WHEN it comes to education reform, Minister Martin Fronc will not give up. For the fourth time since 2002, he will try pushing through controversial legislation introducing tuition fees for university students.
If approved by parliament, students could pay up to Sk26,000 (€645) per school year starting in September 2005. Students, university rectors and several opposition parties oppose the proposed reform bill.
Parliament will discuss Minister Fronc's legislation in March. At the same time, MPs will consider reshaping student loans and stipends so that students from low-income families would not be unfairly penalized.
According to Minister Fronc, students would be entitled to loans of up to Sk40,000 (€1,035) per year and stipends worth Sk6,780 (€175) or less, according to students' ability to pay. These adjustments, says the minister, should offset new tuition fees as well as students' living expenses.
Following a meeting with Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš, Fronc announced that all students enrolled in university would pay tuition fees. Previously, Fronc contemplated introducing the fees gradually, starting with those students entering university for the first time.
Currently, the state pays Sk86,000 (€2,226) per year for every student attending university. Minister Fronc explained that his reform would cap student contributions to 30 percent of that amount - or Sk26,000 (€645) per year. Individual universities would dictate the actual value of their fees but Fronc's new law would prevent them from charging above the 30-percent level.
A portion of student fees would be set aside for scholarships or "motivational stipends". The rest would go to the universities themselves to invest in development projects. Students would be guaranteed a say in these projects.
Education reform manifested as tuition fees has always met with opposition from students and academics, both of whom are championed by parliamentary opposition parties.
Robert Fico, the chairman of the left-wing opposition party Smer, reiterated that Fronc and other authors of the so-called education reform "studied for free under Communism".
Fico and Smer Deputy Chairman Dušan Čaplovič, who sits on the parliamentary education committee, warned that tuition fees would make it impossible for many talented young people to pursue higher education at all.
Čaplovič told The Slovak Spectator that Smer believes that full-time students should receive free university education. According to him, Smer would only support fees for part-time university students - those who work and attend lessons only occasionally.
While part-time students are already paying for their education, the money is not going directly to universities but to various higher education agencies.
"Slovakia does not have the conditions in place to ensure that the introduction of fees would not negatively impact students," Čaplovič told The Slovak Spectator January 17. "Besides, reforms that the right-wing cabinet have carried out so far have already had a negative impact on the Slovak people."
Representatives of the University Students Council (ŠRVŠ) criticized Minister Fronc, stating that he failed to inform them about changes in the education reform bill that he will present to parliament.
In an official statement made January 16, ŠRVŠ Deputy Chairman Gabriel Benčo said that the council "considers the approach of the Education Ministry to be improper because despite repeated appeals, the ministry failed to deliver the current text of the law to the council."
Consequently, the ŠVRŠ cannot comment on Fronc's proposed law.
The introduction of tuition fees for university education finds most of its supporters in the finance and economic sectors. According to Matúš Pošvanc from the FA Hayek Foundation, an organization that supports market solutions to economic and social problems, the fees are "a step in the right direction".
Pošvanc told the SITA news agency January 15 that the issue was a matter of political will when students would have to bear the entire burden of the expense of their university education.
Pošvanc encourages the Education Ministry to see the introduction of fees as the first step in higher education reform in Slovakia. He believes in a free-market education economy in which the price of education is subject to competition.
The price for university education "would go down and the citizens would not be burdened to such an extent," Pošvanc said.
The decision on university tuition rests in parliament's hands. Opposition MPs are unlikely to back the legislation and the ruling coalition lacks sufficient votes to push through the changes.
Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's government has been operating as a parliamentary minority for a year now. However, the coalition has managed to pass controversial reforms with the help of independent MPs. Whether Fronc's fourth attempt to pass his education reform bill prevails, however, remains to be seen.
24. Jan 2005 at 0:00 | Martina Jurinová