Accreditation maps Slovakia’s academic landscape

Last year was in many ways historical and unforgettable for most Slovak universities. There were several scandals as media revealed one school issuing so-called express diplomas to children of academic staff (and others) and discovered plagiarised texts being proudly presented by some Slovak academics as the fruits of their own work. But universities will mostly remember 2009 as the year when the results of the Slovak Education Ministry’s comprehensive accreditation process were presented.

Are there enough jobs waiting for us out there? Are there enough jobs waiting for us out there? (Source: SME - Ján Krošlák)

Last year was in many ways historical and unforgettable for most Slovak universities. There were several scandals as media revealed one school issuing so-called express diplomas to children of academic staff (and others) and discovered plagiarised texts being proudly presented by some Slovak academics as the fruits of their own work. But universities will mostly remember 2009 as the year when the results of the Slovak Education Ministry’s comprehensive accreditation process were presented.

The Accreditation Commission, working under the Education Ministry, evaluated the quality of 27 Slovak higher education institutions according to criteria developed by the ministry to judge the universities’ performance in research and education at all three academic levels (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral). The long-discussed and often much-criticised process has in the end taken less than a year to complete and although it was expected to accurately reflect the state of higher education in Slovakia and to divide its universities into three categories, the accreditation process has caused a great deal of controversy, confusion and unanswered questions.

Results of the accreditation

The Accreditation Commission announced its results on August 21, 2009, and proposed that six schools – the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, the Technical University in Zvolen, Comenius University in Bratislava (UK), the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, the Technical University of Košice, and Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice (UPJŠ) – would remain universities.

However, these were the results of comprehensive accreditation at public schools only. Six private universities await their results during the course of 2010. Until then, Slovakia’s comprehensive accreditation process cannot be considered completed.

University status not only means a certain degree of prestige for the schools. Of the three categories projected for the future (universities, unclassified schools and technical colleges), only universities will be allowed to award PhDs and they will also be entitled to more financial support from the state, at least in the case of public schools. One school, the private University of Economics and Management, was categorised as a technical college and will be able to offer programmes only at the undergraduate (bachelor’s) level.

Most Slovak schools – according to the accreditation – presently fall into the category of unclassified schools, which means they will not be able to award PhD degrees and will get a smaller portion of subsidies from the state budget. They were given one year to improve their standing, which could eventually allow them to regain their status as universities.

In the first results, five schools – the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra, Žilina University, Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, the University of Economics in Bratislava, and Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra – failed to fulfil only one criterion: the number of students compared to the number of professors, docents and lecturers, which should be under 20. They were given additional time to correct this deficiency.

“It was the first comprehensive accreditation ever,” the Minister of Education, Ján Mikolaj, said in an interview with the news-server in December 2009 in defence of his decision to grant additional time to the schools. “It wasn’t easy to set the criteria. We were worried that some might miss by only tenths of points and it would be incorrect to strip them of their university status for that.”

By February 2010 most of these schools had announced that they had fulfilled this criterion and thus expect to keep their status as universities.

“At Žilina University we missed that criterion only by little,” the rector of Žilina University Ján Bujňák told The Slovak Spectator. “Since we habilitate dozens of professors each year, appoint about 20 docents [associate professors] after habilitation and issue about a hundred PhD titles, we don’t have a problem to fulfil this condition.” (Note: Shortly before the Career Guide went to print, three additional schools were confirmed to keep their status as universities: Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, the University of Economics in Bratislava, and Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra.)

University complaints

However, not all universities accepted their failure in one or several criteria as solely their fault. On August 3, shortly before the results were presented, the General Prosecutor’s Office received a complaint regarding the criteria used in the accreditation, questioning their lawfulness and their retroactive application. According to the complaint, the criteria were valid only since January 2008 but were used to evaluate the performance of the schools back to 2002, which the complainants argued meant that they were applied retroactively and thus unlawfully. The Education Ministry refused to accept the complaint and recommended that the government and the courts reject it too.

The University of Economics in Bratislava (EUBA) was one which had initially appealed against the comprehensive accreditation results. Rector Rudolf Sivák welcomed the education minister’s decision to add EUBA and four other schools to the category of universities as soon as they fulfilled this one criterion.

“My opinion is that the comprehensive accreditation process will have to be evaluated thoroughly, including the criteria that were used in the process,” Sivák told The Slovak Spectator at that time.

