SOME people were surprised to learn recently that none of Slovakia’s universities were ranked among the world’s top 500 in the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) compiled by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
But Slovakia’s own annual evaluation of its higher education institutions also concluded that its universities are not competitive internationally, as they lag behind their counterparts in research resources and spending.
The Slovak-based, non-governmental Academic Ranking and Rating Agency (ARRA) has been evaluating and ranking the faculties at Slovakia’s public universities since 2004. But it is just one of very few sources of data about Slovak academia, which makes it difficult for experts and policymakers to pin down exactly what is ailing the system.
There have been other attempts to rank the country's universities – such as one by the Slovak Governance Institute that cited figures from universities’ annual reports – but none have managed to attract public interest sufficient to provoke change.
In fact, the criteria upon which the rankings are based is often cited by universities as a reason to discount the rankings.
For instance, the ARWU factors in the number of Nobel Prize laureates teaching at a university. This is often seen as completely irrelevant by many Slovak universities, which have never had Nobel Prize laureates on staff, according to an article in the Trend weekly written by experts from the ARRA.
Though the experts defend that particular criterion, given that the ARWU ranks universities around the world, they state that the ARRA prefers criteria such as the number of articles a university’s staff has published in international journals, the number of full-time PhD students enrolled, the amount in international grants a university has received, the number of foreign students enrolled and its professor-student ratio.
Rankings go unnoticed
People familiar with Slovak academia agree that the attitude to university rankings is completely different to that in Western Europe and the USA.
Usually, the rectors of Slovak universities that rank poorly simply refuse to comment, while those at universities that rank well hail the results.
Regardless, Slovak students hardly ever use rankings to decide where to study, and even the Education Ministry has rejected the ARRA rankings, the Sme daily wrote.
Ľuboš Pástor, a Slovak professor of finance at the University of Chicago’s Business School, sees firsthand how influenced students in the US are by rankings, such as the one compiled each year by U.S. News & World Report magazine.
“Choosing which university to attend is far more important than choosing which car to buy,” he explained, “yet people usually consult consumer satisfaction surveys before choosing a car”.
In the US, Pástor observed, universities are seen as an investment, and people want to put their money into the best offer on the market.
However, he noted that different rankings affect different fields of study.
“In my field of business, for example, the most visible ranking of business schools is published bi-annually by BusinessWeek magazine,” Pástor told The Slovak Spectator.
It’s not only in the US that rankings play a role in where students choose to study. Some professors note that universities in the European Union are also making a great effort to improve the quality of their research and education in order to rank well.
“Ranking is absolutely relevant,” said Jitse van Dijk, a Dutch scientist the who serves as the scientific director of the Košice Institute for Society and Health (KISH), a research centre at the University of P.J. Šafárik in Košice that was established in cooperation with the University of Groningen. “A school has to identify its weak spots to be able to improve them, and how weak they are compared to the rest of the world.”
He added, “Perhaps it is possible to exist without rankings, but if the whole world uses them, then they are simply a fact.”
According to van Dijk, Dutch universities pay most attention to the ARWU and the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings.
“But because those rankings don’t say much about education, students are more interested in the national ‘Elsevier enquete’, which reports on the (perceived) quality of education,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
ARRA has already polled Slovak students about their impression of the country’s universities and plans to continue to do so. It is currently working on two more projects: a survey in cooperation with the GfK agency on graduates’ satisfaction with their alma mater and a survey in cooperation with Profesia.sk on employers’ interest in graduates from different universities, the Trend weekly wrote. The results will be published in early 2009.
Slovak academia cast in an unflattering light
Slovak universities’ lacklustre performance in the ARRA rankings shows the system is struggling with a number of challenges. The faculties, divided into six groups according to field of study, failed to show any ability to compete internationally, even in Central Europe.
The only Slovak school that ranked first in comparison with its Czech counterparts was the Slovak University of Technology’s Faculty of Chemistry and Food Technologies in Bratislava.
“We are successful because we always compare our work with the best,” Dušan Bakoš, who heads the faculty, told The Slovak Spectator. “We believe the quality of scientific work is the most important value, perform regular evaluations, have strict criteria for promoting staff, present the results of our work abroad and, mainly, we build on the traditions of scientific work.”
Even so, Bakoš confirmed, the ranking will have no significance for prospective students. Chemistry is simply not a popular field of study, so the faculty is facing a declining number of students, he told the Sme daily.
Meanwhile, the challenges confronting university education are causing Slovak students to choose universities that they believe can provide better conditions. About 18,000 Slovak students currently study in the Czech Republic, and hundreds more are studying around the world, according to the ARWU report.
Ivan Ostrovský from ARRA believes that Czech schools are preferred among some Slovak students because, as in the US and Western Europe, Czech universities are funded with the goal of creating centres of specialisation.
“Slovakia could develop two schools into centres of science, like in the Czech Republic, where science is focused at Charles University in Prague and Masaryk University in Brno,” Ostrovský told Sme.
Van Dijk said that improving the quality and quantity of Slovak international output would contribute to a higher ranking. He suggested that the rankings focus on Slovak PhD students and young researchers, and that monographs be replaced by PhD theses containing international articles.
“Such measures don’t cost extra money, but make more efficient use of the money which is present,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
A lot also needs to be improved in the way Slovak universities are financed, he added.
According to Pástor from the University of Chicago, which ranks among the top 10 world universities in most rankings, Slovak professors face low pay and a heavy workload in comparison to the US. If the government wants to continue running Slovak universities, he said, it needs to be more generous with its funding, because investment in education only becomes profitable in the long run.
“In times of economic distress, such as today, governments tend to focus on short-term fixes instead of long-term investment,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t expect any magic solution to the Slovak university problem in the next year or two.”
15. Dec 2008 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani