Minister seeks to modernise education

While Education Minister Juraj Draxler does not have a full four-year tenure to implement his plans for Slovakia’s education sector, as he took up the ministerial post only last November and there is just more than one year before the next parliamentary elections, he is offering plans that he thinks will push the country forward.       

(Source: SME)

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Draxler about the biggest challenges of education in Slovakia as well as the measures he has planned for elementary, secondary and university education.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What are the current biggest challenges Slovakia’s education sector faces? What is your vision?

Juraj Draxler (JD): I see three main challenges. One of them is comfort and the social status of teachers. Teachers complain about too many bureaucratic tasks and that their social status is not what it used to be. I hope that we will manage by taking some steps to improve the space for their work in schools and that they will primarily devote themselves to what they should – meaning students and teaching.

The second challenge is that even though our education system still generates very good results, it still runs based on an old model set up during the previous communist regime. It is too focused on producing an averagely well-educated student, but we put less stress on having also some of excellent quality. There is space for improvement already at the level of elementary school but more so at the level of secondary and especially at the level of universities.

The third challenge is the material outfit of schools. When I’m visiting schools around Slovakia I see that gyms are falling apart, schools often are not equipped with, for example, workshops, as they used to be. Especially in Bratislava Region, where schools were not able to draw structural funds of the European Union, equipping of classes is not as nice as elsewhere.

Apart from these three main fields there are a lot of technical details where we have to adapt to modern times. People migrate and have to send their child from somewhere, for example the United Kingdom where they work, to Slovakia so he or she can take an exam so their compulsory school attendance is recognised or students have problems with recognition of their diploma from a foreign university.

TSS: University education in Slovakia has been criticised for a quite long period. Part of this criticism focuses on quality of private universities but also a lack of really top universities, which leads many Slovak students to study abroad. Do you plan to take any measures or make changes in this field?

JD: In terms of private universities I am not at all against private schools, but the truth is that there have emerged a whole ranking of private universities launched to generate profit and they are far from producing the quality we require from university education. In general I will be tough, and simply when a project of an university is not of high quality or when there is no prospect for a university to carry on and generate quality graduates, then I already now use all legal means to push such schools away from the market.

With respect to public universities it is important that we speak with a bigger accent about quality of provided services, approach of teachers to students and then, of course, research performance being reflected in various rankings. The latter is what interests also media, but we cannot narrow this only to this field. Thus apart of more informing about how universities provide their services to students so that people realise where shortcomings are to create social pressure, I will look on technical details of measuring research performance and we will adjust these so money goes where really quality research is.


TSS: A new state educational programme for elementary schools should start to become effective as of September 2015. It, apart from other changes, cancels the second obligatory language. What other changes does this law bring and why was it necessary to prepare a new educational programme?

JD: It is true that we have cancelled the second foreign language as obligatory, but we have introduced the duty of schools to offer a selection of secondary foreign languages for students to choose from because we, of course, support learning of foreign languages. We only wanted to tackle a specific problem when for many children English, as the compulsory foreign language, is actually the third and not second language which they encounter. Hungarian, Roma or other children have one language at home and thus the Slovak language is actually the second language for them and English already the third language in which they should communicate. Thus the second compulsory foreign language would be already the fourth language for them.

In general the new educational programme strengthens the education of math and natural sciences. It reintroduced a subject, the basics of sciences, which will be a good introduction into a general knowledge of the world, including natural and social phenomena. Within this, math and natural sciences will get more hours and some kind of meeting with manual skills are being strengthened or reintroduced so children can get acquainted how tools, like a screwdriver or a wood plane looks and simply find out how they work. Or they can try to grow something at the school yard.


TSS: For the time being there is a big discussion about the bill on vocational education introducing elements of dual education. While the parliament is discussing the bill, its current wording has brought criticism from employers. How do you respond?

JD: Not from the side employers but their associations. My problem is that employers are not united. They differ on what actually this law should do. There is a dominant part of employers’ associations who maintain that they as employers should have powers to certify who can provide the practical part of the dual education. On the other hand, there are firms, also relatively big and important ones, which relatively loudly claim that this should remain the state’s power because those associations are not functional and that simply the dual education with associations will not work. Here I am the person who is waiting whether the opinion finally gets united because I’m absolutely constructively prepared to incorporate into the law what employers say is their will.

Nevertheless all these questions can be still solved during the discussion in parliament. I stress that this is not any key element of this law. The certification scheme is a minor matter. The important thing is that this law bringing a stronger interconnection of school and practice creates a framework so that employers take on students and acquaint them with often very expensive and modern technologies. Thus after finishing secondary school they can work with these expensive technologies and firms do not need them retrain them at high costs. 


TSS: Could you please assess usage of the Erasmus programme by Slovak students?

JD: Erasmus is one of the most popular European programmes and when there were efforts to reduce it, it was even extended. Erasmus + is not any more only about travelling abroad and accepting students but there are also other interesting activities. It is a very effective instrument to get students acquainted with modern life, to teach them travel and understand other cultures and nations. Thus we will support as many students to join Erasmus+ as possible.

Within Erasmus 18,000 students from Slovakia have travelled abroad since 2007. They travelled mostly to the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain. Comenius University in Bratislava, the University of Economics in Bratislava, Slovak Technical University in Bratislava, Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, the Technical University of Košice and Žilina University have sent the most students for studies abroad. Students travelled most often to study social sciences, economics and law, humanitarian sciences and art or engineering sciences.


TSS: The Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) is undergoing a quite turbulent period when its previous leader Jaromír Pastorek was withdrawn from his position after scientists and researchers were dissatisfied with the budget he negotiated for the SAV. How do you perceive what has been happening there and where do you see the future of science and research in Slovakia, also with respect to financing?

JD: The SAV has many excellent workplaces that are really outstanding also in international comparison, so firstly it is an institution which we can be proud of. The second thing is that also within the SAV itself there is a quite strong opinion that they have to transform a little bit and adapt to more modern conditions. There has been, within the SAV, a relatively strong discussion about this already for some years. I perceive positively that the new head of the SAV, Pavol Šajgalík, [elected on January 7, 2015] received a very strong mandate when he was elected with a high number of votes. I believe that he will manage to calm down the situation and that constructive solutions for transformation will come from the SAV. We supported them when a law on public research institutions was prepared and we also communicated with them during preparation of a new law on the SAV. These two legal norms will be of key importance, from the legal point of view, for further operation of the SAV. What it is manifest to us as well as the general public that the SAV has been internally cleansed, we will be prepared to increase its funding.

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