The European Commission (EC) is calling for a wide reform of European universities and higher education institutions suggesting that they “have failed to unleash their full potential so as to stimulate economic growth, social cohesion and improvement in the quality and quantity of jobs”. More flexibility and a more sympathetic ear for the needs of the labour market; greater diversity in the programmes they offer; more mobility for both students and teachers; flexible admission policies; and improved human resources policies at the universities: all these items are on the EC’s wish-list. But the commission is not alone in wanting them: business representatives and human resources professionals share its vision of a root-and-branch reform of universities in Europe, not least in Slovakia.
Observers of the Slovak labour market argue that the country’s education sector is in urgent need of restructuring, in order to achieve the reform and revival that that other sectors of society have undergone, if it wants to attract the best students, retain the best minds in academia and become internationally competitive.
Slovak universities say they are already internationally competitive and have the potential to produce students who meet international requirements and can perform well as postgraduates at any university abroad. However, university rectors also warn that they have to make do with as little as a quarter of the funds available to leading European universities.
What both university leaders and human resources experts can agree on is that the Slovak education system faces serious challenges which need to be systematically addressed without delay. First, the education sector must effectively respond to changes in the Slovak labour market.
Today, many talented young Slovaks get their university education abroad but then seek jobs at home in Slovakia, demonstrating that the labour market is in fact one step ahead of the education sector, says Martin Krekáč, a co-founder of the Jenewein Group global consultancy firm and the president of the Business Alliance of Slovakia.
“The education sector must become, through what it offers and the environment it provides, attractive to the young generation,” Krekáč told The Slovak Spectator.
Quantity and RAPID development versus quality
Slovakia’s university system is suffering from a drop in the quality of the candidates who apply to study in its programmes, generally low quality of teachers, a high level of corruption, an inability to meet the requirements of the labour market and insufficient cooperation with the private sector, according to a study published in 2008 by the European Public Policy Partnership (EPPP), a think-tank which is part of the Jenewein Group.
The number of university students tripled between 1990 and 2007, reaching more than 200,000, the study – entitled System of Universities in Slovakia: Reality, Problems and Possible Solutions – reported. Since 2001 the president has appointed 115 professors per year on average, and there are now 1,500 professors at Slovak universities. Two thirds of Slovakia’s total of 33 universities were founded in the last 15 years and are therefore still relatively new, the EPPP noted.
“Among the reasons for the quantitative increase in university education is the positive demographic development in the 1970s-1980s - the so-called baby boom - the efforts of the new state to build its own university system and the system of financing which allocates money to schools according to their number of students,” said Miroslav Řádek, the author of the EPPP study.
While the Slovak university education system may be applauded for its enormous effort to increase higher education participation, and universities for their efforts to expand their portfolio and boost research potential, the quality of educational and research activities has at the same time suffered from the speed and insufficient financial coverage of that expansion, found another report, by the European University Association (EUA), released in January 2008. The report, entitled Institutional evaluation of the Slovak higher education system and its research capacity, had been widely anticipated by the academic community in Slovakia.
“The time has come to address the quality of educational provision and to allow for sufficient internal differentiation to cater for the wide range of diverse needs and student profiles,” the report said.
Great, but only at home?
The education sector suffers from a lack of solutions and innovations, according to Krekáč, who believes that in order to inject these into the system there is a need for a “mental and cultural revolution”.
To prevent brain-drain, Slovak universities need to be internationally competitive – as both educational and research institutions. In the words of the EUA, this also means giving young researchers more research time and resources, up-to-date scientific infrastructure and support for improved language competencies in English, as the lingua franca of international research.
One of the problems is that while there are certainly clever young people in Slovakia they more often than not fail to find support or a platform for their new ideas. This is the reason why a number of interesting ideas end up in the dustbin, according to Miroslav Poliak, a partner at the Menkyna & Partners management consulting group.
“It’s a pity that the education system is unable to grasp these outstanding talents, and support and motivate them so that they become a significant added value,” Poliak told The Slovak Spectator, adding that these talents could contribute to lifting the quality of the university system.
However, all suggestions for improvement always touch on the issue of financing.
“If we want to compare ourselves with foreign universities, we have to compare not only the outputs but also the inputs,” said Vladimír Báleš, the rector of the Slovak University of Technology (STU) and the president of the Slovak Rectors’ Conference. He added that Slovak universities are expected to be competitive with their foreign counterparts despite there having been no investment in them for the last 20 years.
“Try to assign a builder to build you a Hilton-style hotel, by giving him €30,000,” Báleš said.
In 2008 the government allocated Sk12.8 billion (around €420 million) from the state budget for universities, an amount which put Slovakia at the bottom of the list of EU member states in terms of the share of GDP it spends on universities.
With a total per student one quarter that in the EU15 and one-seventh of the total spent in the US, František Gahér, the rector of Comenius University (UK), believes the international position of the Slovak universities is in fact miraculous, noting that his university ranks 412th in the Webometrics ranking of about 13,700 universities worldwide.
