Ministers press ahead with plans to reduce academic power

The government of the Czech Republic intends to press ahead with plans to reduce academic control of universities and introduce student fees. But it faces mounting opposition from students, academics and university leaders.

President Václav Klaus has spoken in support of Minister of Higher Education Josef Dobes on Czech radio, accusing critics of reforms of “playing a false game of academic freedom”, according to the Prague Daily Monitor.

Protest marches and meetings from 27 February are under discussion both by student unions and heads of universities, and the European Student Union (ESU) has called on the government to re-formulate the draft reform plans.

The higher education system needs more study places for its young population. The proportion of adults aged 25 to 64 attaining at least an upper secondary education was 91% in 2008, the highest figure in the OECD area, against an OECD average of 71%.

But tertiary educational attainment among the same age group is 14%, the fourth lowest compared to an OECD average of 28%. The proportion of adults aged 25 to 34 is 18%, the third lowest figure against an OECD average of 35%.

In the decade to 2010 there was a 30-fold increase in the number of students enrolled in private higher education, rising to 57,000.

The centre-right coalition government has placed university reform high on its agenda and last month put its plans out for consultation with universities and students.

The main proposed changes are:
  • • A strengthened role for external stakeholders in governance through the establishment of a council in each institution to approve its statutes and budget, and take part in election of the rector.
  • • A reduced role for academic governance by passing ultimate authority from the university senate to the council.
  • • Lowered student participation in decision-making bodies, from one-third to half of the senate now, to one-third in universities and removing the minimum level in non-university higher education institutions.
  • • Introduction of tuition fees and student loans
  • • A strengthened role for external agencies in the quality assurance system.

The draft drew fierce protests.

The senate of Charles University in Prague issued a statement accusing the government of hastily drafting “bad and dangerous” proposals that would “eliminate” the autonomy of state universities, “subordinate them to political and commercial interests” and wreak “irrecoverable damage”.

“This would finally restrict liberty of scientific research, freedom of speech, right to free research and dissemination of information and right to education, which is a part of the bill of rights and of the constitution of the Czech Republic,” the statement said.

The Czech Rectors Conference presidium issued a statement on 1 February, signed by its president, Vaclav Hampl, who is also rector of Charles University. It said the “impetuous” drafting should be replaced by “real reform steps” to improve quality and efficiency while “respecting university self-governance and the freedom of education and research”.

Miroslav Jasurek, chair of the national union of students SKRVS, told University World News that the ministry had drafted a version of the bill that ignored discussions held with a working group comprising the Rectors Conference, council of higher education institutions, and the SKRVS.

It had also failed to consult with stakeholders on the draft bill for student financial support.

Both documents will be discussed in the government’s legislative council and in government in the upcoming weeks.

Jasurek said key organisations and the senates of all public higher education institutions urged the minister to withdraw the documents and reopen public debate about the proposals.

Student organisations are now organising protests for the week beginning 27 February, the deadline for government approval of the documents.

Petr Soukeník, press secretary for the student chamber of the senate at Masaryk University, told University World News the major goals were protecting the freedom of universities established by the Magna Charta Universitatum, defence of university autonomy and self-governance, reducing the potential of commercial and political interests to influence universities, and ensuring students kept their major role in managing universities.

Allan Päll, chair of the ESU, said the proposals were especially problematic because they were not endorsed by the academic community.

“Reform without dialogue and agreement is more likely to fall flat on its ambitions,” he said. “We call on the government of the Czech Republic to reopen the debate with stakeholders about reforms needed for higher education."

The Rectors Conference was not expected to change its position of rejecting the reforms when it met in Prague on 16-17 February.

The Czech Republic is facing the world’s second steepest decline in the working age population over the next 10 to 15 years, behind Japan.