Rectors share their ideas

THE QUESTION of the degree of interconnection between academia and practice is an age-old issue, but universities of technology in Slovakia do not view the current level as insufficient. Rather, the universities see a need for greater support from the state, in particular for their pursuit of scientific and research activities. They also want to see a boost in the promotion of technological studies among students even though the two biggest Slovak universities of technology do not complain of too few applicants.

The Slovak economy needs more technical graduates.The Slovak economy needs more technical graduates. (Source: TASR)

THE QUESTION of the degree of interconnection between academia and practice is an age-old issue, but universities of technology in Slovakia do not view the current level as insufficient. Rather, the universities see a need for greater support from the state, in particular for their pursuit of scientific and research activities. They also want to see a boost in the promotion of technological studies among students even though the two biggest Slovak universities of technology do not complain of too few applicants.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Vladimír Báleš, rector of the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, Anton Čižmár, rector of the Technical University of Košice and Vladimír Kročko, dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra, about the interconnection between business and academia, impacts of the economic downturn on their universities and faculties as well as about the level of interest of students in studying technology and how to increase it.

TSS: Industrial enterprises in Slovakia often complain about an insufficient interconnection between academic education and practical experience. What challenges has your university been facing in this sphere?

Vladimír Báleš (VB): This is an ages-long paradox. Businesses usually complain about a weak interconnection between the university and industry and the schools complain about an insufficient interest on the part of industry in university education.

The Slovak University of Technology (STU) in Bratislava has set up an Industrial Board, clustering prominent representatives of Slovak industry. These representatives help us in directing our education, in preparing our study programmes and also in deciding in which direction to head the research at STU.

Anton Čižmár (AČ): The Technical University of Košice (TUKE) cannot complain when it comes to an insufficient interconnection between practical work experience and industrial businesses, and I think that representatives of the business community share this opinion towards TUKE.

Vladimír Kročko (VK): The Faculty of Engineering at the Slovak University of Agriculture (SUA) in Nitra has signed cooperation agreements with several industrial companies in the Nitra region. The main areas of cooperation touch upon particular educational activities and the research-scientific sector. The biggest challenge of the faculty is to satisfy the interest of industrial companies in our graduates as such graduates are missing in the labour market. The preparation of the Scientific-Technological Park Nitra Sever is also a challenge for the Faculty of Engineering.

TSS: What is the current situation at your university in this sphere? Do some companies participate, for instance, in creating study programmes at your university or do they get involved in any other way in the educational process?

VB: As a university of technology we would be unable to fulfil our mission without an interconnection with industrial companies. We have signed contracts with several significant industrial companies which are of a high interest to us. This is because we prepare graduates in line with our partners’ requirements and we are solving problems for them through masters and PhD theses.

For example, with the power producer Slovenské Elektrárne we have prepared a study programme with the focus on energy which was created by experts from both sides. We have also signed similar contracts with the gas utility SPP, natural gas storage company Nafta Gbely, refinery Slovnaft, carmaker Volkswagen, Samsung and others. In addition to this, individual STU faculties have signed separate contracts with other industrial partners.

But what we miss is the opportunity for our students to go for praxis directly in industrial companies. Companies are not prone to do this because it means additional work for their employees, it costs them some euros, and they are also fearful of having the responsibility for the safety of the students. We would welcome more forwardness from companies. There is nothing better than when students can confront the theoretical knowledge they have gained with practical experience. The University Act might also better address this problem.

AČ: We have the so-called strategic businesses which include steel makers US Steel Košice and Železiarne Podbrezová for the metallurgy sector, IT companies T-System Slovakia, Siemens and Ness, Cisco Systems for the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector, Volkswagen for the automotive industry, Getrag Ford for machinery, power distributor Východoslovenská Energetika and Slovenské Elektrárne for the energy sector, and more. We have created common workplaces with these enterprises and their laboratories and we prepare - after consultations – study fields with their contents adapted to the requirements of the above-mentioned companies as well as other companies. Passing the amendment to the University Act concerning the opportunity for universities to participate in joint companies with industrial enterprises would help us a lot. Only through such a synergic effect can we achieve a more effective transfer of technologies from universities to practice. If industrial companies thrive, universities will also thrive. This is very simple mathematics.

