Longing for a real reform

A DESIRE for a broad reform in academia that would make Slovak universities perform better in both research and teaching has been voiced by critics and some luminaries of academia for many years. Although several legislative changes have been passed during the term of the Robert Fico-led government, as proposed by Education Minister Ján Mikolaj, and a comprehensive accreditation of public universities has been brought nearly to its end, education experts say reform is really not finished and that much more needs to be done.

Comenius University in Bratislava.Comenius University in Bratislava. (Source: Sme - J. Krošlák)

A DESIRE for a broad reform in academia that would make Slovak universities perform better in both research and teaching has been voiced by critics and some luminaries of academia for many years. Although several legislative changes have been passed during the term of the Robert Fico-led government, as proposed by Education Minister Ján Mikolaj, and a comprehensive accreditation of public universities has been brought nearly to its end, education experts say reform is really not finished and that much more needs to be done.

The results of international and national rankings of universities suggest that these critics are right. None of the international rankings of schools, including the prestigious Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), feature any Slovak universities in enviable positions. In comparison, several Czech, Polish and Hungarian universities regularly take rankings among the ARWU top 500.

Even the national ranking of universities performed by the Academic Rating and Ranking Agency (ARRA) stated in 2009 that the quality of Slovak universities and their faculties is languishing or, in some cases, improving only very slowly. According to the director of ARRA, Michal Považan, the rating criteria which evaluated the research activities of Slovak educational institutions, whether qualitative or quantitative, uncovered most of the areas where quality is lacking at universities.

“Many schools have poor scientific outputs and we can say that at some of them there is no scientific production whatsoever,” Považan told The Slovak Spectator at that time.

The less than positive news about the general quality of Slovak universities was later spiked with media coverage of several scandals and questionable activities that surfaced at several schools connected to the illegal collection of tuition fees, plagiarised texts, and questionable awarding of diplomas.

The most widely-reported scandal was at the University of Alexander Dubček in Trenčín (TnUAD) that led to the resignation of its rector. The charges against the university began to emerge 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 of what is normally a five-year course and that she had also spent one of her semesters at an exchange program in Bologna, Italy. Her brother took two years to finish the same course of study while simultaneously studying in England. The revelation led to a ministerial audit at the university which revealed misconduct and also violations of the law in some other areas.

Regardless of the controversies like this one, the Education Minister also earned little appreciation from teachers and education observers in general – his reform of primary and secondary education was not well-received, there were charges of missing textbooks, problems surfaced over teaching the Slovak language at schools with minority students, and he was criticised in other areas as well. Likewise in higher education issues, some observers claimed that the minister mismanaged the comprehensive accreditation programme and failed to develop solutions for improving the quality of university research and education.

Renáta Králiková, an analyst with the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI), said in an interview with The Slovak Spectator that during the current government's term science and research have been given more weight in the public financing system for universities. But a less positive assessment was that the comprehensive accreditation of universities, a process that was supposed to provide a clear categorisation of schools, had been politicised, “which undermined the trust in the process of evaluation of universities in the long run”, Králiková said.

Accreditation – a better system or more frustration?

Universities will remember the term of Prime Minister Fico as the period in which they arduously passed through the Education Ministry’s comprehensive accreditation process, culminating in the presentation of the results for public higher education institutions in 2009.

The Accreditation Commission, working under the Education Ministry, evaluated the quality of 27 Slovak higher education institutions based on criteria developed by the ministry to examine the schools’ performance in research and education at all three academic levels (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral).

In the end the process took less than a year to complete and although it was expected to accurately report on the state of higher education in Slovakia and to divide its schools into three categories, the final outcome has generated a great deal of controversy, confusion and some unanswered questions.

The comprehensive accreditation resulted in six schools being confirmed in their status as universities: the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, the Technical University in Zvolen, Comenius University in Bratislava, the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, the Technical University of Košice, and Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice. Meanwhile, private universities offering study programmes in Slovakia are awaiting their final results, which should be known by the end of 2010.

University status means more than just a certain degree of prestige. Of the three higher education categories proposed for the future (universities, unclassified schools and technical colleges), only universities will be allowed to award PhDs and they should also be entitled to more financial support from the state, at least in the case of public schools. One school previously classified as a university, the private University of Economics and Management, was re-categorised by the commission as a technical college and will be able to offer programmes only at the undergraduate (bachelor’s) level.

In the first assessment by the Accreditation Commission, five universities – 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 ratio of the number of students to the number of professors, docents and lecturers, which was supposed be under 20. These schools were given an additional year to correct this deficiency.