Sivák said that EUBA failed to meet the limit of 20 students per professor, docent or lecturer, because they were required to follow the ministerial norm of a minimum of 14 students per teacher at all levels. Also, universities were directly encouraged by the government during the economic crisis to accept more students for which they got higher financial compensation from the ministry, and for these reasons Sivák does not consider the criterion on the ratio of students to teachers to be appropriate.

Rectors’ opinions

On the other hand, rectors whose universities walked through the accreditation process smoothly and retained their university status without any reservations appreciated the whole process and its results, saying that it has brought changes to the life of their schools.

“The comprehensive accreditation forced us to think about the existing study programmes and even to create some new programmes which we submitted for accreditation,” the rector of the Slovak University of Technology, Vladimír Báleš, told The Slovak Spectator.

Comenius University rector František Gahér said that the results have had a strong influence on the life of his university since September 2009, also mentioning newly designed and accredited programmes as one of the biggest changes. The rights of some Comenius faculties and departments to habilitate docents and professors have also been changed: some of the faculties had their rights suspended, while others gained more.

“Non-granting, suspension, or granting these rights for limited period of time is a reason for some faculties or departments to intensify their work in the area of personnel growth and improvement in the quality of their research and scientific activities,” Gahér told The Slovak Spectator.

When asked to indicate the drawbacks of the comprehensive accreditation process and its results, rectors did complain in one voice about the limited impact the results will have on financial support to universities from the state.

“At the rectors’ conference we originally supported the comprehensive accreditation because the ministry had promised us that the subventions for universities would be divided on the basis of its results,” Báleš said, adding that it does not currently seem this promise will be fulfilled, which may only become totally clear after the accreditation is completely finished.

The head of the Accreditation Commission, Ľubor Fišera, said in an interview for the Trend weekly published in December 2009 that the latest proposal to differentiate financial support for schools according to its category planned on using a coefficient of 1.2 for university-type schools, 1.1 for unclassified schools and 1.0 for technical colleges.

“That means the scissors are close to zero, and it seems it’s going to be done in ‘a Slovak way’ again, and the differences will be very small,” Fišera said in the interview.

Despite that prospect, as well as an unusually great amount of bureaucracy, both Báleš and Gahér have said that the process was objective and transparent.

“I hope that the overall result will lead to a basic division of schools according to their quality,” said Gahér. “Comenius University has been supporting the introduction of the classification of a research university since 2002. Today’s university status is being achieved by a much higher number of schools than the research university status would include, and so [the accreditation process] defines a wider first league rather than a narrower and better extra-league.”

Báleš was rather more sceptical about the division of universities according to their quality on the basis of these accreditation results.

“Unfortunately, [parliamentary] elections are near and from this point of view the accreditation wasn’t timed very well, since politics has interfered into the results – mainly in that the division of the schools into categories, after all, will be approved by parliament and by the government or the Education Ministry,” he said. “That means that not experts – my apologies to the politicians – but politicians and political interests will decide.”

Báleš said he would welcome much stricter criteria for other facilities of a university such as its libraries, student comfort in study rooms and items like this.

“So that a school founded in the building of a kindergarten cannot proclaim itself a university, as it often happened with the private universities in Slovakia,” he said, adding that the criteria about the number of students per academic staff members could be on the other hand less strict.

Gahér said he thought there should have been a second dimension in the accreditation process – monitoring the reality at universities in comparison to the accreditation documents: whether the guarantors of the academic programmes teach there in reality; whether the teaching transpires within the scope described in the accreditation documents; and whether the testing of students fulfils the standards.

“I’m afraid that at some schools the process of teaching doesn’t happen in the same way as it is described in the accreditation documents and that the worries about some schools issuing low-quality or easily obtained, or even fraudulently obtained, diplomas are justified,” Gahér said, adding that the Accreditation Commission has been too busy so far to check on these questions.
“I hope also that pressure from the critical part of the public will result in a clearing of the waters of the academic environment,” he concluded.

Expert says it was a waste of time

While many rectors believe the comprehensive accreditation was done relatively well and that it might bring some improvement to the overall system as well as to individual schools, several observers and public policy experts in the field of education do not share the rectors’ enthusiasm and state that many drawbacks in the system remain unsolved and are seemingly without potential solutions.

Miroslav Beblavý from the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI) criticised several aspects of the comprehensive accreditation process and the interpretation of its results, including the fact that the accreditation results worked with average numbers – which provide an overview of the overall quality of universities – but do not consider single programmes and university faculties or departments.