VK: The Faculty of Engineering in Nitra, in cooperation with management of industrial companies, is currently preparing a study programme focused on the automotive industry. Experts from industrial companies give lectures to students as well as participate in international conferences organised by the faculty. The students attending study programmes in Management of Production Quality, Engineering Operational Safety, and Operation of Transport Machines and Equipment go for two-week praxis to industrial companies. We advertise work opportunities at companies for our graduates on our website or secure permission to publish offers for employment using personal contacts directly on the campus of the faculty. Cooperation also focuses on selecting appropriate themes for bachelor, masters and PhD theses so that their results can be used in practice. The industrial companies also annually support students in their scientific activities at the university.

TSS: How would you evaluate the interest of Slovak students in technical and natural sciences at your university?

VB: Interest in attending technical universities is lower not only in Slovakia; this phenomenon is also present in Europe as well as the United States. This is not only because these branches of study are relatively more difficult to learn, but also a consequence of too little promotion of engineering, of new technologies, and of the completely different tasks of engineers now. This is not only a mistake made by media, but also by us who manage the technical universities. We write too few articles for the general public and we do not present our successes. For example, who knows that students from the Faculty of Informatics and Information Technologies finished with a second place award last year at a world competition for intelligent projects with a project designing an intelligent power consumption manager for the household?

I agree that industry is beginning to feel a lack of engineers with quality technical education. I believe that the current financial and economic crisis will end soon and then this deficit will become even more visible.

STU does not suffer from a low number of students interested in our school. There are some differences when individual faculties are taken into consideration, but in general the number of STU students is not decreasing. This is also because our students do not have a problem finding a job. But what is bothering us is the quality of applicants and our study programmes. Here we have room for improvement. We hold many events for secondary school students to promote our study programmes. This summer we are going to organise, for the first time, a summer university for secondary-school students to show them technical education from a bit less traditional side.

Regarding this, I would expect from the state a greater degree of support for students studying at technical universities, bigger promotion of engineering and, probably, special scholarships for these students. But employers should be not forgotten either. They should offer wages which would be a driving force for students to graduate from a technical university.

AČ: The interest of students to study at TUKE is rather optimistic. Currently, there are about 17,000 students in all forms of study, which is a respectable number. The quality of these students and their distribution among individual faculties or study courses is another thing. The truth is, however, that study of technological sciences is difficult in theoretical subjects like mathematics, physics, and others. However, there is no other way to educate a good graduate, and thus to improve and develop our economy. Anyone who fails to understand this does not take our country seriously. That is why I am surprised by the opinions of many people that the state is unwise to support technical branches at universities and that industry alone must be interested in supporting these branches. If the economy and technologies do not flourish, then the non-technological universities won’t flourish, either. This is something we probably do not want.

The interest of students in studying technology will best support their chances of finding a good job after graduation. This is a huge opportunity for graduates of universities of technology; today, it is not so hard to graduate from a university but it is rather hard to find a well-paid and interesting job. That is what we offer our students.

The state has to make a motivating environment for the technological branches and industrial businesses so that pays off to make one’s living thanks to technological products. So if it pays off better for enterprises to invest in beauty contests than in joint programmes with universities, something is wrong in the system. I appreciate the initiative of the education minister in preparing new laws that will be incentive for businesses and research institutions to collaborate.

VK: Unfavourable demographic developments will influence the number of applicants for study at the Faculty of Engineering in Nitra in the future. Thus, it is necessary to constantly promote study opportunities and newly-accredited study programmes that our faculty offers in all regions of Slovakia, but in particular in the vicinity of Nitra. The annual Agrocomplex fair in Nitra is one of the opportunities for promotion. The faculty uses informational leaflets and CDs, as well as DVDs, to promote the school and inform about the study opportunities and about the opportunities our graduates have to establish themselves in the labour market. The faculty also holds open houses for secondary-school students and teachers from the faculty also visit individual regions and secondary schools to personally promote the university.

The number of quality applicants for the study of technology is decreasing. The reason might be the low moral recognition and financial rewards of academically educated experts in technical fields on the part of society. We consider one of main tasks of the state to be increasing the level of interest in study of technological programmes.

