New minister shelves tuition fees plan to negotiate with universities

University reforms in the Czech Republic, including proposals to introduce tuition fees and reduce student influence over decision-making, have been shelved.

Instead new Education Minister Petr Fiala says he will negotiate with university representatives over alternatives.

When Fiala, a political scientist and former chancellor of Masaryk University in Brno – the second largest in the Czech Republic – became minister for education, sports and youth in April, many hoped for new developments for higher education.

Fiala, representing an independent position in the restructured government of Petr Necas, said his immediate aim was to "stabilise the sector and create an environment in which there would be mutual trust among all participants working for change that the education system will undergo at all levels".

His predecessor's budget cuts, announcements of new tuition fees and a raft of other proposed measures drew frequent protests from the academic community and student organisations.

The main proposed changes were:
  • • 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 the 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 a third to half of the senate now, to a third in universities, and removing the minimum level in other higher education institutions.
  • • Introduction of tuition fees of up to 20,000 crowns (€3,600) per year, and student loans.
  • • A strengthened role for external agencies in the quality assurance system.
These plans led to protests in front of the education and culture ministries, with threats from activists to blockade them.

Protesters were particularly angered by plans to introduce tuition fees and increase cooperation with the private sector, which many argued could threaten the independence of the higher education system, Radio Prague reported.

But on 7 June Fiala withdraw the plans, offering to negotiate proposals with university representatatives. However, according to the Prague Daily Monitor, he is looking at the option of introducing a university entrance fee and other steps to balance the budget, due to austerity measures.

Fiala is seen as a safe pair of hands. Previously he was vice-chair of the Council for Research, Development and Innovation, which by law is chaired by the prime minister. He was also the main advisor to the prime minister on research policy.

During his period as rector at Brno, he expanded student numbers from 30,000 to 45,000 and doubled the university budget. From 2009-11 he chaired the Czech rectors’ conference.

Miroslav Jašurek, chair of SK RVS, an umbrella organisation of 70 student unions in the Czech Republic, told University World News that it had not been involved in the protests.

He said Fiala represented a change towards more considered policy-making, unrestricted by political ideology and artificial deadlines. But his room to manoeuvre was limited by the government’s austerity measures, including a “huge problem” of funding.

“The government already reduced investments in higher education and announced further cuts in forthcoming years. With respect to higher education, those cuts should be at least partly compensated by the introduction of registration fees,” he said.

“But we still believe that introducing any fees in our higher education system cannot be a suitable solution. Experiences from many countries all over the world show it will most probably be an impulse to reduce public funding even more.”

A solution to concerns about increased influence of the private sector over higher education has been proposed by the student association of the Czech Institute of Technology and Business in Ceske Budejovice, South Bohemia, and was reported by Hospordaske Novina, the economic business daily on 23 May.

Under the Education Inventory initiative, entrepreneurs will lecture at universities and examples of successful cooperation with the business sphere will be promoted, the Czech News Agency reported.

Czech Student Association spokesperson Jiri Kohout said students would like to start cooperating with experts specialising in promoting education and its connection with commercial companies, for example the Institute for Social and Economic Analyses, a think-tank that focuses on education, human resources and competitiveness.

Apart from closer cooperation with businesses, Education Inventory wants to make students more engaged in running universities.

"Our aim is to make students more interested in the operation of their universities and possibly point to inappropriate use of finances," Kohout said. He believes public control by students is the best method of dealing with problems at universities.

The association has carried out a large survey that asked students what they consider the key issues for Czech universities. Students said the key problems were lack of finances, poor performance by politicians at the education ministry, low quality education, favouritism and funding of controversial activities by universities, Hospordaske Novina reported.

The Education Inventory was inspired by the Democracy Inventory, a student movement focusing on political issues such as the broad immunity of Czech MPs, non-transparent public orders and independence of controlling bodies such as the Supreme Audit Office.

Petr Mateju,a higher education sociologist at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, told University World News: “It is rather bad news that deep and internally consistent reforms of the Czech tertiary education and student financial aid will be postponed, the more so because they were prepared in close cooperation with the OECD, which endorsed their blueprint in 2010.”

However, he said the postponement of reforms could not be blamed on the new minister. The main problem was the serious delay in preparing two draft bills by his predecessor and the very unfortunate style of communicating reforms to the main stakeholders, he said.

“Without doubt Czech universities will have to open more to their environment, particularly businesses and communities, which is unthinkable without adopting the model of shared governance based on stronger involvement of external stakeholders.

“It will also create much better conditions for innovation processes.”

Mateju said it was important that, if a complex system of student financial aid was introduced, it should not rely solely on commercial student loans, as currently proposed. Students from lower social strata, whose proportion is growing due to the expansion of the tertiary system, would face serious difficulties in completing their studies for financial reasons.

Only a well balanced and efficient system of student financial aid would create conditions for the implementation of student cost-sharing.

“Universities badly need to complement limited public funding with private resources, and tuition fees is an obvious part of it,” Mateju said.

“Introducing ‘entrance fees’ is a rather unfortunate compromise, because it will open the gate for cost-sharing without giving students, particularly from low-income families, a chance to participate...student financial aid we know works well in many countries, regardless of whether they have tuition fees or not.”