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Will Europe continue to lose?

SPEAKING about world-class universities in Slovakia may appear futile: not a single Slovak university made it to the top 500 universities listed annually in the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities. The long downhill slide of Slovak higher education continues, albeit with a few precious exceptions. Currently, 18,000 Slovak students study at Czech universities and hundreds, maybe thousands, study elsewhere in Europe and around the world.

SPEAKING about world-class universities in Slovakia may appear futile: not a single Slovak university made it to the top 500 universities listed annually in the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities. The long downhill slide of Slovak higher education continues, albeit with a few precious exceptions. Currently, 18,000 Slovak students study at Czech universities and hundreds, maybe thousands, study elsewhere in Europe and around the world.

A hundred years ago, Europe was the mecca of global education, but the last half a century has belonged to American universities with just a few European – mainly British ones – still playing in the first league. Observing positive trends in the proportion of European and international students studying in the USA and in EU countries 20 years ago and today, some European analysts have optimistically concluded that the best education investments of the future will be in academic degrees from European (and some Asian) universities at the expense of American ones. This may hold some truth, but the prophecy is not automatic and self-fulfilling.

Top US universities draw students from all over the United States and the world, attracting the brightest students to study with the best professors, who are offered the highest salaries. Unless the EU succeeds in creating a number of top educational institutions to rival Harvard, Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, John Hopkins University and the like, these institutions will remain meccas of global education and their degrees will remain very difficult to match in the realm of science, research, medicine, etc. Is Europe on track to reclaim its position as an educational superpower in the 21st century? The number of foreign students in EU member states in 2006 were more than double those in the USA (over 1.2 million compared to 560,000). The decreased proportion of foreigners studying in the US out of the global pool of international students can be attributed to the overall political and cultural consequences of recent developments in the US.

But we should not ignore another fundamental reason: the dramatic growth of the costs of studying in the US over the last decade. The average cost of tuition for one year of study at a private college in the US grew from around $17,000 in 1996 to $22,200 in 2006. Costs for public universities grew from $4,000 in 1996 to over $5,800 in 2006. However, the free-fall of the US dollar over the last few years certainly compensates for this growth in costs for Europeans whose currencies have strengthened against the once-mighty dollar.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) prepared by Shanghai Jiao Tong University has ranked the top 500 world universities annually since 2003 and is continually sharpening its methodology. The most recent figures for 2008 show that of the top 50 universities world-wide, 36 were American, 10 European (five British, one Swiss, two French, one Danish and one Dutch), two Japanese and two Canadian. Out of the top 100 world universities, 32 are based in Western Europe (EU plus Switzerland and Norway), while 54 are American. In all five years, of the 20 best universities in the world, 17 are American, 2 European (Cambridge and Oxford, both UK) and one Japanese.

The figures are better for Europe when we look at the full list of the top 500 universities: 208 are Western European; 159 are in the US. From the Central European states, only seven universities made it to the top 500 list: Eötvös Loránd and Szeged Universities in Hungary; Jagiellonian and Warsaw Universities in Poland; Charles University in the Czech Republic; and Ljubljana University in Slovenia. Austria has seven universities among the top 500.

Europe has a long way to go if it wants to compete successfully against American universities, and language is one important advantage American universities have in attracting foreign students. Using English alone makes them readily accessible to savvy crowds from all around the world. In contrast, the many languages used at universities across the EU are in some cases more of a curse than a blessing.

This author is personally familiar with two young Slovaks who graduated from a high school in the US and continued their studies at the University of Maryland (37th best world-wide, 28th best in America). These students rejected their families’ pleas to continue their studies at Slovak or Central European universities because, while hundreds of better universities in the EU recognise the American “Advanced Placement” (AP) tests for admission, Czech and Slovak universities do not. Other EU schools were closed to them because of language barriers. Finally, they chose not to apply to schools in the UK or Ireland because they were not entirely sure what they wanted to study.

Unlike its European counterparts, the American college system recognises the unsurprising fact that 18- and 19-year-olds may not be ready to choose a lifelong area of specialisation. Instead, a broad range of study is encouraged in the first two years of university, before the student is asked to select a single area of concentration for the last two years of study. Maybe this is something we could learn from America, too. And we should certainly think seriously about how to get those young Europeans studying in the US back home, so that they enrich our academic environment and are not lost to Europe. The sooner we do it, the more will return.



(The opinions expressed herein do not reflect the views of The Slovak Spectator. The opinion pieces are intended to provide a wider scope of views and inspire further debate.)


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