TSS: The interconnection of science and research with industry is inevitable in preserving the competitiveness of Slovakia. How is your university dealing with this challenge? In your opinion, what problems do Slovak universities face in the fields of science and research?

VB: Universities suffer from three problems in the fields of science and research: under financing of science, both from state and private funds; obsolete equipment in labs; and low salaries forcing top scientists to leave universities for companies and to go abroad.

This year the situation is changing as Slovakia has started to draw EU structural funds and there is a chance that conditions to engage in science will improve a great deal. But it takes a longer period of time to develop a top-notch scientific workplace and, thus, we will have to wait for the results. Moreover, since drawing of EU structural funds will end in 2013, the state and the private sector must invest more into science so that we do not find ourselves at the very bottom in science financing again.

Slovakia is in one of the last places for investment by the private sector in science. It is said that Slovakia is a country of daughter companies and that large established companies rather invest into science in their parent countries. This is a very sore point for Slovakia. This is a reason why the Ministry of Education is preparing a bill on stimuli for companies to invest in science.

STU has managed to establish six excellence centres from EU structural funds, in which we are solving very interesting, and for Slovakia, very important problems. These will be, just to mention a few, on renewable energy resources, nanotechnologies, cultural heritage maintenance, and intelligent anti-flooding systems.

Out of all the universities in Slovakia, STU has obtained the most funds via its scientific projects, which is a very positive signal for me.

I would like to make one more note. During my recent visit to Silicon Valley in the United States, I saw that there even the most basic research is conducted in a way to bring a quick commercial result. Here in Slovakia we miss such a way of thinking. Rather, we get satisfied with publishing the results in a renowned magazine than thinking where and how the results of our research can be used. And it is necessary to change this.

VK: When we analyse the situation in scientific research activities it is possible to say that this field is currently in a significant decline in industrial companies. Research departments do not exist at any industrial companies. Cooperation by the Faculty of Engineering via the form of solving concrete tasks with applied research almost does not exist. Companies do not turn to experts working at universities with requests to solve concrete problems from the workplace. Some tasks which were solved in the recent period were based only on personal contacts of specific teachers with the owners or legal representatives of the companies. Thus, it really is impossible to speak about any functional system of cooperation between universities and industrial companies.

Science and research are showing a considerable recession and support for research in Slovakia is at almost the lowest level within the EU states. There are no concept materials and state requests for solving fundamental problems of individual sectors of the national economy. The whole support of science in Slovakia is based on the principle of submitting applications ‘from below’ and this certainly is not enough and cannot solve fundamental problems of the economy.

Paradoxically, we feel the impact of the economic crisis by an additional reduction of potential funds to support research. The companies are now solving existential problems and they certainly do not have funds to solve scientific research problems.

Another persisting problem is the imbalance in subsidies when the greater portion is provided for common operational expenditures and only a smaller part is allocated for capital expenditures. The current condition of universities’ scientific equipment certainly will not enable us to realise research at the European or world level.

Rewarding of research workers is a not less significant problem. Compared with the EU or the world, our system is lagging behind significantly. This is why young experts who want to devote themselves to science and research leave to work abroad.

TSS: What are the biggest current challenges that technological universities in Slovakia face? Does your university feel the current financial crisis? If so, how?

VB: Currently, all the universities in Slovakia have been undergoing a complex accreditation process. Its results will decide whether a school will be a university or a college, or a specialized college. And this will determine its future financing. I believe that STU has such results in the pedagogical and research processes that it will get the university status. This is the biggest challenge for us.

AČ: Universities of technology must find the courage to join in big common projects with industry when building scientific-technological parks and common research laboratories. TUKE is courageous in this sphere and we have already launched preparations for several joint projects. We are now waiting for the necessary legislation to be passed to fulfil our targets.

VK: Slovakia is suffering from a deficit of graduates from technological branches and as a consequence the number of working places which graduates can take is gradually increasing. We hope that the current crisis will not negatively affect this trend in a significant way. The faculty perceives the impacts of the economic crisis particularly within the practical education, as some industrial companies have temporarily halted the possibility for our students to go there for training. The crisis has also temporarily halted cooperation by the faculty with companies in spite of successful negotiations between faculty representatives and the companies.

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