Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

The twilight of Czech industry?
The twilight of Czech industry?
[Photo by FreeFoto.com]
C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
Czech Tech:
Technical education and industrial development

Robin Healey

Anyone who has spent an afternoon in the Technical Museum in Prague will know that the Czechs are, rightly, proud of their engineering history. The achievements of Czech engineers in the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century, until Hitler intervened, were considerable.

In the 1930s, Czechoslovakia is said to have been the fourth wealthiest country in Europe, on the basis of its strong engineering industries. Under socialism, Czechoslovakia was, together with the German Democratic Republic, the most technically advanced country in the Soviet bloc and was particularly strong in mechanical engineering.

Now, of all the larger engineering companies at the beginning of the twenty-first century, only Škoda-Mladá Boleslav appears to be flourishing. The other large companies are either bankrupt or struggling. The Czech engineering industries are at a low point.

It would clearly be unfair to place the blame for the decline of Czech engineering on Czech technical education. Political and economic forces beyond the control of educators have been decisive. Any re-emergence of Czech industry will also not depend entirely on Czech technical education, as there will be a need for investment, a political climate and legislation that are industry-friendly and a lot of hard work.

The first imperative is to halt and reverse the downward trend and establish the basis for an upswing. Technical education has a role to play in this, by educating a work force which will manage and operate successful new industries, and by producing research, developing it and applying it in new industries. Is Czech technical education in a state to stimulate an industrial revival?

Education and revival

Under socialism, primary and secondary schooling was orderly. Schools were fully staffed with qualified and, in many cases, dedicated teachers. The universities were also fully staffed, even overstaffed. Technical education was comparatively unaffected by ideological trivialisation.

It was also favoured by a government that regarded technology as the way forward. Engineers had traditionally enjoyed high prestige in Czech society (and had formed an integral part of the intelligentsia), and many outstanding students were attracted to the technical universities. The technical universities were thus able to continue turning out well educated graduates.

Although the status of the technical universities was still high in the 1980s, all was not well. In Czech society in general, and in Czech education specifically, the defeat of new ideas and liberal reform in 1968 hit hard. The years from 1969 to 1989 were not only a period of isolation, but also a period of stagnation, as far as engineering education - and much else - was concerned. The reforms that were taking place in the West were little known and had little impact here.

When the changes came in 1989, there was a widespread desire to rejoin the Wsetern European educational community. EU-funded Tempus projects under the Phare programme provided funding and established partnerships for educational reform. For a long time, though, the universities were more likely to talk the talk about reform than to take measures.

The general economic, social and political confusion in the Czech Republic in the 1990s was compounded by the 1991 Higher Education Act, which established the autonomy of the faculties from the central university authorities. Changes could, therefore, only take place if there was very general consent, and it was, in practice, impossible to carry out the kind of painful reforms that had become necessary after such a long period of isolation and stagnation.

Low salaries made it difficult to recruit new, young staff and it was thus impractical to shed older staff, whose performance was less than satisfactory. Staff morale and motivation were hard to maintain. It is not surprising that some staff should have failed to produce high-quality research or to have taught assiduously.

What is noteworthy is that many individuals, departments and even whole faculties have ignored the de-motivating circumstances and have performed with distinction in this long and difficult period, continuing to produce good research and educate their students to a high level.

Now, a new century has begun. The technical universities have recently elected new rectors and have new top management teams. The 1998 Higher Education Act enables the leadership to carry out sweeping reforms.

The chances

The range of technical education on offer in the Czech Republic is as follows. There are a wide range of secondary technical and vocational schools. At the highest academic end, there are secondary schools specialising in preparing students to study at technical universities. At the lower end, there are secondary schools with a modest academic level which, for example, provide some training for construction workers.

For school leavers, the main options are direct entry into the labour market, an apprenticeship, or entry to a technical university. The technical universities offer mainly five and a half year courses, leading to the equivalent of a master's degree or the German Diplomingenieur. The gap between a master's degree and a secondary school leaving certificate is, of course, quite large.

In Wsetern Europe, in the last thirty years, diverse technical and vocational qualifications have been made available, together with all kinds of courses leading to them. An important feature has been the establishment of systems for proceeding easily from any lower level of qualification to a higher level, and vice versa.

In the Czech Republic, soon after the changes, a number of Higher Vocational Schools were established. Some of these represent a kind of extension of vocational secondary schools, with which they often share premises. Others are newly-established private institutions. They were, and still are, classified as secondary schools, although they offer courses lasting up to three years to graduates of secondary schools.

No system exists for transferring between a higher vocational school and a technical university. Students who enter a Higher Vocational School and then discover that they are capable of studying at a higher level will also discover that they are in a blind alley.

Under the 1998 Higher Education Act, Higher Vocational Schools and other bodies can apply for accreditation to award degrees at bachelor (or higher) level, either in their own name or under the umbrella of a university. The Ministry of Education, in its policy paper Terciární Sektor Vzdělávání (Tertiary Education Sector) and in the article Terciární Sektor Vzdělávání - Otevření nových cest a možností (Tertiary Education Sector - Opening New Paths and Opportunities) for publication in Aula 2/2000, has expressed its desire to eliminate blind alleys and to provide a much more diverse range of post-secondary level education.

Some action on this, and the establishment of a system of vocational qualifications at a range of levels and in a wide range of subjects, is very long overdue. It will be interesting to see whether the reforms will be delayed by conservative opposition, under-funding, administrative delays or any of the other problems that can befall proposed reforms.

At the moment, Czech technical and vocational education produces good quality graduates at master and doctorate levels, who are potential managers and researchers. It produces graduates of secondary vocational schools, with low to intermediate level skills, such as workers and artisans. To a great extent, what it fails to do is to develop diverse multiple skills and add economic value in the intermediate and upper-intermediate range, ie the skills of leading technicians and industrial engineers.

