Education: only money heals

THE CHAIR of Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič could be on shaky ground. In his first year in office, Čaplovič saw not only a prolonged nationwide teachers’ strike in autumn of 2012, but also several cases of unclear use of money by his department. Despite this, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s cabinet has backed his recent report on the state of education in Slovakia.

THE CHAIR of Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič could be on shaky ground. In his first year in office, Čaplovič saw not only a prolonged nationwide teachers’ strike in autumn of 2012, but also several cases of unclear use of money by his department. Despite this, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s cabinet has backed his recent report on the state of education in Slovakia.

The report, which the ministry was scheduled to deliver to parliament by the end of March, and which was considered by the cabinet on April 10, counts on an increased flow of finances into the education sector as a key factor in solving the problems of Slovak schools.

“There are no other countries in the world that would spend as little money and return better results,” economist Peter Goliáš, who co-authored the report, told Slovak Radio’s news service, adding that the Slovak education system works relatively effectively but the financial resources are too small.

While the final version of the report approved by the cabinet mentions the aim of increasing public funding for education to 6 percent of GDP by 2020 (as recommended by the OECD), the working version, which was leaked to the media and published first by the Hospodárske Noviny daily on April 4, was more specific. In it, the ministry counted with an annual increase of €200 million for education altogether.

“It always depends on the concrete situation of the budget,” Čaplovič said after the cabinet’s session, as quoted by the SITA newswire, when asked about the specific amount his department needs, adding that the goal of reaching 6 percent of GDP remains.

Finance Minister Peter Kažimír, however, made it clear that he would only agree to release more money for schools if systemic changes are made in the education sector.

“I’m ready to react quickly, but first we must see specific measures that are to be taken in this election term,” Kažimír said, as quoted by SITA, adding that the Education Ministry’s report is a breakthrough document and the 6-percent-GDP aim is realistic.

Good teachers wanted in regional schools

In order to achieve the OECD public expenditure average in education within five years, Slovakia needs to increase the amount for regional schooling by €140 million per year and for higher education by €60 million per year on average. These numbers, mentioned in the working report, do not, however, appear in the final version of the report that was approved by the cabinet.

The ministry points out that Slovakia continues to rank among the countries that spend the least on education, which is reflected in the salaries of primary and secondary school teachers, who earn considerably less than teachers in other OECD countries, the report reads. That was one of the main objections teachers voiced during their strike late last year.

In order to have good teachers, the report reads, the state needs to make the job of teaching more attractive, mainly by raising teachers’ salaries and creating a career system for teachers to allow them to grow in their job. The ministry pledges to raise the starting salaries of teachers to the amount of the average starting salaries in other jobs that require the same level of education. The ministry gradually wants to increase teachers’ salaries so that the average salaries of teachers with a university degree would be at least 75 percent of the average salary of other jobs requiring university education.

In line with the OECD’s recommendations voiced in the organisation’s Economic Overview from December 2012, the ministry aims to secure more financial resources for the education sector and ensure that they are used more effectively.

The ministry also cites the need to allow for an increase in the number of pupils per class, and thus cut the number of teachers and raise their salaries. According to the report, there are 123 primary schools with a maximum of 12 pupils, and 479 schools with a maximum of 30 pupils.

Underfinanced universities

In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were over 212,000 students enrolled in Slovakia’s public and private universities, representing a 5,000 drop compared to the previous academic year. The number of students at private universities continues to grow. Currently, 18.6 percent of all university students are enrolled at private universities.

In 2011, the ministry received about €425 million from the state budget to be allotted to universities. Universities received additional funding from the state budget for research and development projects. Altogether, over €434 million from the state budget went to universities, and an additional €90 million flowed in from EU funds.

With these amounts, Slovakia lags behind not only OECD and ‘EU21’ countries, but also its fellow V4 neighbours. To catch up with its partners, Slovakia needs to increase its funding for universities by €60 million per year on average.

“As long as tuition fees for full-time students aren’t introduced, the increase of public expenditure on university education is one of the necessary prerequisites for fulfilling most of the aims stated in this document,” the report reads.

Čaplovič’s ministry also wants to reform the accreditation process and scrap the titles of ‘docent’ and ‘professor’, scientific-pedagogical titles used in Slovakia.

The ministerial report also counts with the possibility that some universities might even be merged for the sake of effectiveness, mentioning the case of Trnava, which is home to the University of Trnava as well as the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius.

Meanwhile, on April 4 Čaplovič signed new, stricter criteria for the evaluation of Slovakia’s universities in the process of accreditation of study programmes. The new criteria, prepared by the Accreditation Commission, focus on the research conducted at universities: the output of the research, the conditions for research and the appreciation of the research results, the Education Ministry reported.

Only the best schools should be able to retain the title of university. After the new criteria are put into practice, there should only be seven to nine universities in Slovakia, the minister estimated for the TASR newswire. Other schools will fall into the category of high schools and professional high schools. The latter will not be allowed to grant doctoral degrees. This should also have an impact on the distribution of funding for schools.

Opposition MP Miroslav Beblavý finds this change unsubstantial, “because the problem with our universities is not in their name, but in their content and quality”, he told The Slovak Spectator, adding that he does not expect the stricter categorisation to bring a significant change.

Additionally, the system would make much more sense if individual departments and faculties, rather than entire universities, were categorised, since there are poor-performing faculties at the best universities, and vice versa, he said.

One of the controversial proposals voiced in the ministerial report is the idea that the state should be able to regulate the number of students whose studies are co-financed from the state budget, “depending on the study programme and the proven quality of education provided by the school”, in order to save public money.

Beblavý does not approve of granting so much decision-making power to the ministry.

“The minister has shown that he is not interested in facts, but he’s got a priori and ideologically-driven ideas about which specialisations have potential and which don’t,” he said, adding that Slovakia’s education system’s problems are poorly performing schools, faculties and departments, which should be limited or cancelled regardless of their specialisation, in the process of re-accreditation.

Questions over resignation

Meanwhile, Čaplovič himself risks losing his job. Rumours about his possible resignation have recently begun to appear in the Slovak media, and his external adviser, Ľubomír Andrassy, confirmed for the Sme daily in late March that the minister had discussed with him the possibility of quitting. The Slovak media has recently reported several deals concluded by the Education Ministry which have prompted questions about transparency at the department and appropriate use of public funds, including €9,900 spent on flowers at an upmarket Bratislava flower shop, and a new logo for the Institute of Information and Prognoses of Education sector worth €8,650.

Opposition MPs have called on the prime minister to sack Čaplovič, saying he is responsible for the critical state of the Slovak education sector.

Čaplovič, however, dismissed calls for his resignation in a debate on Slovak Radio on April 6.
“I have never said I would consider resigning from the post of education minister,” he said, adding that in the past three months his department has taken specific steps to fulfil the tasks that lay ahead.

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