Unused capacity could lead to better research

Finding ways to use the potential of schools is necessary.

Young researchers, IT experts and medical staffers are needed in Slovakia, illustrative stock photo. Young researchers, IT experts and medical staffers are needed in Slovakia, illustrative stock photo. (Source: TASR)

THOUGH several institutions have recently warned against worsening demographic trends in Slovakia, universities are seemingly unresponsive. They still offer a high number of places, which nearly equal the number of potential applicants for higher education, the recent results of the Academic Ranking and Rating Agency (ARRA) ranking report indicate. Yet analysts agree they should rather focus on improving their quality, also via research.

The number of students at Slovak universities has dropped by nearly 50,000 since 2008 when schools registered altogether 215,000 full-time and external students. One of the main reasons is the decreasing number of 19-year-olds who in most cases apply for university studies, the recent ARRA report suggests. 

The schools, however, are not responding to this trend. One of the results is that while 10 years ago only 65 percent of those who applied were accepted by schools, now it is about 87 percent. This means that most faculties gradually have lost the possibility to choose their students.

“If this situation continues, it would mean that the universities would be open for every secondary school graduate,” Miroslav Medveď of ARRA said.

To solve this problem, the schools will probably have to reduce the number of students they plan to take and also remove the unused capacity in the future, according to ARRA.

Unused capacities

Universities planned to accept a total of 58,659 students in 2014. Of them, 48,961 sent in applications. The number of students who actually enrolled for university study was only 37,938, which is less than two-thirds of the anticipated total, according to ARRA. 

Since the schools maintain a relatively stable number of teachers and receive approximately the same number of subsidies, a situation arises in which the unused education capacity in the first year is more than one-third, the report suggests.

“It is clear that demand for university studies was in the beginning much higher than the supply,” Medveď told the press. “This [difference] has been decreasing and in 2012 the capacity of schools was higher than the number of students who sent applications. Currently, these students can fill only 83 percent of the schools’ capacities.”

The universities, however, have not responded to this trend by reducing their capacities or the planned number of students they intend to accept. According to the available data, last year they wanted to take in only 8 percent fewer students than the total number of 19-year-olds, Medveď said. 

The unused education capacity creates room for focusing on improving the quality of either education or research, according to ARRA, but the schools are not willing to do it, admits Ivan Ostrovský of ARRA. This is partly the result of the accreditation rules which approve the subject list for six years. This secures the universities’ work, even if they teach only a minimum number of students choosing those subjects.

“If they were to turn to research, it would be a more risky environment for them,” Ostrovský said, explaining that they would have to produce specific results from their activities.

Invest into research

The current situation may, however, impact the quality of schools. The scientific potential of teachers is not used and since the number of students is decreasing, they cannot prepare the next generation which would continue in research activities, Ostrovský added. 

Renáta Králiková of the Slovak Governance Institute (SGI) agrees.

“Certainly it is not good to cut the budget for universities since it is low compared to more developed countries,” Králiková told The Slovak Spectator, “but they should rather invest money into financing scientific grants.”

The Education Ministry stresses that it is up to the universities and colleges to decide how to utilise the subsidies they receive.

Martin Putala from the Council of Universities, however, sees the problem in financing of the schools, which still depends on the number of students. If schools receive the same amount of money but take more students, it means lower nominal value of the subsidy per student, which is even lower than the required costs of their education. To solve this problem, it is necessary to define the needed number of graduates in individual specialisations and their profile which will comply with labour market needs, he explained to The Slovak Spectator.

Merging schools possible

Ostrovský also pointed to the plans of some universities and colleges, revealed when reading their long-term plans. He said there are signals that they would be prepared to merge if necessary. 

“It was the first time I registered such a signal in official documents,” Ostrovský told The Slovak Spectator.

The government has already tried to merge two schools: Trnava University and the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Trnava in order to save money on their operation. The plan was supported also by Prime Minister Robert Fico who stated that “rather than having two universities in this city it will be better to have one quality university which will offer the students the space for quality studies”, as reported by the TASR newswire.

The plan, however, was opposed by the schools’ rectors and also students. It was scrapped after Juraj Draxler was appointed minister. 

In this respect, Ostrovský mentioned the Aalto University in Finland, established in 2010 as a merger of three major Finnish universities: the Helsinki University of Technology (established in 1849), the Helsinki School of Economics (established in 1904), and the University of Art and Design Helsinki (established in 1871). He noted that the merger created such good synergy that American MTI ranked the university among the top five rising stars in the world.

Except for creating a new institution, also the management of the school changed and new people came. Moreover, they changed their approach towards students and turned them into active partners rather than passive recipients, Ostrovský said.

“Finns prove that this makes sense,” he added.

A tool to improve effectiveness

Also Draxler was talking about the possibility of merging some universities. In this respect he mentioned the schools in Poland where they started merging in response to the lower number of students.

“Private universities, of which many are small and do not offer the quality [education] as they should, will have to be merged,” Draxler said in November 2014, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

When asked whether schools would be willing to merge, Martina Slušná, spokesperson for the Education Ministry, said that it will depend on motivation. She sees as relevant the possibility that a merger would be linked with relevant investment into the new institution and support to its development.

“The alternative is a political decision, regardless of the institutions’ will,” she added.

Merging certain schools might be a way to improve the effectiveness and quality of education at schools, Putala admitted. 

Králiková says that mergers should not be the aim but rather the tool to save some capacities and funds. Regarding the quality, it would make sense only if a weaker school merged with one of higher quality. 

Since the schools will not be willing to merge on their own, she assumes it would be possible only if they lost accreditation and would face closing down.

Putala, however, stresses that schools that do not merge should cooperate to secure similar study programmes so that the schools will provide what they are good at.

“Practice shows that these reserves exist within many schools,” he added.

He also mentions the cooperation with the Slovak Academy of Sciences and other research institutions as a way to achieve better research and development results and the way to improve the education of students who may participate in creative solutions to research and development problems.

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