A week of student protests against proposed reforms of the education system culminated with mass demonstrations around the country on Wednesday. After a night spent sleeping rough on the floor of university halls and lecture rooms students and university staff took to the streets to show their discontent with reforms which they claim will reduce the autonomy of education institutions, shift the burden of funding to students and put the academic sphere under the influence of private enterprise and politicians.
Cabinet ministers remained behind closed doors on Wednesday as a crowd of ten thousand angry students stood outside government headquarters in an effort to make their voice heard against the proposed reforms. They held up banners reading “education is not goods” “defend academic freedoms” and “we are not parasites” –the latter in reference to a statement made by President Vaclav Klaus in relation to the dispute over the planned introduction of university fees.
Education Minister Josef Dobeš has raised the ire of both students and academics by completely ignoring their input to proposed changes and riding roughshod over any opposition to his plans. Ivo Mathe, deputy head of the rector’s council which was to have helped shape the reforms, says that the opinion of the academic sphere was completely disregarded.
“In the course of the past year I was on a commission of academics which debated the proposed reforms with ministry officials and we would spend hours discussing various aspects of the proposed changes. But every time we met again any progress made was lost and the amended text was back to the original. So after a year’s work on it the ministry just presented its own version of the legislation. It was as if they were thumbing their noses not only at the university council but the students’ chamber which was very active in the revision process.”
Although Education Minister Josef Dobeš has enjoyed strong backing from the prime minister with regard to the proposed changes, the strength of the nation-wide student protest unexpectedly made him back-track on the controversial university fees on Monday only to have him replace them with something called “entrance” fees for individual semesters a few hours later. The move was greeted with raised eyebrows from coalition partners and derision from the student community.
On a working visit to London the prime minister noted that the proposed reforms had been poorly communicated and told the press that he himself would be talking to rectors and the university council to reach agreement on what was a common goal – improving the education system in the Czech Republic.
Where exactly that leaves the education minister – or the proposed education reform - is unclear. The legislation was to have been put to the government at the beginning of March. The overwhelming opposition to it is likely to delay the process by weeks if not months.