Czech students
Heda Čepelová and Slaven Elčić, both of the national student chamber, say tuition plans don't include enough programs to finance poor students.

Students speak out against planned university reforms

Plans to add tuition fees, limit power of students on senate spark opposition

They’ve been a thorn in the side of the university reform movement from the beginning, even drawing the attention of President Václav Klaus last year when he called them parasites – they’re the students speaking out against changes that would introduce tuition fees, along with a slew of other measures they say strip public universities of their autonomy. Unfortunately for their detractors, they’ve done their homework.

“The whole reform reminds me of a student assignment, just thrown together without much thought, just to get it done,” said Slaven Elčić, an external member of the Student Chamber of the Council of Higher Education Institutions (SKRVŠ) and a law student at Charles University in Prague.

Student groups and university representatives say the university reform draft proposal, which was rejected by 20 of the 26 university senates in early January, did not include adequate provisions for funding the changes or arguments for how they will improve tertiary education.

As it now stands, the reform, which was six years in the making, would introduce tuition fees of up to 10,000 Kč ($502/391 euros) per semester.

Heda Čepelová, spokeswoman for SKRVŠ, says she is not opposed to a financial contribution by students in theory, but says if the aim is to make students more like customers who can vote with their money and demand a better product, it should be assured that the money paid in tuition goes to improving the university. Under the current version, she says tuition payments will go to the general state budget, a system she likens to a “study tax.”

Students are also dissatisfied with the lack of provisions made for students without means to pay the tuition fees.

“There is a model of financial aid for students in this proposal, but it relies just on bank loans, with no grants or anything that you get from public money,” said Čepelová, who explained she fears such a system will create a “spiral of debt” for students and discourage the most economically disadvantaged among them from even applying to university. She cited low-income families’ often bad experiences with debt in saying they would likely hesitate to incur more, even for education.

“They’re basically selling us out to the banks,” Elčić said.

The Education Ministry, of course, disagrees.

“The purpose of the introduction of tuition fees is to obtain additional sources of funding for universities, to increase the social responsibility of their graduates for their education, and to prevent the disadvantage to the person who doesn’t study at a university, but who pays taxes from which the universities are funded,” said Jana Škeříková, a ministry spokeswoman.

Education Minister Josef Dobeš argues that such reforms are increasingly urgent.

“Until now, it’s been the same documents and speeches,” he said on Czech Television in early January. “But now it has caught up with us. The schools are growing, there are many of them, and we don’t have money for it.”

Tuition fees aside, both students and faculty find the reorganization of university leadership proposed in the reform unacceptable. They say the academic senates, which are historically strong institutions at universities that until now have enjoyed a substantial amount of autonomy, will be weakened since the reform calls for a cap on the number of students who can serve on the senates. At present, the senates are a mix of students and faculty.

A new institution would also be created at the university level and a third of its members would be appointed by the Education Ministry.

“Public universities are now an institution built on the principles of freedom and democracy,” said Daniel Feranc, secretary of the Charles University Academic Senate. “Attempting to change the management of these institutions, particularly with regard to the Czech political culture, is an attempt to change the character of universities.”

Čepelová says this aspect of the reform sends a clear message to students that they should be clients of the system and not partners, something that goes against the main principles of academia, in her view.

Cuts to spending and other austerity-minded reforms targeting higher education have been a hot topic in Europe over the past few years, as the eurozone debt crisis and fears of recession continue to drain state budgets. In recent years, tuition fee hikes have been passed or debated in Sweden, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and now Greece, among other countries, and most Central and East European governments have cut spending on higher education significantly.

The university reform is set to be presented to Parliament by June, and SKRVŠ is working to get organized with other university students through their senates to put together workshops and public discussions on the topic, which they anticipate will build up to nationwide demonstrations this summer if changes are not made to the law before it goes before MPs.

“I have never seen people so well informed,” Čepelová said. “Before, the reform always seemed so intangible and far off, but now people feel it more than ever.”

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