Bratislava isn’t Paris – but could it be?

A ‘poor relative’ and only ‘an exporting country’ – that is how some academics and critics of the Slovak university system characterise Slovakia’s current standing in the global flow of students, professors and researchers. Some critics blame the universities for not opening their doors wider to international contacts and influences while Slovak universities say they are doing their best to maintain international connections but need more support to be able to improve their standing.

Comenius University in central Bratislava.Comenius University in central Bratislava. (Source: Sme - Pavol Funtál)

A ‘poor relative’ and only ‘an exporting country’ – that is how some academics and critics of the Slovak university system characterise Slovakia’s current standing in the global flow of students, professors and researchers. Some critics blame the universities for not opening their doors wider to international contacts and influences while Slovak universities say they are doing their best to maintain international connections but need more support to be able to improve their standing.

Low academic mobility

The number of Slovak students or academics going abroad for short or medium-term study opportunities or for research visits keeps rising but only by a little each year and the overall proportion with international experience is still low, Michal Fedák, the deputy director of the Slovak Academic Information Agency (SAIA), told The Slovak Spectator. The SAIA is a non-governmental organisation which facilitates academic mobility programmes in Slovakia and provides information on available international connections for Slovak students, teachers and universities on its website

The number of Slovak university teachers and researchers who travelled abroad increased from 383 in the 2005-2006 academic year to an estimated 965 in 2008-2009, according to SAIA’s data. Most of these individuals did so through the EU’s Erasmus programme as 683 Slovak teachers had a foreign experience supported in this way, 242 persons received support from the Central European Exchange Programme for University Studies (CEEPUS), and the remaining 40 academics travelled on the basis of bilateral agreements. In the 2009-2010 academic year, 635 Slovak teachers travelled abroad within the Erasmus programme, according to Denisa Filkornová, the national coordinator of the Erasmus programme in Slovakia. She added that most Slovak teachers have gone to the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany via the Erasmus programme.

Based on the number of teachers who came to Slovakia, as contrasted with student exchanges, Slovakia does not deserve to be called an ‘exporting country’, as 867 foreign teachers and researchers had a study stay in Slovakia in 2009-2010, a nearly four-fold increase from the 221 who had come four years earlier. Erasmus remained the most popular programme supporting teacher exchanges, as it facilitated 583 study stays in Slovakia, followed by 166 teachers and researchers who had support through CEEPUS, 109 who were supported by Slovakia’s National Scholarship Programme and another nine who received support from bilateral agreements. Most of the teachers coming in the 2009-2010 academic year via the Erasmus programme were from the Czech Republic and Poland.

Other than Erasmus, CEEPUS and Slovakia’s National Scholarship Programme, Fedák said that international mobility for students and teachers is supported by bilateral agreements Slovakia has signed with about 30 countries and by the International Visegrad Fund, as well as by other programmes such as Action Austria-Slovakia, the US Fulbright Scholar Program, and academic programmes supported by private foundations which have mushroomed in Slovakia over the past few years. Fedák mentioned foundations developed by Tatrabanka, SPP, Orange and U.S. Steel as examples of private sources of assistance to students and teachers.

Visiting professors wanted

The Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics of Comenius University in Bratislava has taken advantage of financial resources from private foundations for visiting academics. Within VÚB’s Visiting Professor grants programme, the faculty’s department of applied mathematics and statistics hosted Aleš Černý, a professor of finance from the Cass Business School in London, during its 2010-2011 winter semester.

Černý taught two elective courses and Pavel Brunovský, the head of the department’s division of economics and financial models and guarantor of the exchange project, told The Slovak Spectator it was a stimulating experience for students as well as other faculty members. Even though this project was very successful, Brunovský said that finding a highly-qualified foreign professor who can spend an entire semester as a visiting scholar at a Slovak university is not easy.

“It depends on the level of the visiting professor you have in mind,” Brunovský said. “If you want to get somebody who is a ‘big shot’, then the question is why such a person would come to Bratislava for such a long period. It’s true that professors have sabbaticals, typically that is the case in the US and also in the UK, so they do have semesters or a full year where they can go abroad. But the thing is – Bratislava is not Paris and even if it was, people rarely go abroad for a long time.”

Generally speaking, according to Brunovský, the higher the academic level of a person, the less likely he or she will come for a whole semester – unless there are strong personal or professional ties between the foreign professor and the inviting institution. That was the case with Černý, who is of Slovak ancestry and has had long-term cooperation with the department in the past. He had been a masters thesis supervisor for some of the department’s students and one graduate from the department had gone to London to complete a PhD under Černý’s supervision.

Brunovský said he and Černý have suggested to the VÚB Foundation that its programme should permit Slovak universities to invite academics for periods shorter than a full semester so that the programme is more flexible.

“We would choose a topic for a semester and then invite more people for shorter periods,” Brunovský said. “It’s true that having somebody coming for a semester is best, but it’s a trade-off.”

Funding the visits

Finding a visiting professor solves only half of the problem – the other half is finding financial support.

“In a way we are the ‘poor relative’,” Brunovský told The Slovak Spectator. “We are being invited [to other countries] but we do not have the funds to invite people [here] on equal terms.”

