WHENEVER one walks onto the campus of a respected university in the United States, Great Britain or another European country, the identity of the place is instantly recognisable. It is not only because one does not have to walk down shady, unmarked hallways of old, run-down buildings or because students and staff are not required to inhabit such spaces, but because when asked about their school the students are often proud to be there. Of course, this is just the surface, but the problem with Slovakia’s education system is that in some cases the rest of the system is little better.
In Slovakia, which has the third highest youth unemployment rate in the EU, at around 34 percent, educational institutions are not currently under any pressure to adjust their programmes to meet the needs of the labour market. They produce young people whose first steps are, in the worst case, to the local labour office to apply for unemployment benefits and, in only slightly better cases, to apply for jobs for which they are completely over-qualified and where they will have no opportunity to apply whatever skills they managed to pick up at their alma maters. So in many cases their highly theoretical knowledge will gradually be covered by dust as these graduates of media, sociology or aesthetics theory diligently improve their coffee-making and phone-answering skills.
There are fresh graduates of Bratislava’s University of Economics currently working as supermarket cashiers, and recently a top manager at an international firm here related how an advertisement to fill a secretarial position elicited an application from a psychology graduate: the manager commented that he did not need a psychologist to make coffee and put calls through. This comment was not meant to underrate either a degree in psychology or the work of secretaries, which in fact requires skills that the author of this story may well lack. There is also nothing wrong with having a well-educated secretary who might be able to delve into the psyche of those who are calling for a meeting with the boss, but this is a rather improbable justification for selecting such a study programme at university. It is an extreme example, but a good illustration of the increasing mismatch between university courses and actual jobs on the market.
Society certainly needs people educated in the humanities. But unless the focus moves from quantity to quality, the value of these programmes and in many case the value of entire institutions will continue to decline – as will the value of the diplomas they issue.
Not everyone is suited to study technology and scientific fields, but even those who are technically inclined do not receive proper guidance on their career options, and at the age 14 or 17 most Slovak kids simply do not decide: “I want to become a nanotechnology expert”.
In an interview conducted earlier this year, the rector of the Slovak University of Technology, Robert Redhammer, said that public perceptions clearly play a role when students choose what to study: when the information technology sector is promoted and talked about, then interest grows. “If we do not talk enough about the need for flood protection and dams, then it is natural that people are not interested in studying these engineering disciplines even though the need for these professions is immense,” said Redhammer.
The country should have an effectively functioning system of vocational training schools, which could act as a safety net for children who are simply not clear about their future choices and are not top academic performers. They would be able to learn a profession that would earn them a living, and if they later decided to continue studying there would still be options to allow them to return to education. This sort of system works effectively in other countries.
Such considerations are only the tip of the iceberg of challenges that the new education minister, Dušan Čaplovič, now faces. He has promised to focus on stronger links between educational institutions and businesses, and emphasise technical fields of study and an overall approach that is more responsive to the needs of the labour market. Let’s hope that he succeeds – not only for his sake, but for the sake of the generations of young people who will soon graduate and start looking for jobs.