In the present depressed state of Czech industry, the jobs of skilled technicians are often performed by over-qualified masters degree (ing.) holders. At present, technical university masters graduates are faced with a choice: they can remain in their specialised field, for example by remaining at the university, and earn a pittance or they can get a job for which they are over-qualified or inappropriately qualified, for example in the sales department of an international engineering company, which will pay them four times as much!

There is a clear need to introduce a system that will produce a more appropriately and more diversely educated industrial work force, with life-long learning opportunities available to all, with no blind alleys and with closer collaboration between education institutions and industrial employers.

Reasearch and production

The next area in which technical education, and specifically the technical universities, can support the revival of Czech industry is through research and technology transfer. Technology transfer is what ensures that research findings are translated into industrial production.

Under socialism, the technical universities were primarily teaching institutions and research was concentrated in the Academy of Sciences and other research institutes. Nowadays, research funding from Czech and international sources is awarded on the basis of competitive bidding, and promotion for technical university staff is mainly on the basis of research, as at Western universities. Research is an important and prestigious part of the work of the technical universities.

Under-funding of research has been a complaint, under socialism and under the market economy, in the Czech Republic and in most parts of the world. Research facilities at Czech technical universities have been limited, but not severely limited. A particular issue under socialism was the much lower performance and much lower availability of computers in the 1980s.

While their colleagues in the West solved their problems by throwing ever-greater computer power at them, Soviet Bloc experts were learning how to get super-performance out of feeble equipment. The skills learned and the deep understanding of how computers can be made to perform are still being passed on in the Czech technical universities. Now that the universities are fully equipped with computers, there is a particularly good research base for the development of new-economy computer-based industries.

It is not enough for the education system to produce a well-educated, appropriately-educated industrial work force. It is necessary to create industries for the work force to work in, to ensure that educated workers find an appropriate niche in industry, that the research done at the universities is translated into industrial opportunities, and that the skills of the work force are regularly updated and developed to suit the fast-changing needs of modern industry. In this area of the interface between technical education, industry and society much remains to be done.

Under socialism, graduates were assigned to their first post, which was normally more or less appropriate to the education that they had received. After the changes, this system was replaced by nothing, under the banner of freedom of choice. As long as there was little graduate unemployment, this system worked reasonably satisfactorily. At least everyone had a job, and had only himself to blame if the job turned out to be a disappointment.

As graduate unemployment begins to appear, the system works less well. The universities are now beginning to recognise that unemployed graduates raise a question mark over the whole idea of undertaking a five-year study programme. It is in the public interest, the universities' interest and industry's interest to provide a service to ensure that people make well-informed decisions about their working careers.

The technical universities have a special interest in the establishment of highly sophisticated industries in which their graduates can work, and to which they can sell research and other services. In the last ten years, a number of Business Innovation Centres (BICs) and Science Parks have been set up.

BICs provide space, advice, shared equipment and support services for university-linked, high-tech start-up companies. Science parks are places where industrial and academic researchers work in close proximity, for example, sharing the same equipment and working on joint projects.

However, in other areas where technical education and industry might usefully collaborate, strong links do not always exist. Students of engineering at the technical universities are not required to do a technical placement in the course of their studies. Student projects are mostly theoretical and university-based, and only rarely involve dealing with a real problem in a work place that a company is currently facing. Good opportunities for students and industry to weigh each other up are being missed.

The Western example

In Western countries, the idea of a completed education died in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Czech Republic, students receive a very long pre-service education and very little in-service education. Life-long learning is an idea that is to a great extent still under consideration.

It is not yet fully accepted that staff development is a duty and a right: everyone has a duty to improve his skills, everyone has a right to improve his skills. Czech companies - unlike the international companies operating in the Czech Republic - often lack in-house training and may not yet have the culture of paying for training provided by an external provider.

The technical universities offer only a limited range of life-long education courses and programmes. The Ministry of Education's policy paper on Tertiary Education Policy envisages shorter pre-service education for skilled technicians and industrial engineers with, in particular, the extended provision of bachelor programmes. It will be important to combine this reform with greater provision of in-service life-long education, by companies and by higher education institutions.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the concept of an entrepreneurial university became an uncomfortable reality in many western countries. Direct funding from government sources dwindled, and the universities had to choose between poverty and generating more of their own funding. Most, ultimately, chose the second option.

The Czech technical universities received most of their funding directly from the government until 1989, and still receive almost the same proportion (around 90 per cent) from this source. It has not been easy to generate more funding, as the old industries have been collapsing, or have been taken over by international companies that already have their own research structure elsewhere, while the new Czech companies tend to be too small or too short-sighted to invest in university services. Only a limited number of departments at the Czech technical universities have already succeeded in attracting large amounts of external funding. The financial situation of those departments that fail to attract such funding will continue to be depressing.

The Czech Republic has a fine engineering tradition, which suffered but was not lost in the difficult last two-thirds of the twentieth century. While Czech industry is presently at a low point, parts of the educational structure that should underpin a revival are in place. Necessary reforms were not made in the 1990s, but the conditions for making them now seem more promising. There is a good supply of specialist engineers, above all, in the important information technology field.

There is an urgent need to provide much more diverse education at various levels between secondary school leaving level and master's degree level, a range of tests to certify successful completion of these courses and programmes, a system to eliminate blind alleys in the education system and "ladders" to enable late-developers to progress smoothly through the education system. It is also necessary to move from essentially pre-service education provision to a system that encourages life-long learning.

Czech history famously follows the decades. Perhaps, after the period of isolation and stagnation (1969-1989) and the period of confusion (1990-2000), technical education is now ready to support a decade or two of greater industrial prosperity.

Robin Healey, 22 March 2000



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