved by teamwork between universities and the business community. The result could be faster and easier identification of future target professions.
"The current education structure and the profile of today's graduate are now becoming a limiting factor for foreign investments. It makes no sense to invest in production but not in education," added Peter Mihók, chairman of the Slovak chamber of commerce and industry.
There are some companies that have started to cooperate with the Slovak education system more actively. For example, the US company ON Semiconductor cooperates with the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology of the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava.
PSA Peugeot Citroen plans to work together with high schools and universities beginning with the next school year. PSA would like to put automobile knowledge in the tuition plans of secondary technical and machinery schools in Trnava, the future site of its plant.
The company will also participate in training teachers and support the schools with technical equipment. The carmaker would like to become a partner of the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava.
Close contact between universities, schools, and the business community would not only bring the latest industry trends to tuition programmes, it would also enable the creation of additional sources of educational financing. "It is necessary that universities be the target not only of state money but private investments as well. We believe that will happen soon," said Sinay.
According to Mihók, universities are a potential source of wealth for Slovakia, "but we have to invest in them. Companies and business entities are prepared to enter universities," he added.
On the other side, the entrepreneurial community expects universities to become a quality research base for industry, and to act as a forum for lifetime education for companies.
According to Sinay, in forthcoming years the European Union will need about 100,000 graduates in technical and natural science specialisations. The most wanted profession will be those related to applied electronics as well as information technologies, plastic materials, and iron plate production. Sociology, personnel management, and foreign languages will also be important.