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So, what is the top university?

THE DEBATE around university fees has been raging. Some think higher education should be free to the masses, the burden of cost left to the state. Others feel that without additional endowments from students, universities will not survive

THE DEBATE around university fees has been raging. Some think higher education should be free to the masses, the burden of cost left to the state. Others feel that without additional endowments from students, universities will not survive. Both sides argue that the quality of higher education needs to improve. Unfortunately, there has been no way to judge a university's performance.

That will soon change. Slovakia is establishing not one but two new ratings agencies. The goal of both is to place universities on a relative regional scale, from best institution to worst.

The first evaluation results are expected to be out by September 2005.

ARRA is a private university ratings agency that saw a market demand in Slovakia. Education Minister Martin Fronc celebrated its arrival, taking part at the opening ceremonies.

The Education Ministry will act as an outside observer to ARRA and does not plan to get involved in mutual projects.

"Independent ratings agencies are needed in Slovakia," the ministry's spokesperson, Monika Múrová, told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Juraj Barta, the chairman of the board of directors of ARRA, the arrival of a ratings agency to Slovakia will clear the air. The evaluation process will either confirm what university representatives have been saying all along - that the quality of Slovak education is comparable with developed countries - or what students have been complaining about. Namely, they refuse to pay for sub-standard education.

ARRA started collecting data on Slovak universities in the summer of 2004. The agency has now progressed to the actual evaluation process.

All individual universities and faculties will be part of this evaluation.

ARRA will evaluate universities according to four categories: specialized knowledge; quality of the education process; the versatility of student degrees; and the overall experience.

In terms of versatility, the agencies will look at the percentage of graduates that find gainful employment. The quality of the educational process will largely depend on student surveys. The overall experience will be based on student accommodations and access to resources, from computers and libraries to sports facilities.

With ARRA results coming out in autumn 2005, future high school graduates will be able to use the information to make an informed choice about where they will continue their studies.

In addition to ARRA, the Education Ministry has formed its own agency, called EVA. Through EVA, the ministry will take an active role in evaluating the country's higher education facilities. According to Múrová: "EVA was organized by the Slovak Rector Conference. Its formation involves Sk25 million (€658,000)," she said.

Múrová added: "It does not matter that there will be two agencies. They will force each other to perform even better."

EVA's evaluation process will consist of two sets of input data: a self-assessment by the universities themselves and the results of an independent European evaluation agency that will publish its results once a year.

"This way, we can ensure the credibility of the results," said Múrová.

The Education Ministry hopes that by involving the European evaluation agency, the Slovak university ratings system will be acceptable abroad as well.

Both ARRA and EVA recognize the importance of following standards in order to receive international acceptance. To this end, ARRA is drawing on the experience of others and adapting it to Slovakia's education environment. It is soliciting advice from the World Bank, for example, and it has also hired a prestigious agency to conduct representative surveys of students and employers.

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