Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 23
29 November 1999

Charles University seal C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
A Decade of Change... to Come
Czech Higher Education, 1989 to 1999

Robin Healey

Following the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989, it was widely thought that three principles would lead to the rapid regeneration of the nation. Firstly de-ideologisation and removal of Communists from positions of influence secondly investment in the latest technology, and lastly autonomy, which would enable the Czechs and Slovaks to run the nation for its own benefit. These three principles were applicable to all spheres of national life, not only to higher education.

It would be wrong to assume that Czechoslovak higher education was in a desperate state in 1989. Well-run primary and secondary schools were sending well-educated young people to the entrance examinations. In fields of study that were not excessively ideologised (natural sciences, engineering, medicine, and to a great extent music, fine art and theatre studies) universities were sending out well-educated graduates. There were plenty of good teachers and researchers on university staffs. On the negative side, fields of study such as law, economics, social studies and the humanities had lost much of their dignity and dynamism due to their high ideological content. University equipment and buildings had become run down, and the academic freedom of university staff and students was demoralisingly restricted.

De-ideologisation of the content of study programmes took place rapidly. However, the removal of Communists from top positions was less swift and less thorough. It has turned out to be a complex matter. Very often, former communists have adopted new thinking quickly, thoroughly and sincerely, while former dissidents have unwittingly clung to old thinking. For example, dissidents who found themselves elevated overnight into high management positions, without any management education, often applied undemocratic management strategies out of sheer ignorance of better ways. In any event, we should avoid assuming that all anti-communists work to a pro-democratic agenda.

The Czech government has not given high priority to investment in the universities. State funds (which account for about 90 per cent of Czech university funding) have been in scarce supply, and almost all highly educated state employees are increasingly poorly paid. University staff salaries have also slumped. Nevertheless, those university departments that have been enterprising enough to take advantage of EU education programmes such as TEMPUS, or that have attracted national or international research funding are quite well equipped. All universities are fully computerised. The financial climate in most universities is not good, but neither is it catastrophic, as it is in many of the other former Soviet-bloc countries.

The idea that autonomy and reliance on Czech integrity, intelligence, common sense and hard work would lead to rapid regeneration of the nation was always naive. It overlooked the problems of lack of a proper legal infrastructure, lack of management skills and human greed for power and money. University leaders have shown more integrity, intelligence, common sense and hard work than their counterparts in national politics and in the national economy. But they have been working with inadequate funding, and in an inadequate legal framework, exacerbated by the paralysis in national politics. In the long run honest amateurs are not adequate to run large institutions in difficult times, especially when the lure of money and power can corrupt even a professor.

I will now move from general principles to specific areas in which Czech higher education has - or in many cases has not - changed. The main business of universities is to educate students, to do research and to provide services for society, I will discuss each of these areas in turn.

Before 1989, Czechoslovak universities were regarded mainly as teaching establishments, and much research funding was allocated to the Academy of Sciences. In the early 1990s, a Grant Agency was set up, and the principle of public competition for research funding was introduced. Some research has been transferred to the universities and the Academy has lost much of its funding. Research co-operation with partners in the EU countries has grown rapidly, though the Czech universities rightly resent being regarded by EU partners as cheap labour, and being asked to perform monotonous, low-level research tasks. As part of the Czech Republic's preparation for EU membership, the country has become an associate member of EU research programmes, the most important of which is the Fifth Framework programme. Czech universities are only slowly learning how to compete successfully for research funding, and do not yet take full advantage of the opportunities offered.

The opportunity to set up new types of study programmes has so far been missed, though of course there are some outstanding exceptions. At the university where I work, there is a modular, part-time MBA programme which is partly taught in English. It is run in close collaboration with a British university and contains h elements of distance study, aimed at mature students, in which students do project work on problems currently faced by the company or organisation for which they they work . Most other courses at the university continue, however, to be lecture-based. Aimed at childless (there are no university creches), physically-fit (our facilities are still in most cases unfriendly to the physically handicapped) full-time students, aged 18 to 25, coming predominantly from educated families. Of those that include research projects few, if any, are application-oriented.

Czech universities have had growing opportunities to allow student and staff mobility, especially with extra funding, firstly from the EU's TEMPUS programme, and now from the EU's SOCRATES programme. The infrastructure for such mobility is not always well-founded, but ever-increasing numbers of students and staff are gaining experience at partner universities, and ever-increasing number of students and staff from partner universities are now spending time in the Czech Republic. The western orientation and the EU know-how of the universities has advanced rapidly. It is unfortunate, however, that virtually no funding has been available for maintaining valuable links with old partner universities from the former Soviet-bloc countries.

Czech universities still offer almost exclusively five or five-and-a-half year study programmes leading to the equivalent of a master's degree. Attempts to introduce shorter bachelor's degree programmes have had limited success. A bachelor's degree is not considered, by students, by professors or by employers, to be a "completed education" - what an antiquated concept a completed education is! However, the Czech ministry of education is now a signatory to the Bologna Declaration, and is planning that, by 2006, one-third of all Czech students will take a bachelor's degree course. Some Higher Vocational Schools will be licensed to offer new-style bachelor's degree programmes.