“From this viewpoint, there can be a poor quality programme run at an ‘elite’ university, provided it fulfils the basic standards given by law,” Beblavý wrote in his analysis published by the Trend weekly. “Therefore the Slovak [accreditation] process cannot be used as a guide for parents and students that successful accreditation, sealed by the ‘university’ title, guarantees a better quality of education.”

According to the education minister, however, the accreditation results should in practice serve to distinguish graduates in the labour market, since studying at a quality school should improve one’s chances to get a good job.

“Graduating from Comenius University has a different ‘ring’ in the view of an employer than graduating from some new private school,” Mikolaj said for “It’s like that everywhere in the world; for instance in Ireland everyone desires to study at Trinity University, which is a source of national pride for them in itself. [...] When someone has finished Trinity, he or she can be sure about getting the job he or she aspires for.”

Martin Krekáč, chairman of the Jenewein Group and the president of the Business Alliance of Slovakia (PAS) said education is only one of the factors that HR experts take into consideration when filling middle level and higher managerial positions or specialised positions.

“Prestigious education simply doesn’t guarantee getting a prestigious job,” Krekáč told The Slovak Spectator. “The applicants are always evaluated in a comprehensive manner, and [HR experts] search not for the best, but for the most appropriate candidate for a given position.”

In practice, specialised executive search advisers can help employers to find the most appropriate candidate on the basis of all available information, including the candidate’s potential to learn quickly and develop professionally, which according to Krekáč can in a relatively short time outweigh any potential lacking in one’s university education.

Krekáč views Slovak university education as not being in very good condition. He said one of the problems is that Slovak university education is largely focused on humanities, as every second university student studies some humanities-related programme. Another problem that he believes hinders the competitiveness of Slovak universities is that only around 5 percent of the researchers affiliated with Slovak universities are recognised internationally.

According to Krekáč, employers say that university graduates have rather good theoretical preparation, but that they are less prepared with practical skills. More intensive cooperation between academia and the business sector is one of the solutions to this problem he says.

“On the other hand, it’s necessary to say that a systemic change in the university education system is even more important,” Krekáč said, adding that the system would work better if it was based on market principles. He said it has become fashionable to make university education accessible to the highest number of young people as possible, while nobody is capable of determining how many university graduates Slovakia actually needs.

“The right thing would be to let the young generation decide whether to study or not,” Krekáč said. “But it should be happening in the conditions of real supply and demand.”

Miroslav Řádek, an analyst with the European Public Policy Partnership institute, also believes Slovakia’s system of university education does not work well.

“Obviously, we cannot say that absolutely everything in our academic environment is wrong, but thanks to the recent problems highlighted in the media the public can see that a problem really exists and that it can have very unpleasant and sensitive consequences,” Řádek told The Slovak Spectator.

He was referring to several situations revealed by the Slovak media, one of which was a scandal at the University of Alexander Dubček in Trenčín (TnUAD) which eventually led to the resignation of its rector. The charges against the university started erupting in late October 2009 when the Pravda daily wrote that the daughter of the dean of the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences had finished her studies in just nine months in what is normally a five-year course and that she had also spent one of her semesters at an exchange stay in Bologna, Italy. Her brother took two years to finish the same course of study while simultaneously studying in England. During the same time period, media reported on several cases in which Slovak academics had plagiarised texts and presented them as their own.

“The whole system of university education in Slovakia needs in-depth changes – its public-service character should change into an environment which we could call a market for education,” Řádek said. He does not believe the accreditation results will help to increase the quality of Slovak universities – on the contrary.

“There is a certain paradox in that the criteria were set by the same people who work in the field that was being evaluated,” Řádek said. “I’m not suggesting there was a direct conflict of interests, but it’s the same as if a hockey match was refereed by persons chosen by the players.”

Beblavý also said that the comprehensive accreditation did not examine the problems in the system that resulted in scandals such as the one in Trenčín. He said those drawbacks are to a large extent a legacy of the previous communist regime and have not been eliminated even after 20 years – despite the fact that there is, according to Beblavý, some evident improvement. He noted that in the past 20 years ideological absurdities have been done away with, generational change is gradually happening, and the internationalisation of universities, thanks to programmes such as Erasmus, are all positive developments in the system.

“What we know, however, is that there is a clear lagging behind the Czech Republic, and even clearer gap with the Anglo-Saxon countries and large part of western Europe,” Beblavý told The Slovak Spectator. “That has, however, been here for a long time; only the Czechs have overtaken us since they’ve been improving faster than us since the [1989] revolution.”

For more information about the Slovak labour market, HR sector and career issues in Slovakia please see our Career & Employment Guide

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