Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999

So, You Want to Study Law in Prague?

Jan Culik

Vague rumours have always circulated in Prague about corruption at the Law School of Charles University. Approximately a year ago, the Czech daily newspaper Pravo and the Internet daily Britske listy appealed to people who knew anything about this to come forward.

In response to this appeal, one student did send word alleging he had paid 10,000 Czech crowns (some 300 US dollars) for "preparatory law school exam tests" which were subsequently used in the real examination. Unfortunately, the student refused to go public with this testimony, so the matter could not be pursued further.

The story has emerged again during this year's set of exams, but, this time, a revelation has shaken the foundations of the Czech educational establishment.

Last Monday

On Monday morning, 28 June 1999, Jindrich Ginter, a young reporter at Pravo, was sitting in his office writing an article about environmental pollution in the Czech Republic. He received a call from reception to pick up an envelope that had been dropped into the newspaper's letterbox for him at about 10 am.

Ginter opened the letter at about 11 am. (The same consignment had apparently been delivered to other newspapers, but they ignored it.) The package contained a copy of a set of the as-yet-unreleased Charles University Law School entrance exam questions, with the correct answers duly marked. A covering letter said that these multiple-choice tests had been for sale to students prior to the examination: blank exam question sheets for 50,000 Czech crowns, tests with the right answers filled in for 100,000 Czech crowns (USD 3000).

Ginter immediately contacted the Law School, alerting them to the fact that he had been sent their confidential exam material, which was allegedly being sold to interested parties prior to the exam.

The timing was crucial. The entrance tests for the Law School were in fact in progress. The Law School later admitted that had they not been approached before the end of the exam, within the next hour, they would have not accepted the documentation as reliable evidence.

As it was, Charles University was forced to scrap the exam, but it washed its hand of all responsibility. The dean of the Law School was quoted as saying: "We do not feel guilty. All members of this school are absolutely reliable."

The Vice Chancellor of Charles University, Vaclav Maly, said that the University had suffered from an "organised attack by a gangster mafia". The university started criminal proceedings against unknown individuals for leaking the tests outside the school.

The university has in effect ignored accusations of corruption, even though a number of people, including, remarkably, the Czech Education Minister, have now stated that they had "heard" of corruption at the Law School before. No one can explain why the Education Minister, who admits to knowing of such corruption, failed to take steps to tighten up the entrance examination procedure and reassure the public.

The police are probably going to try to open up the whole system. If entry tests from earlier years are analysed, it might possible to ascertain whether a number of papers contain identical answers, based on a single source of information.

As it is, the Czech police are interrogating some sixty students whose answers in the exam are identical to the answers in the document received by Jindrich Ginter of Pravo. However, the investigations are being carried out by a single police officer in the offices in the Police Department for Prague 1, with remarkably little modern equipment (telephones and some typewriters).

A deeply flawed system

The system of Czech University entrance exams is controversial on several counts. Czech secondary school students pass their final examinations (maturita), but unlike in West European countries, this does not entitle them to university entry. The impression is that the Czech secondary school leaving exam is somehow not quite valid.

The problem lies precisely with the secondary school examination system. There is no central examination board, and so the maturita results depend on examination boards in individual secondary schools. These are deemed to be subjective and thus incomparable on the national scale.

The Czech Ministry of Education is planning to introduce a national system of final secondary school examinations. However, until it is introduced, applicants for university study will continue to subject themselves to the indignities of the current university entrance exams. These entrance tests are a burden not only for the prospective students, but also for university lecturers, who are forced to mark hundreds, if not thousands of entrance exams at this time of year.

The arbitrary nature of the tests is also controversial. For instance, the history section of the multiple-choice exam delivered last Monday to the Pravo news desk, reminds one much more of a television general knowledge quiz rather than a serious examination. The tests do not seem to examine the problem-solving capabilities of students. They require a broad general knowledge of facts, acquired in a parrot-like fashion.

The tests often ask questions which normal people would answer by referring to an encyclopaedia. Here are three examples. As an 18- or a 19-year-old applicant for study at the Law School you are supposed to answer these questions from "history":

8. In the 1980s, the Olympic Games took place in:
(a) Moscow (b) Los Angeles (c) Munich

11. The Emperors of the Salian Dynasty (1024-1125) do not include:
(a) Conrad II. (b) Friedrich I. Barbarossa (c) Henry IV.

13. Military commanders of the American Civil War do not include:
(a) General Robert E. Lee (b) General Ulysees Grant (c) General John Pershing

I have serious doubts whether an 18 or a 19-year-old can master this kind of encyclopaedic information with a proper understanding of the issues. I suspect he or she just learns it mechanically by rote, forgetting it as quickly after the exam as possible.

The British and the Czech education systems often seem to be at opposing extremes. The Central European education system relies on mechanically learning a large number of facts, while often discouraging independent judgement, discussion and thought. The British education system, on the other hand, encourages independent thinking in students, but it often fails to give them sufficient factual foundation upon which to base their reasoning. A reasonable compromise between the two systems would be advisable.

The Charles University Law School entrance exam and Czech university entrance exams in general, seem to use relatively arbitrary, though rather difficult, general knowledge tests in order to eliminate most of the applicants for university study under the flimsiest of pretexts.

This year, as last year, 60,000 applicants for university study have been rejected in the Czech Republic. One cannot suppress the feeling that the universities are using any old system to eliminate these applicants, and it is far from clear whether the best candidates are able to come forward.

Maybe it is not surprising that in desperation, some applicants turn to bribery. And considering the extremely low levels of pay among Czech university lecturers, it does not seem to be surprising either that some lecturers probably succumb to the lure of easy money.

Jan Culik, 2 July 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.



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