WHAT is the difference between a Slovak and an American attorney? The Slovak one likes being called ‘doctor’. The use of academic titles is so popular in Slovakia that one of the first things a foreigner should do upon arriving is learn what they all mean. Some are easy to understand – Mgr. (magister) is a general masters degree, MUDr. is awarded to doctors of medicine, and Ing.
(inžinier) is given to engineers of all kinds. However, there are catches. Anyone doing business in Slovakia will find that ‘Ing.’ appears on the business cards of a surprising number of managers.
Are there really that many engineers with an entrepreneurial spirit? No, but for decades the title had been handed out by schools of economics, many of which were initially created to train people in social engineering. Even communist-era lawyers received the title JUDr., an abbreviation for the Latin ‘doctor of both laws’. Which two are meant? Roman and canon law. A nice reminder that even in the age of social engineering, Catholicism retained a firm grip on the region. The one title that is perhaps easiest to understand, even for a foreigner, is Bc. (bakalár) – a bachelor’s degree. That’s why it’s also so easy to understand that it’s not okay if someone can get it after only a year of study, as happened at Trenčín’s Alexander Dubček University.
But the handing out of undeserved degrees to relatives of university bosses is just one small symptom of the many problems afflicting the country’s system of higher education. What are the really big ones?
1. Too many students, too many universities. Slovakia has traditionally had a low proportion of people with university degrees. That helps explain their value in society and their obsession with advertising their qualifications. In order to catch up with the rest of Europe, in the 1990s the government supported the creation of numerous smaller universities. Those faced an obvious problem – a lack of quality teachers. In a country with little money and a small pool of experienced pedagogues, the new institutions could either choose to recruit less qualified personnel, or share teachers. Most of them did both. It was therefore no exception to see people who weren’t outstanding scholars to begin with teaching simultaneously at two or three different schools.
Standards were therefore not set too high. In recent years, there has been pressure for improvement, but there is also constant pressure for more and more people to get degrees. Not only because of statistics, but because of state policy – this summer the government decided that universities must accept 5,000 more students than they planned, so that unemployment figures would stay low. In theory, having more and more people finish university is a good thing. It’s not so good when quality falls victim to quantity.
2. Too much independence. Slovak legislation makes it almost impossible to enforce any oversight or change. The Education Ministry has little power to meddle in the affairs of universities, university rectors have little power over faculties, both universities and faculties not only have their own bosses but also their own academic senates, which share competencies with rectors and deans. Academic freedom and independence are cherished values, but they can also mean that cases such as the one in Trenčín are difficult to prevent, detect, investigate, or sanction. Striking the right balance between state control and independence can be very tricky in a country where schools have many privileges, but little tradition of excellence. It gets worse once you realise that the Education Ministry is being run by nationalists from the SNS. Whose side should you be on – the universities, many of which are corrupt, or the state, which is also not known for its transparency or rational decision-making?
3. Years of brain drain. Tens of thousands of Slovaks study in the Czech Republic, whose schools and labour market are more attractive. Many of the best scientists, and potential teachers, also leave the country for more promising posts abroad.
Giving out fake degrees is a huge problem. But you don’t need to be a bakalár to know that Slovak universities have even bigger ones.