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'Politicians should ask us what we need'

‘LAGGING behind’ has become a label that Slovak academia, with the exception of some high-level departments, will have to go to some lengths to erase. Despite this year’s austerity budget, Slovakia’s current government says it is determined to lead Slovak universities towards better research results and greater competitiveness in the international environment. It is planning yet another big amendment to the Higher Education Act, the fifteenth so far. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Libor Vozár, the rector of Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, who was elected as the head of the Slovak Rectors’ Conference (SRK) in June 2010, about the challenges that Slovak universities currently face and his vision of the changes they need to make.

Libor Vozár, president of the SRK.(Source: TASR)

‘LAGGING behind’ has become a label that Slovak academia, with the exception of some high-level departments, will have to go to some lengths to erase. Despite this year’s austerity budget, Slovakia’s current government says it is determined to lead Slovak universities towards better research results and greater competitiveness in the international environment. It is planning yet another big amendment to the Higher Education Act, the fifteenth so far. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Libor Vozár, the rector of Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, who was elected as the head of the Slovak Rectors’ Conference (SRK) in June 2010, about the challenges that Slovak universities currently face and his vision of the changes they need to make.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): It has been more than half a year since the department of education got a new minister, Eugen Jurzyca. Are you satisfied with the steps he has taken so far in the area of higher education? What other changes do you expect him to make?
Libor Vozár (LV):
I will definitely not evaluate the minister of education, science, research and sport. It’s not my task, and I think that half a year in such a post cannot seriously be evaluated anyway. I’d rather focus on my expectations from the minister, or more generally from the government and the parliament. Let me be a bit idealistic here. I’d welcome an altered approach to universities. It would be helpful if politicians asked us what we would need in order to be more competitive internationally and more useful for Slovakia. I’m aware there is a need to deal with the impact of the financial and economic crisis. History clearly shows that the period of growth which usually comes after a crisis requires well-prepared people and the application of more sophisticated approaches and technologies. From this viewpoint, universities are key, because they not only take part in educating qualified employees for the future, but also in gathering and transferring knowledge. So I think that despite the crisis the current circumstances can be altered in favour of universities.


TSS: Another amendment of the Higher Education Act is due to be presented this spring. What are your expectations for it?
LV:
I think the amendment should follow five main principles. First to strengthen quality. In recent years quantity has been preferred, but now that we already have a sufficient number of students and universities, the future lies in quality, mainly of education and science.

Then international competitiveness needs to be strengthened. We should focus on removing our systemic incompatibilities and on fostering support for cooperation with more advanced EU countries. I think that the national heritage should be cultivated in culture, arts and other traditions, but a long-term cultivation of holdovers in other areas is a burden for us.

The third principle should be support for transparency. I think that fair and transparent rules and competition enable the best to prosper and weed out those who cannot keep pace.

The fourth intention of the amendment should be to strengthen the management of universities and make it more transparent. Slovak universities have recently been evaluated by experts from the European University Association, who stated that they weren’t able to find out who actually manages the universities in Slovakia. Compared with the standards in advanced European countries, our internal management structures are not transparent. Autonomy in decision-making is not balanced by responsibility.

And the fifth principle should be increasing effectiveness and generally decreasing bureaucracy. That is something we all wish for, I believe.


TSS: The education minister has announced ‘dramatic changes’ in the system of university financing, which he has agreed with the SRK. Which of the changes do you consider the most important?
LV:
Minister Jurzyca has decided that we will no longer pretend that results in science, such as winning money from scientific grants, or the number of PhD students, are an indicator of the quality of education. He has decided to move almost €70 million from education to science. I consider this decision to be right and clear.

Considering the results of the comprehensive accreditation is equally important in distributing resources for science. Simplifying the procedure of distribution of subsidies is also key. If the money should be a tool of management, then everyone should be able to understand the details of the procedure.

The overall volume of financial resources remains a problem, however. Universities will have to deal with lowered budgets this year, and investment will be cut by more than two thirds.


TSS: Under the new rules, the evaluation of higher education institutions will depend much more on the number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Do you agree with this change? What impact will it have on universities?
LV:
It should be said that the times when we considered a local activity, for example a departmental seminar and collection of articles, a significant contribution to the world’s science, are definitely gone. We are an EU member, and we participate in the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area. Therefore we value as ‘world-class’ results in science only if they are published in international periodicals or monographs, and followed and cited in bibliographical databases. In this context the pressure to publish in prestigious journals is progressive, and if Slovak universities adjust to it, it will be to the benefit of their quality.

Rectors, however, have reservations about the fact that focus is being put on one database only, which experts say covers only a selective part of the affected journals. The period when we had access only to the databases of Current Contents is past, and it’s necessary to widen our attention to other bibliographical databases.


TSS: Plagiarism is currently perceived by the public as one of the biggest problems of Slovak academia. How are you trying to cope with it?
LV:
Currently about 70,000 bachelor's and master's theses are written in Slovakia every year. The internet provides a large amount of easy-to-copy information. Slovak higher education is still based on memorising, as we consider the system of testing to be the primary tool to secure the quality of education. I think that we put an inappropriately low focus on students’ independent work. Therefore, copying and plagiarism in final theses is natural for many reasons.

The quality of the final theses is secured by a system in which every student – author of a thesis – has his or her own supervisor, the thesis is evaluated by an opponent and the author must defend it in person in front of a testing commission. Another control tool is comparing the final thesis with the database of final theses deposited in the central register of final theses. This external control tool aims to be preventive, and in two years’ time, when the register contains a sufficient number of theses, it will be very effective.


TSS: What is your opinion about the new law which orders all final theses to be published on the internet?
LV:
Publishing the theses online is another external control and anti-plagiarism tool. If it doesn’t become a tool of abuse, it could be very beneficial. The useful side of it is that the theses will be easier to access, also for study purposes. The drawback could be copying and potential abuse of sensitive information which the published theses might contain.


For the full version of this interview please see the Career and Employment Guide 2011.

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