Education Minister Peter Plavčan (nominee of the Slovak National Party) met with rectors of the biggest universities in Slovakia on July 12 to talk about subsidies from European Union funds.
The meeting followed the complaints of the universities and the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) that they received no money from nearly €300 million allocated for long-term strategic research and development. Instead, the money went mostly to projects submitted by private companies, the TASR newswire reported.
Plavčan promised to check the evaluation of the projects, and also the fulfilment of criteria by the subjects that applied for the money.
Supporting research carried out by companies
The calls for projects are aimed at encouraging research in the business sector. This is different compared with other calls that exclusively concern the research institutions and universities.
“It is necessary that the companies which create pillars for our economy also carry out research in Slovakia,” Plavčan said, as quoted by TASR.
This concerns mostly firms employing large numbers of people here, but carrying out research in their home countries. There are only few exceptions.
“It is in our interest that the business sector carries out more research and helps develop innovations in Slovakia,” Plavčan added, as quoted by TASR.
The minister also informed the rectors that the approval process has not been finished yet.
Rectors rather critical
In their joint statement, the rectors claimed that allocating such a huge amount of money from EU funds that were originally designed for schools and the SAV may significantly reduce the chances of Slovak schools in international competition, particularly when competing with better equipped Czech universities.
“The attractiveness of Slovak universities will drop even more, and it will be harder to keep young people in Slovakia,” the rectors claimed in a joint statement, as quoted by TASR, adding that the direct impacts will be seen in the future social security of the people.
They therefore asked the minister to check the results of the project evaluations and ensure that the evaluations will be carried out by independent experts.
“In our opinion, the minister has the tools to correct this state of affairs and can act also on his own initiative,” the rectors said.
They also asked him to ensure that other claims concerning research, which will be announced within the Operational Programme Research and Innovations, will be aimed exclusively at subjects from the public sectors, who will have the opportunity to join forces with partners from practice.
The ministry should also allow the universities and the SAV to become partners of projects submitted by private firms, the rectors added, as reported by TASR.
Plavčan and the rectors agreed that it is necessary to support the main subjects in research and development who have their scientific parks. In this respect, the minister promised to allocate €80 million this year to support the parks and young scientists.
The case also caught the attention of the opposition parties. Veronika Remišová, MP for the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO-NOVA) and deputy chair of the parliamentary education and science committee, called on Plavčan to explain the subsidies for private companies at the committee’s next session. Instead of serious scientific institutions and companies, private firms that actually do nothing and only wait to receive the EU money are among those receiving the funds, she added.
“Apart from reasonable criteria when distributing money, we also must look at how similar big projects, that have been supported in the past, turned out,” Remišová said, as quoted by TASR. “They often had zero benefit for Slovak science and people. It would not be wise to continue with this system.”
She however claimed that in the ruling coalition, and particularly the SNS, they do not try to help Slovakia develop, but rather receive provisions from overpriced and nonsense projects.
Though she admitted that among the approved projects there are also those prepared by serious companies dealing with research and development, there are also firms without scientific capacities. She mentioned as an example the company I.K.NOW residing in Bratislava’s Dúbravka district which wants to use more than €4 million to create an educational and decision-making system for managers. According to its financial statement, its revenues for selling services last year amounted to €30,000, TASR reported.
Meanwhile, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) also called on Plavčan to examine the distribution of the money.
“We’re aware that university rectors and the SAV management are indignant, and under the given circumstances we're inclined to the opinion that this is a big scandal,” said SaS MP Branislav Gröhling, as quoted by TASR. “We’re far from claiming that research should be exclusively concentrated in universities and the SAV, but it’s incomprehensible why they haven’t obtained a single cent of the €300 million designated for science and research.”
"This is clear evidence of bias and very suspicious handling of European funds. It creates an image of a disastrous situation in the education sector, as well as the manner in which the SNS is managing the ministry," he added.