CZECH REPUBLIC: Higher education awaits reforms

Czech Minister of Education Miroslava Kopicová is planning higher education reforms, including introducing controversial secondary school leaving examinations, despite opposition from teachers and students.

Kopicová said higher education quality was steadily declining and the government wanted radical changes.

Introduction of a common state secondary school leaving examination is scheduled for 2011. Media reports say the government has already invested CZK500 million (US$25 million) in the project although its future is still uncertain.

Its main feature would be introduction of a single test some Czech universities would consider as an entrance examination. At present, all secondary schools prepare their own leaving tests - maturita - which have in the past come under much criticism as some are more difficult than others and results are not comparable between schools.

The debate about introducing such an examination started 10 years ago but many teachers and students are still opposed. They say the proposed model does not take account of the diversified secondary education system in requiring all students to take the same examination.

A final decision is expected later this year, along with further higher education reforms that could take shape after the parliamentary elections on 28-29 May.

Analysts believe a new unified state examination will not result in much improvement in the higher education system. Economist Jan Svejnar said that since 1990, the focus had been more on quantity than quality of education, resulting in a tremendous growth in the number of private, non-competitive universities.

The Czech Republic has 26 public and 45 private universities, a total of 71 universities for a population of 10 million, compared with the UK's 130 universities for 60 million Britons. Analysts estimate the Republic's per capita university provision to be three times higher than in The Netherlands.

Yet the global reputation of Czech universities remains low. Svejnar said that currently none of the country's higher education institutions ranked among the world's top 100 universities.

Another major problem is the lack of graduates in technical disciplines. Kopicová said that during the next several years the Czech Republic could face a shortage of up to 15,000 technical specialists.

At present, only 10% of the country's graduates are studying in technical faculties and institutions, compared with 25% in the European Union.