Is it a new millennium in education?

PARLIAMENTARY elections are creeping closer. What better way to reach the masses than by appealing to students? Education, after all, not only impacts young people but also their parents - who by and large pay the bills.

PARLIAMENTARY elections are creeping closer. What better way to reach the masses than by appealing to students? Education, after all, not only impacts young people but also their parents - who by and large pay the bills.

Education Minister Martin Fronc thinks change, as far as education goes, is a good thing. During his end-of-school-year speech in July of this year, he congratulated Slovak schools for "breaking through barriers" and "opening up to society". He promised that in 2006, schools would prove themselves modern, "schools of the third millennium," he said.

To help realize this vision, the education minister plans to enforce a new campaign. Stop memorizing and start questioning, he implores. The minister wants to reduce the amount of learning material in schools in exchange for a more flexible curriculum that encourages students to investigate and participate.

The Education Ministry is not all ideas, either. This year it allocated Sk15 million (€388,000) to equip 15 school premises with facilities capable of accommodating children with special needs. And in August, teachers will see a much-needed rise in their salaries.

Universities have much to look forward to as well - or do they? The Slovak Spectator spoke with two university rectors, one from Bratislava and the other from Kosice, to find out what the "third millennium" education system will look like in the coming academic year.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How would you evaluate the previous school year? Is there new legislation that you would like to see approved?

František Gahér: Comenius University, Bratislava (Gahér): A new university credit system was implemented at all universities. Starting in the August 2005, universities can only offer students accredited study programmes. Another step was made, even though only a very small step, towards equal distribution of state subsidies on quality and performance merits within the areas of science and research.

If we look at our university education from a European angle, we can't be satisfied with the current state of affairs. State spending on universities in Slovakia is seriously behind European standards. Compared to the EU-25 average of 1.3 percent of gross domestic product, Slovakia spends only 0.85 percent of its GDP on higher education. Spending on science is even worse. Compared to the 2 percent average in the EU, Slovakia spent only 0.58 percent of its GDP. It is almost a miracle that we [universities] manage to produce graduates that are able to compete within the European job market.

Juraj Sinay: Technical University, Košice (Sinay): Our 2004/2005 academic year was influenced by [the education ministry's] efforts to finalize education reforms. Legislation that sets the stage for science and research subsidies helps universities develop more objective ways to apply for state grants. It also helps us allocate substantially higher funds to science and technology in general. I hope that the 2005/2006 year will benefit from the European Universities Association accreditation system as a way to diversify higher education. For the future, increased financial support for higher education is needed.

TSS: The education minister wants to spend around Sk13 million (€336,000) on private universities. How does this influence the ability of your university to compete?

Gahér:I don't think it will have a major impact on us. On the other hand, as experience from Poland shows, 300 private Polish universities devalued the state's higher education system since these institutions literally sold graduate diplomas to their students. Private education establishments have a different set of priorities than universities subsidized by the state. Ultimately it is questionable if taxpayers' money should contribute towards private institutions' profits.

Sinay: The new law enables private universities to apply for financial grants. I'm sure that if the project is useful, it will contribute towards the whole higher education system. In my opinion, university representatives should not object to project grants. However, in connection with private universities, I believe that conditions under which they are established should be re-evaluated. Slovakia has a limited number of qualified guarantors of individual study programmes. Current experience shows that private universities mostly offer first level study programmes that lead to bachelor's degrees. These study programmes are not so demanding on finances and don't require laboratory infrastructure. To prove whether private universities contribute towards better higher education, we will have to wait and see.

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