In this respect, university professors who maintain active contacts with foreign counterparts appreciate the help they can receive from private foundations such as VÚB Foundation’s grant scheme for visiting professors or from Tatrabanka Foundation, which invites Nobel Prize laureates to give lectures at Slovak universities and funds individual lectures by foreign professors, Brunovský said.

International experiences bring change

One of the unquestioned benefits of mobility and international exchanges is that students and teachers learn how their academic field is being taught or researched outside their home country. Additionally, they can establish valuable international contacts.

But Renáta Králiková, an analyst with the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI) who is currently also an advisor to Slovakia’s prime minister, adds that the positive impact of international ties goes far beyond the personal benefits for students, professors or departments. She emphasised that active international exchanges can help launch changes in Slovak universities from within. She said this is a benefit that should not be underestimated, especially when government, academia, and educational observers in Slovakia all agree that changes in the country’s university system are needed to foster better conditions for education and research.

“When people with international experiences come to our schools – either incoming foreigners or Slovaks returning from exchanges – they want their school to function as they know it from abroad and thus they press for changes,” Králiková told The Slovak Spectator. “Universities are hard to change from the outside so strengthening changes from the inside is key.”

According to Fedák, top officials of Slovak universities must realise that the country is too small to play a significant role in research and science in a globalising world simply on its own.
“If we want to have prestigious schools and don’t want to be ‘the countryside of the world’, which suffices in itself but is of no interest to others, we need to take part in international activities and even to create them,” Fedák said.

How to be more international

Fedák stated that Slovak universities should focus on ‘internationalisation at home’, which he said is not done by just sending staff and students abroad but by creating more international campuses in Slovakia and making them melting pots of cultures, opinions and different approaches to academic issues. He added that there are examples of Slovak universities that have started doing this, such as the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Košice, the Faculty of Medicine of Comenius University in Martin and the Faculty of Pharmacy of Comenius University in Bratislava.
Academic experts have also complained that Slovakia lacks a comprehensive strategy that coordinates its scholarship programmes to assure that they do not overlap.

“Given that the resources are limited, it’s necessary for [Slovak] schools to develop a strategy on what countries and students to focus on, and to adjust their promotional activities accordingly,” Králiková said.

Králiková mentioned a joint project initiated by universities in Brno in the Czech Republic, called The Brno Universities, which could serve as an inspiration for Slovak institutions. In this project, all universities in Brno and its surrounding area cooperate in international contacts and exchanges. Regional government authorities in the Czech Republic are also involved in the project and provide financial support as well as opportunities for the universities to take part in other ongoing international activities within the region.

Králiková said there are several important things that universities can do on their own to attract good students and teachers from other countries: improve their self-promotion, participate more in international projects, publish in foreign academic journals, develop English-language study programmes, and reduce the administrative barriers faced by students and professors who want to come to Slovakia to study or teach.

Slovak academia should strategically focus on attracting good-quality people – both students and teachers – from countries outside the EU, Králiková said, such as countries less-developed than Slovakia, post-communist countries and African countries. Králiková stated that at the current time Slovakia treats people from these countries with a high degree of mistrust and burdens them with demanding bureaucratic procedures.

“They [potential students or teachers] need to provide a number of documents proving that they are an asset rather than a threat to Slovakia,” Králiková said. “So I think it would be appropriate to lower these barriers in order not to pour cold water on these people.”

Slovak universities are failing to undertake appropriate self-promotion activities targeted at foreign students and professors, Králiková said, noting that the websites of many Slovak universities only provide formalised information on the higher education law in Slovakia and lack more useful fundamental information such as which study programmes are taught in English and the qualifications of their professors and researchers, as well as how to apply for admission and profiles of graduates.

Králiková believes that Slovak universities can achieve the best self-promotion in attracting visiting teachers and researchers when their own academics regularly publish in international peer-reviewed academic journals and regularly participate in international research teams.

Another way to promote a university is to take part in various international education projects which, according to the Erasmus programme’s Filkornová, Slovak universities rarely do.

“They also rarely take part in international fairs where they have a chance to promote themselves,” Filkornová said.

Student exchanges

Brunovský, however, does not fully agree with claims that Slovak universities are not open enough.
“I think we [the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics of Comenius University] at least, are reasonably open,” he said. “We maintain contacts naturally; we do research together with other people. But to some extent I would be rather conservative here. For instance, the Erasmus programme is fine but in a way it is a mixed blessing. I discourage undergraduates from going abroad to study. I think a student should go abroad at higher levels, master or doctoral. Then it is justified. On the undergraduate level I believe it is better if a student stays in one place and does systematic study.”

Data show, however, that fewer than 2 percent of all Slovak university students have participated in foreign study in any one academic year.

Fedák stated that a survey by the Academic Ranking and Rating Agency (ARRA) found that only about 6 percent of all Slovak students had stayed abroad for longer than three months, at least one semester.

“The situation is even worse regarding incoming foreign students to Slovakia, which makes us an ‘exporting’ country,” Fedák told The Slovak Spectator.

Filkornová believes that the number of outgoing Slovak students within the Erasmus programme is not likely to rise much further.

“That is because of several factors: the grant amount doesn’t cover all the costs of the student and the fact that university students, have other possibilities,” Filkornová told The Slovak Spectator.

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