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Quality of education falls

THE SLOVAK university education system still faces several challenges in order to be able to fulfil the needs of the labour market, which has undergone restructuring in the past decade and is now competitive with its European counterparts, human resources experts say. The Slovak Spectator spoke to František Gahér, the rector of Comenius University (UK) in Bratislava, about this and also about the international competitiveness of Slovak universities, the importance of rankings and the links between academia and business.

THE SLOVAK university education system still faces several challenges in order to be able to fulfil the needs of the labour market, which has undergone restructuring in the past decade and is now competitive with its European counterparts, human resources experts say. The Slovak Spectator spoke to František Gahér, the rector of Comenius University (UK) in Bratislava, about this and also about the international competitiveness of Slovak universities, the importance of rankings and the links between academia and business.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What do you think are the drawbacks of the system of university education in Slovakia?
František Gahér (FG): If we don't mention the fact that the system is underfinanced, one of the most serious drawbacks is the strong tendency to provide education of whatever quality, just as long as it is commercially successful. Generally speaking, the extensive growth is connected with the decreasing quality of education, which is influenced also by the decreased quality of the “inputs” – i.e. the applicants. An important negative factor here is that an academic career is not very attractive and the social status of teachers is generally low.

TSS: The fact that Slovak universities are not competitive abroad is mentioned mainly in connection with the international rankings of universities as well as with the national ranking performed by the Academic Ranking and Rating Agency (ARRA). What needs to be done for the Slovak universities to improve relative not just to universities in western Europe but to universities in neighbouring countries group within the Visegrad Four group?
FG: I don't know by whom or where it is said that Slovak universities are not competitive abroad, but in my opinion it's simply not true - and I can give convincing arguments about this objective fact. More than 13,700 universities from around the whole world are evaluated in the Webometrics international world ranking of universities and Comenius University ranks 412th. There are two other Slovak universities among the top thousand. Considering the volume of finances - we get one quarter of the finances per student than in the EU15 and one seventh compared to the US – this is a small miracle.

Many graduates from the Master's or PhD programmes at UK have no difficulty finding employment abroad and there is great interest in a considerable number of our doctoral graduates at foreign universities. Unfortunately, Slovakia occupies one of the lowest positions in the EU not only in terms of financing university education but also in terms of financing science and research. However, this endangers the whole system of education, starting with primary schools and including secondary schools. Universities are at the end of the systematic education chain and their opportunities are limited by the quality of candidates and the quality of conditions. When one apparently decreases, the latter does not reach European standards. From the viewpoint of long-run development, I believe the biggest risk is the lowering of the social status of a teacher at all levels of schooling, perhaps most at primary schools. Just think how many men teach at primary schools.

TSS: Do you think the introduction of tuition fees could solve the problems of universities in Slovakia?
FG: Nowhere in the world has the introduction of tuition fees solved the whole problem of financing education and the weight of the fees always depended on the tax system and other factors. In countries with a medium to high tax burden the fees can only represent a part of the real costs in many study programmes and even the best private universities in the world do not cover more than half of their costs from tuition fees.

Tuition fees can lead to greater responsibility and to a certain pressure on quality.

Unfortunately, it would be naive to expect something like this in cases of students with rich parents. I see the main problem in the fact that the differentiation on the labour market is not sufficient. I refer to the differentiation between graduates based on which school they come from, which faculty they studied at and what their results are. Unfortunately, the value of the ‘state-wide’ diplomas from some schools is close to the value of the paper they are printed on. And this is a phenomenon that – perhaps to a much lesser extent – occurs in more advanced countries too.

TSS: The EU supports the mobility of students, teachers and researchers, because it helps the individuals to get new viewpoints and the institutions to build partnerships. What are the mobility opportunities for students and teachers of UK and how does the university benefit from them?
FG: The mobility of students, teachers and researchers is an important factor in the university's development. “Profits” from international experience, from the comparing of results, and the atmosphere of foreign universities can be significant. Mobility is growing at UK, by 34 percent year-on-year. We have also decided to support mobility from our own resources.

TSS: Brain drain is a potential threat that has not been forgotten in Slovakia yet, in academia as well as in business. Mobility programmes can surely contribute to brain drain: if students like the foreign universities which they visit more, they often do not want to return home. Do you see this as a problem?
FG: To some extent, yes. Especially for PhD students in the “hard” experimental fields, who often stay abroad for better research conditions. This cannot be changed by any decision or ruling; we can only patiently improve our conditions, unfortunately with only limited resources.

TSS: Industry and the business sector have been complaining about the insufficient preparation of Slovak university graduates for work. There has been mention of weak connections between academia and the labour market. Do you consider this a problem? How could it be changed in Slovakia and what concrete solutions are you planning at Comenius University?
FG: University education should be built so that graduates are able to find a place in the labour market. The needs of business and industry are changing and the schools need to be flexible in their response to the changes. The managements of schools are trying to anticipate the new needs and trends of development in practice. On the other hand, the changing interest of candidates in studying certain specialisations or programmes also shows the movement in the labour market.

Feedback is a vital corrective of our activities. Unfortunately, there is no serious study to identify the needs of business and industry which we are not covering in the present organisation and focus of our study programmes. When we asked representatives of big companies how we should change our study programmes, we only got either too detailed requirements touching only a limited number of study programmes or general advices like ‘there is a need for better self-presentation skills, better communication skills and assertiveness’. We are trying to solve this problem systematically, by setting out concrete tasks in our Long-term Objectives of UK in Bratislava for 2008 – 2013. It is a document that went through a process of commenting, including by members of the board of UK, who represent mainly the non-academic public. Last but not least, our very successful project Excellent University aimed to increase the competitiveness of future graduates from UK and other universities in the Bratislava Self-Governing Region.

TSS: In western countries, and mostly in the US, there is a tradition of alumni programmes and of university branding, which helps to create an image and a brand for a university. Why do Slovak universities neglect these activities? Do you think they would be of use in the Slovak academic environment?
FG: An attempt to cooperate with alumni was initiated at UK about 15 years ago, but with few results. The loyalty to one's alma mater and the awareness that one should support it throughout one's whole life need to be cultivated; at the moment they do not exist.

In connection with the 90th anniversary of the foundation of UK we will create an electronic database of UK graduates, place this on our website and will try again, this time really with the maximum scope, to address our graduates and encourage them to cooperate. We will come up with concrete forms of cooperation. We are hoping that we'll manage to start this process and that it will be viable.

TSS: Another thing that has no tradition in Slovakia is rankings. The ARRA ranking is basically the only one we can consider representative. Do you think that rankings help universities to move forward, to improve? Is the evaluation by independent institutions important personally for you and for Comenius University?
FG: UK as an institution went through various evaluations recently, among them two international studies, and at the moment it is undergoing the process of complex accreditation performed by the Accreditation Commission of the Slovak government. The EU is preparing a Europe-wide ranking of member-state universities, inspired by the German methodology.

We have never overestimated the evaluations and rankings, because their results always depend on the methodology which can be determined by regional, professional or group interests. On the other hand, we have never underestimated them either. The recommendations from the evaluations should show in the activities and directions the universities take.

This is what we consider the standard way of governance at UK, which we have proved by the long-term objectives mentioned above, in which we incorporated the recommendations of the evaluation committee from the European University Association. I would like to stress that the self-evaluation report of UK that we wrote about ourselves was a decisive document for this evaluation and the recommendations.

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