He does not agree that Slovak universities are not competitive internationally. And, aside from the ranking, he notes that many graduates from UK’s master’s and PhD programmes are very well received abroad.
But the rankings take into account both education and research, and it is the latter which has led to Slovak universities’ low positions in international comparisons such the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) compiled by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
According to Ladislav Mirossay, the rector of the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik, in Košice, research capacities need support in the first place both financially, but also in the way that research is organised in Slovakia.
“It is important that Slovak academics start comparing themselves with the rest of the world and not only with each other,” Mirossay told The Slovak Spectator.
The isolation of academic institutions from the ‘real world’ and a weak connection between academia and the labour market are among the most frequent complaints of business representatives.
“The business sector always wants something else, depending on the actual growth areas in production or business,” Mirossay said, adding that a university cannot produce people who are able to work from the first day after graduation. “Universities educate people who then need to be trained for a certain position and get some experience, but they should have considerably wider scope and be able to do much more complicated and responsible work in a short time.”
As an example, Mirossay mentioned the work of a physician who needs to study for six years and then specialise for another five. Only after that is he or she qualified to work independently.
“And nobody objects, either abroad or here, that young physicians are not able to work independently straight after their graduation,” he said.
The university rectors, however, claim that they always strive to adjust their portfolio of study programmes according to the needs of the labour market. The only thing that is missing, according to Báleš, is practical experience with companies during university study.
Poliak agrees that any tie between theoretical preparation and practice can only help the system. If there are no major investors, like carmakers PSA Peugeot Citroen or Kia, in a certain area to support educational activities with the best expertise and technology, then the state should provide this, he said.
“The number of graduates with no practical experience would drop significantly and they would get the chance to make their choice of faculty or specialisation not only according to their interests but also according to the real needs of the market and the direction of the economy,” he argued.
According to Krekáč, education is a requirement of the labour market: if the market changes, schools needs to change too.
“This relationship is like marriage, it constantly develops,” he said.
The ties between academia and the labour market are vital, because they open opportunities for various ways to finance the universities, Krekáč said. Several models of reform should be designed rather than just one unified model representing the state educational policy. Different models would apply to different types of schools, according to their approach to students, their way of teaching and their connections with other schools. In the same way, there could be public universities, joint-venture universities, private universities and others.
“Barriers must be lowered so that the education sector can function just like any other sector,” Krekáč said, adding that education must be treated as an investment in the young generation.
The topic of tuition fees has been publicly debated in Slovakia for several years, but fees have not gained support among families or secondary schools. However, human resources experts stress that tuition fees need to be seen as an investment rather than a payment.
“A person with a certain level of education is more attractive on the labour market and earns more,” Krekáč said. “The state should formulate this philosophy and communicate it to families, among young people and in schools. The state must have the courage, just as it had in 1998, when there was a need to help the development of the business environment.”
But the rectors all agree that tuition fees should not be seen as a cure-all.
Báleš said this approach is just an attempt to make citizens solve the problems of universities, whose quality should, in the first place, be the responsibility of the state and consumers – i.e. the companies who need people with a university education.
According to Gahér, tuition fees only cover part of the costs of education in countries with medium to high taxation.
“Even the world’s best private universities do not cover more than half their costs from tuition fees,” he said.
Gahér regards the main problem as being the low differentiation between graduates from different universities in the labour market.
“Unfortunately, the value of the ‘state-wide’ diplomas from some schools is close to the value of the paper they are printed on,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
Image and ranking – terra incognita
The large number of universities sharing one ‘cake’ of public finances is perhaps one of the problems, Báleš said. He has hopes for the results of the complex accreditation of universities, a process of evaluating study programmes which could help to draw a clearer line between universities according to their quality. The financing pattern should then follow this line, he said.
Slovak universities simply don’t pay attention to building their image and brand. Pride for their university is an unknown feeling to most Slovaks. According to Krekáč, alumni programmes don’t work at Slovak universities, which he regards as a problem, since they help develop loyalty to the brand.
“The loyalty to one’s alma mater and the awareness that one should support it need to be nurtured – at the moment they don’t exist,” Gahér admitted. UK tried cooperating with its alumni about 15 years ago, but without any result. There are now further plans to create an electronic database of alumni, with specific suggestions about how they might cooperate.
Báleš admits part of the problem is the lack of activity on the part of the universities. While in the US there are dozens of people working in alumni clubs, at STU the club has only one employee. Báleš still hopes that such clubs will gain more importance and popularity among graduates.
But, for now, building their image is still not among the priorities of Slovak universities.
“It’s because we live hand-to-mouth,” Mirossay explained. “Because we are solving problems which university staff in the US don’t even dream about. Because most of our properties, including student dormitories, are in a poor condition and the day only has 24 hours.”
30. Mar 2009 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani