SOME people wear their academic titles like retired generals wear medals at military parades. Some people get them from parents, who pay for their education at trendy international schools. They wear them like lavish jewellery, intended to signify their status and demonstrate their intelligence. Then there are those who have academic titles, but do not actually need them since their academic work and international renown already give them an aura of sophistication and achievement. But whatever they say about their bearers, they do – or should – represent a certain standard. So when a school suddenly loses the people whose academic titles signal its quality, they can get into real trouble, not least in Slovakia.
Academic titles, or more precisely a lack of people bearing the right title, has recently pushed Slovak academia into the media spotlight. Their absence means that several masters programmes will lose their accreditation and hence be unable to issue diplomas or accept students. The pride of the country’s academia, Comenius University’s Faculty of Philosophy, has announced that it will not be able to open five master’s study programmes - andragogy (adult education), cultural science, marketing communication, religious studies and journalism - due to the fact that these departments no longer have professors who can serve as guarantors of the programmes.
While journalists may portray this professorial shortfall as just another small nettle in the weed-strewn garden that is the Slovak education sector, for the students who happen to have chosen these programmes to launch their future professional careers it represents a real problem. The loss of accreditation came at the worst time for those students who will get their bachelor’s degree this year and had hoped to advance to the master’s programme; or for those who are already in the first year of that programme.
Yet the professorial shortfall raises a lot of questions: will schools try to fast-breed professors in order to secure accreditation for their programmes? How will that affect the quality of the departments? Will they fish for professors abroad and bring them in from other countries - a possibility that Viktor Smieško, the chairman of the Council of Universities has suggested? If so, do they have the resources to attract high-quality professors from abroad, and what use would it be to attract anything less than high-quality people?
The European Commission has been calling for a wide reform of European universities, calling for a more sympathetic ear for the needs of the labour market, greater diversity in programmes, flexible admission policies and more mobility.
Once universities fail to live up to the ideal of being centres of innovation, inspiration, progress and professional standards they risk being reduced to acting as printing houses for diplomas, where any student can make it without any great effort to the counter and receive a piece of paper certifying that he or she has acquired a higher education.
This should be a serious warning sign for a country where head-hunters no longer ask the question “what university did you graduate from?”, unless the candidate has a diploma from a prestigious foreign school or a very specific qualification is required.
Some universities are able to make their alumni life-long members of their community and their former students, after graduating, remain active during their professional life in support of the school through alumni associations. The institutions they have attended define them - and not just through the emblem on their t-shirt or coffee cup.
Slovak universities say that with the funding they receive their current international ranking is a minor miracle, while rectors point out that introduction of tuition fees alone, for example, would not cure their problems. Observers suggest that Slovaks need to start looking at their education as a lifelong investment rather than just a way of obtaining a piece of paper to certify that they are ‘educated’, or a way to spend a couple of years here or there before they start doing something else instead.
Universities cannot slavishly follow in the footsteps of business and change their curricula whenever someone reports a lack of experts in a certain area. But they must react to the needs of the labour market. But nor should they accept masses of people to study in programmes for which society has no real need. Healthy ties with business and practical experience of working can give universities the means for self-reflection, something to which schools should be more open. They should bring in as many professionals from the world of work as possible and not fear it if these people challenge some of their deeply rooted methods.
While it is true that academia should not be a race in which schools compete for good rankings, competition should nonetheless be part of the system. Universities should compete for the best talent and should have the ambition to attract more international students and even more foreign visiting professors.
Slovak academics need to understand that the race is taking place in an international stadium and not just at the local playground - and that it should be the ultimate ambition of any academic to keep up.