Two significant changes in Czech higher education - and of course in higher education elsewhere - in the last decade have been use of computers, and the increasing role of the English language. Modern computer networks have been established, and Czech staff and students now generally have quite good access. The use of computers in research is very widespread: graduate students in technical fields often consider that they can do research of an international standard more surely if it is computer-based, than if they attempt experimentally-based research, which may need scarce and expensive equipment. Use of information technology in teaching is not very widespread - traditional chalk-and-talk methods are still going strong.

One of the first changes in Czechoslovak education after the Velvet Revolution was the replacement of Russian by English as the main foreign language. This abrupt overnight change was not without problems, and most Czech schools do not have the required complement of qualified teachers of English. Despite these problems, many staff and students at Czech universities now have good English language skills, and some speak German, French or Spanish, too. The loss of Russian is a regrettable consequence of this change.

Czech students played a key role in the Velvet Revolution, but have been extraordinarily quiet since then. In recent months, though, there have been healthy signs that students want their voice to be heard. A significant new feature of post-1989 student life has been paid employment. Especially in Prague, student life has become expensive and, at the same time, there have been well-paid working opportunities for students with modern skills in computers and in languages, above all in English. Large numbers of students now have part-time or full-time jobs, even during the semester. This has led to very high drop-out rates, and it has become usual for a student to graduate only after taking considerably longer than the nominal length of his or her study programme.

It has also become normal - indeed, economically necessary - for academic staff to take paid employment outside the university. This introduction of academics to the "real world" is by no means a bad thing, but it has been generally to the detriment of their research and teaching performance.

The concept that a university should provide services for the community is not always well appreciated. I happen to believe that it should offer some intellectual and moral leadership. It should explain its research findings and pedagogical findings not only to the academic community but also to society as a whole. Technology transfer takes place when the good ideas developed by university researchers are implemented by industry. Close consultation with industry should attempt to ensure that study programmes will provide graduates that meet the present and future requirements of employers. Careers advisory services help students to find employment that will make fullest use of their skills. Lifelong learning programmes enable graduates and others to update their knowledge and skills, and provide income for the university. Staff development programmes, which universities should be providing for their own staff and for the staff of other institutions, improve people's skills and raise morale. Czech universities are aware of the need to offer such services, but cannot yet claim to have implemented them all.

Many in the Czech academic community will sigh when they are told that much change in higher education remains to be done, across many areas of university activity.

There are also important questions of attitude. The relationship between professor and student, in too many cases, remains that of a stiff and stern old professor lecturing away, talking at the student, not with him. Academics accept little responsibility for the welfare of students. They often claim that high failure rates in examinations are evidence of the high standard of the course, and fail to consider that the teacher's poor presentation of the course may have contributed to the failures. Teachers are too willing to discourage students, and declare them "uneducable" or "hopeless". While the maintenance of high standards is important, student attrition and failure should receive more sympathetic attention.

A difficult generational change will need to take place in these universities over the next decade. Due to very low salaries, the universities have failed to recruit young staff in the past ten years. Younger staff have been leaving the universities en masse to earn more money in the private sector. University departments in which all staff members are approaching retirement age are commonplace. Will the ageing of university staffs lead to collapse, or will it provide an opportunity for innovation?

Demographic trends in the Czech Republic, as elsewhere in Europe, mean that there will be a decreasing number of 18-year-olds leaving secondary schools. There will be competition for students. Will the universities respond by offering new and more attractive study programmes? Will they try to attract non-traditional students, eg students from less educated families, and mature students? Will they decide to offer study programmes for part-time students, perhaps with an element of distance-learning? Will they put on new courses in close collaboration with local industries? Will the technical universities, for example, embrace the idea of an "industrial engineer", educated to bachelor's level, with a broad range of intermediate level technical skills and experience of industrial applications? Will the universities embrace bachelor's study programmes, or will they continue to regard them as "incomplete"?

For the last ten years, all leading positions in university management have been taken by academics elected from inside the university's staff. Rectors and deans have three-year tenure of their office, and may be re-elected only once. They must necessarily regard the job as temporary, and also as part-time, since they need to keep their hand in at research and teaching. In the absence of a cadre of educated public administrators, this is perhaps the best way to fill these posts. In future, though, will Czech universities recruit professional managers and top administrators, educated and experienced in pubic administration and education administration, as is becoming increasingly usual in universities abroad?

Will Czech universities, with their ageing staff, say, "this is what we have always done, and this is what we will continue to do. You can take it, or you can leave it"? Or will we see the development of professionally-run, innovative, wealth-creating universities, expanding into providing exciting new services, and leading the long-awaited economic and spiritual revival of the Czech nation? The next decade could well be as interesting as one so recently elapsed.

Robin Healey, 29 November 1999

The author works in the International Office of the Czech Technical University in Prague.

See Robin Healey's article from three weeks ago on teaching morality in Czech schools.



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