WHENEVER Rob Swartbol promotes opportunities for Slovaks in the Netherlands he is careful to ensure there aren’t negative consequences for their home country. “It would be good to have smart Slovaks in Holland, but then you would have a lack of them here,” says the Dutch Ambassador to Slovakia.
Ambassador Swartbol believes that once Slovak universities start offering more programmes and courses in the English language, Dutch students will discover them. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Rob Swartbol about the challenges Slovakia faces in becoming more environmentally-aware, the experiences that the Netherlands can share, and also about the Slovak NGO sector and programmes for the Roma community.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Both educators and politicians agree that Slovakia's education system is in urgent need of reform. The increasing lack of qualified labour and the consistently low volume of funding for the education sector indicate the urgency of the problem. What, in your opinion, should be the priorities for education reform in Slovakia?
Rob Swartbol (RS): We have had quite a few education reforms in the Netherlands and not all of them were very successful. Education reform is a complicated process and it is difficult to get it right at the beginning, so you have to adjust the process during reform.
Slovakia now has a booming economy and, for many people, working in the private sector is interesting. It is not easy for the state and the education sector to keep pace with this development. You see more and more skilled teachers moving to the private sector. But you do need enough good teachers - so reform is also about making the teaching profession more attractive.
In the Netherlands we have also adjusted requirements for schools to the international environment. Society needs to concentrate more on language training. What we did in Holland was to concentrate less on encyclopaedic knowledge and more on social issues. However, if you want to “produce” intelligent students, who are able to go to university and graduate, they need to have some decent knowledge of maths and languages. You have to find an equilibrium. The Dutch experience shows that creating an attractive environment for teachers and training them in an effective way is very important, along with a focus on the international environment.
I am now looking into the possibility of putting Dutch high schools in contact with Slovak high schools - I believe that schools can benefit from exchanging experiences.
TSS: According to 2007 THES-QS World University Rankings, there are no less than 11 Dutch universities in the top 200 universities in the world. What are the factors behind the success of the Dutch universities?
RS: I would like to go back to the 16th century, when the first Dutch university in Leiden was founded. After a year-long siege of the city of Leiden, the city was liberated and was offered a reward. But the city did not ask for money; it asked for a university, and in 1574 the first university in Holland was founded there. So the interest in education has always been there.
Our universities are very international. We try to attract as many good professors from abroad as possible, while Dutch professors go to perform research and teach at foreign universities. This dynamic is one of Holland’s key success factors. A lot of programmes at Dutch universities are taught in English, not in Dutch.
TSS: What are the prospects for academic cooperation between Slovakia and the Netherlands?
RS: There are some ties between Slovakia and the Netherlands, for example the Agriculture University in Nitra is working together with our agricultural university in Wageningen. There are some Dutch professors teaching in Slovakia, but I must say there is room for improving these links. One of the things I want to do in the next couple of years is to signal to Slovak students that they have the opportunity to study in the Netherlands. There are scholarships available for Slovak students. There are not many Dutch students coming to Slovakia so far. One predictable reason is the language barrier. The more Slovak universities focus on the global environment and offer courses in English, the more Dutch students will come to Slovakia.
TSS: The Netherlands is among the traditional supporters of the non-governmental sector. Over the past decade the NGO sector in Slovakia has made immense progress. What do you think are the greatest challenges that the NGO sector faces today?
RS: First of all, Slovak NGOs did a fantastic job. Supported by foreign countries, many NGOs have done a lot of responsible work during the transition process. A lot of sponsors have dropped out since Slovakia became a member of the EU, but NGO funding remains important and NGOs remain a crucial part of society. Now some NGOs really need to change their focus. Though transition is not over yet, you always have to be very self-critical about whether the work NGOs do in any given area is still necessary. Then there are fields where NGOs are critical to the normal functioning of society, not just during the transition period. NGOs now need to focus on sustainability and maybe broaden their base.
When I came here two years ago and I attended a social project it was quite difficult to find volunteers. Logically, over the past fifteen years, Slovaks were busy with creating their own homes, their individual place in society and establishing themselves financially. Recently however, I see more and more people who want to do something extra. Some NGOs should focus on gaining more volunteers who can help people who are less successful and discuss for instance the problems of minorities. Or simple things like cleaning up the neighbourhood. Not only professionals can do that - people in general need to feel that they can do it themselves.
TSS: The Roma remain the most vulnerable community in Slovakia. Your embassy has devoted a lot of attention to this community.
RS: We have spent more than €30 million overall during the last decade on programmes not only for Roma but also democracy and environmental awareness. Though the Matra programme has ended, we continue to support some activities. We did a fantastic project last year: the Station East in Prešov, where Roma and non-Roma worked together through art, music, dance and literature to overcome the divide and to communicate with each other – and not just about Roma issues. We will repeat the project this year. Some of your readers might say: OK, communication is fine but what about housing and education? These are the most important things, of course. But I think these areas are for the government to solve, and we will contribute with our projects.
Last year we had the Queen visiting Slovakia and she dropped in at a so-called green school in the Košice area; a place focusing on environmental issues. This school has about 30 or 40 percent Roma children. The focus was not on the divide between Roma and non-Roma, but on the environment, and the Roma and non-Roma children worked together on environmental projects where colour did not matter. I like very much the idea of themes that can get Roma and non-Roma united and working together.
TSS: Post-communist countries, including Slovakia, are facing the challenge of becoming more environmentally-aware and are seeking ways to use renewable energy sources. In what areas, and with what experiences, can the Netherlands serve as an example for Slovakia?