Rectors who originally expected that the accreditation would cast light on the quality levels of Slovak universities remained to a large extent disappointed and have said that they hope the results of the accreditation will appear in differentiated financial support for the schools on different levels. Some education observers have said the accreditation results will not have any practical application, as well as pointing to other drawbacks, such as failing in any way to address the poor performance of Slovak universities in international rankings.

Charges of political interference also surfaced during the accreditation process as the media reported that there were alleged attempts undertaken by the education minister to re-categorise St Elisabeth University, a private school. The controversy between Education Minister Mikolaj and St Elisabeth’s surfaced at the end of 2009 when the minister suggested that the school might be downgraded to the status of a technical college, in contrast to the earlier comments from the Accreditation Commission that the school would be among the universities. Rector Vladimír Krčméry resigned from his post at that time, saying the ministry had violated the law by making repeated reviews of the school, resulting in the accreditation process taking three years instead of the nine months provided under the law. He also objected to the ministry speaking about the results of its audit of the school before it had officially ended.

The act and its amendments

Critics have said that the current University Act, effective since 2002, is failing to fulfil the needs of a modern university system and that the law has become internally inconsistent due to numerous technical changes that have been made along with four major amendments – the last passed by parliament in October 2009, after three previously unsuccessful attempts by Education Minister Ján Mikolaj to get it approved by MPs. The newest amendment took effect on January 1, 2010.

“I believe the law is ready for an overall change,” Králiková said about the University Act, adding that she thinks the latest amendment did not bring any significant changes.

The most-recent amendment requires universities to draw up self-assessment reports and submit them every two years to the Accreditation Committee. It also allows public universities to lease their property to businesses and specifies new rules for foreign universities which seek to provide accredited study programmes in Slovakia, but without the possibility to receive government subsidies for these programmes.

“The amendment also has made the life of the private universities harder by dictating to them how they should be governed, [a provision] that has no analogy in modern university systems,” Králiková said in criticising the amendment.

The amendment has also left the decision on the final categorisation of universities in the hands of parliament and did not transfer it to the government as the education minister had originally proposed. This action was criticised by some university rectors.

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

Critics also say it is problematic that the amendment has made it impossible for technical colleges, the lowest category of schools, to move to a higher level and become unclassified schools, and possibly universities, because the criterion for a school to reach the unclassified category is the ratio of teachers to both first- and second-level students (bachelor’s and master’s). The fact that a technical college cannot have second-level students makes it impossible for it to ever fulfil this criterion.

“This can lower competition among the schools, since the technical colleges cannot change their position and thus they cannot be competitors for other schools,” Králiková explained.

Another amendment added to the University Act at the closing moments of this government’s term was drafted by Smer MP Mojmír Mamojka, who is also the dean of the law faculty at the University of Sládkovičovo, a private school. His amendment, which was vetoed by President Ivan Gašparovič but re-approved by parliament in late April 2010, increased the age limit for guarantors of study programmes from the current age of 65 to 70. Mamojka argued that the shortage of guarantors at several Slovak universities was due to the age restriction and that this endangered the studies of students currently enrolled in university studies as well as future students.

Mamojka’s amendment encountered much criticism during its journey through parliament. The education minister, the Slovak National Party (SNS), which nominated the minister, as well as rectors and university education experts opposed the change in the age limit.

The rectors of several Slovak universities first said it interfered with the ongoing accreditation process. In response, Mamojka deferred the effective date of the amendment to October 2010, by which time the accreditation process should be completed.

Rectors also argued that approval of the higher age limit for study programme guarantors would preserve the current, insufficient professional and qualification structure.

Králiková said that she thinks Mamojka’s solution was not systematic, saying that the age level of academic staff at Slovak universities is already too high.

“I think that a guarantor should not just be a person who has gained an academic title, but rather a person who is really active in science all the time,” she told The Slovak Spectator earlier this year. “This would also breakdown the barriers for younger people or for people who have been working abroad until now to be eligible for positions as guarantors.”

Challenges for the future

According to Králiková, the challenges for the upcoming government include the need to write a completely new, modern university law that would strengthen the managerial governance of universities. She added that she thinks it is necessary to change the accreditation system so that accreditation of a study programme would not depend only on one person whose only quality guarantee is that an academic title was achieved at some time in the past.

“Building only on academic titles means that the actual effectiveness of an academic is not reflected and it makes it harder for young and active researchers who, for instance, worked abroad for a long time [to qualify],” Králiková said.

Králiková thinks that internationalisation of Slovak universities should also be a priority for the next government, in the sense of increasing the number of incoming and outgoing students and teachers within international mobility programmes.

“This can contribute to further increasing the quality of the schools since people with international experiences can create effective pressure to adjust the functioning of our universities to international standards,” Králiková said.

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