RS: Environmental friendliness is a special expertise we have in Holland, which, despite being even smaller than Slovakia, is home to almost 17 million people. So you can understand that space is scarce while water and waste are issues extremely high on our agenda. A lot of universities and companies specialise in this.
As we all have to deal with global questions like climate change, Slovakia, just like other Central and Eastern European countries, will have to face these questions now more than in the past. The EU has set new environmental demands, which pose new challenges on energy issues. Moreover, we should not look at the environment, climate and energy separately but rather in synergy. There are some Dutch companies which are fantastically innovative in this area.
For Slovakia, apart from energy issues, flood management will also be important over the next couple of years. The Dutch have great expertise in this area, just as they do in water purification from sewage to drinking water. Slovakia will have to find some smart ways to produce energy, for instance creating energy out of waste. I think our two countries can and should work together.
TSS: The Netherlands has been among the countries with the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union while Slovakia has been at the other end of the chart, posting one of the highest jobless rates in the union. Is there something Slovakia could learn from the Dutch labour market experience?
RS: About 10 years ago, industrial production in the Netherlands decreased rapidly and shifted to the East. The Netherlands had to look for new ways to organise its economy and diversify it, and the labour force changed accordingly. The natural tendency is to put more emphasis on services. It is most likely that Slovakia will experience the same development. Within 10 or 15 years production in Slovakia might move to the East. What will be important then is to diversify your economy and look for other promising sectors.
For all the industries the Netherlands has now, we need highly skilled workers, which makes the focus on education so crucial. If you are not educated, it is rather difficult to find a job in Holland. Another reason why we have such low unemployment is that a lot of people in Holland work part-time, especially women. That is not by definition a good thing, but it is a sort of cultural tradition in Holland that women work half days or 70 percent. In Slovakia that is not the case.
There are Slovaks working in the Netherlands, mostly in the housing and construction industry. As the level of income in Slovakia increases, those labourers will most probably come back.
A lot of young Slovaks go abroad to learn language and to work. However, almost all Slovaks I have talked to intend come back to Slovakia. Still, when I am promoting the opportunity for Slovaks to go to Holland I always try to make sure that it doesn’t have negative consequences for Slovakia. It would be good to have smart Slovaks in Holland, but then you would have a lack of them here.
Some Dutch companies train Slovaks at a vocational level, for instance in the metal industry, with the best students being awarded a one-year job in the Netherlands. When they return, they have new skills and international experience. They can use that knowledge here to set up their own business or to improve other companies.
TSS: Your embassy has been very active in supporting cultural projects and also introducing Dutch culture to Slovaks. What have been the most notable recent cultural events that your embassy has helped organise?
RS: Promoting Dutch culture here is not a one-way street. It should go both ways. We do not have a lot of finance for these projects but we try to be smart and bring things to Slovakia from the Netherlands which we think are interesting, innovative but also which we expect Slovaks to be receptive to. By far the biggest thing we had last year was the Netherlands Dance Theatre with Jiří Kylián, who lives in Holland.
But it is not only about bringing our culture here, it’s also about learning from Slovakia’s cultural elite, if you like, or expertise. Just a brief example: at the end of the summer we will have a Dutch photographer coming to Slovakia.
We have a very active Slovak ambassador in the Netherlands who brings Slovak art to my home country as well: some classical things like works by famous Slovak painters, but also music.
But it is not just the embassies which can be involved in these exchanges. It is pleasing to see cooperation between municipalities: for example Šamorín has a twin city, Lagerborg, a small town near Leiden in the Netherlands. They work together on waste management, but also do cultural and sporting exchanges.
TSS: The UN has extended the mandate of international forces under NATO command in Afghanistan by another year. The Netherlands is one of the countries carrying the greatest burden there. What is your country's stand on the situation in Afghanistan? What role can countries like Slovakia play in the process of stabilisation in the Middle East?
RS: It is very nice for us that Slovakia has decided to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan and sent them south to the province of Uruzgan, which is under Dutch command. This cooperation in the military field between Holland and Slovakia should serve as an example for other countries.
Why is this important? Because southern parts of Afghanistan are fragile areas with a lot of problems, such as drugs and insurgencency, that could potentially destabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan. So we really need to be there, not only to make Afghanistan safe, but also to protect us here in Slovakia and the Netherlands from drugs and terrorism. Slovakia was the first to step up and take the international call, which was an extremely brave decision. Slovakia has some expertise, which for example the Dutch don’t have, especially in military engineering. They can train the Afghan army, because they still use equipment from the Soviet period. We do not have that knowledge. Slovakia can also train the Afghan military and police.
Slovakia, during its rotating presidency of the UN Security Council, stressed the issue of reform of the security sector and issued calls to make the military more stable and democratic. Today it is a crucial issue at the UN. Smaller countries like Slovakia can have an enormous impact if they choose the right topics and work together with the right countries.
Political system: Constitutional monarchy
Total area:41,864 square kilometres
The Dutch Parliament consists of two chambers. The first with 75 members is indirectly elected and have limited powers. The second chamber, or lower house, is directly elected and controls the government. Members of both houses serve a four-year tearm.
The Netherlands is low-lying territory, with one third of the country at or below sea level. Many areas are protected from flooding by dykes and sea walls.
Industrial activity is predominantly in food processing, chemicals, petroleum refining, electrical and electronic machinery. The port of Rotterdam is the busiest in Europe, serving a vast hinterland which stretches into Germany and central Europe.
Source: EU website:http://europa.eu/