You can meet them at a managers’ meeting and behind the counter at a store, they are vital part of the Czech automotive industry but are also among the leaders in most other sectors of Czech society. Twenty years after the velvet divorce, Slovaks are a major presence in the Czech Republic, especially in its cities. Beside job opportunities, one of the things that bring young Slovaks to this country are the universities. What attracts them to a Czech education? And how do they perceive their lives in a country that is so much like their own?
Slovaks are probably the best adjusted group of foreigners in the Czech Republic, and many Czechs, especially those who were born before the 1990s often don’t even consider them foreigners. Nevertheless, at universities they do fall into the category of international students. Youngsters from Slovakia make up almost two-thirds of all international students at Czech universities. Last school year, around 24.5 thousand Slovak students attended universities in this country, and that number has been steadily increasing with every year.
So, what brings them here?
I spoke to Martin, who is just finishing his Master’s at Charles University. He came here from his hometown Nitra three years ago, after doing his first degree at home. For Martin, as for most Slovak students coming here, the main reason to study in the Czech Republic was a higher level of education:
“In general, Czech universities have a better quality and they are also known internationally. I think the education system here is a bit better than in Slovakia. There were more reasons, though, why I chose the Czech Republic and Prague. The main reason was probably the language – Czech and Slovak are very similar. And another reason is the good relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.”
For Michal, who has been here for over six years and studied International Policy and Diplomacy and the University of Economics in Prague, the choice of coming to Prague had a lot to do with the field of study he selected, though other issues were a factor.
“Prague is a very attractive city, in my opinion, and I don’t like Bratislava that much. And I was also attracted by the University of Economics, which in the context of Central Europe, seemed like one of the best choices for me.”
Michal did consider other locations. Since he already spoke very good German in high school, he was also interested in going to Austria.
“I wanted to study in Vienna at first, and it was also one of the first, but in the end I decided to go to Prague. I was accepted here to study diplomacy, which was my first choice. In Vienna I would have studied International Trade. And the second reason [I chose to come here] was the difference in the cost of living in Vienna and Prague.”
Having done their entrance exams in Czech (and in some cases even Slovak), Slovak students can enter the regular study programs at Czech universities Although this is true for all international students, Slovaks don’t need to spend an extra year beforehand learning Czech.
On average, Slovak students make up only around four percent of the whole student body at all Czech Universities. Of course the best-known schools, like Charles Unviersity in Prague or Brno’s Masaryk University attract most of the Slovaks. Ivana Černá, vice-dean at the Faculty of Informatics at Masaryk University in Brno, says that the school attracts a high number of students from across the border, especially in some departments:
“Across the whole of Masaryk University, the percentage of Slovak students is fairly high, it is about 12 percent. Of course, it also depends on the faculty. At the Faculty of Computer Science there around 48 percent of the students are from Slovakia. At the medical faculty, it’s around 20 percent. Though, at the Faculty of Education, for example, there are fewer Slovaks.”
Both Michal and Martin agree that most Slovak students don’t really feel like outsiders. From their experiences, both professors and fellow students have never made them feel like foreigners or one of the international students. Here is Martin’s take on the issue:
“I don’t feel like an international student at all. I feel quite at home here. It’s mainly because I’ve lived here for three years already, I’m working here, and my social network is here. From the very beginning, because of the language, I could communicate without any problems. There are differences between Czechs and Slovaks, but those differences are really small.”
In online chatrooms, and sometimes in the press, some disgruntled opinions crop up once in a while, coming from Czechs who are concerned about Slovaks taking university spots from Czech students. But universities see Slovaks as a natural part of their institutions, and given that they don’t get preferential treatment see no problem in their presence.
One advantage, though that Slovak students have at least over the other international students is that most departments allow them to study in their own language. Although they attend Czech or English language courses, Slovak students can turn in papers to do their exams in their native language. Although Michal says his German would have been good enough to study in Vienna without a problem, being able to write in Slovak was a nice benefit of studying here:
“What I found really beneficial was that I was able to write my final thesis in Slovak, so I didn’t need to translate it into Czech.
Michal now works for a major international company in one of the new slick corporate complexes outside of the city center. He is happy with his job, but it is not in the field that he studied. For him, the Czech education in itself was not beneficial in terms of getting a job in Prague.
“If I had the same education from Bratislava, I think the chances of being employed here would be the same.”
But when I asked if he was planning to use his language skills to get a job in another country altogether, Michal hesitated:
“I’m okay with being in Prague right now. I’m not saying that I won’t consider that possibility at a later stage in my life, but now I would like to stay here. When I was younger, I definitely considered going to other countries like Germany, for example.”
Martin, who is finishing up his studies this semester, is also not planning to go back home just yet. n, it is a matter of responsibility to the country that has given him a quality education:
“At the moment I don’t plan to go back to Slovakia. I also feel a little bit of responsibility. I’ve been studying here for three year. Prague and the university have given me a lot. So, I want to stay here and maybe go further to another country. I would love to travel around the world. But for the moment I will probably stay here for a couple of years, and then I’ll see.”
But the question of whether Prague can really be called home is a hard one. For Michal, who has been here longer, his Slovak identity is still very important, but Prague is also home in a way.
“I really don’t know how to define it. I feel at home where my family lives. I visit them quite often, once in three weeks or so. On the other hand, I definitely feel like Prague is my city. But I still consider myself to be a Slovak. I follow Slovak politics and social affairs, but I also follow what’s going on in Prague.”
Right now it seems that the world is open to the two young men. But I wondered if they’ve thought of their future in the long term.
“I have this feeling that at some stage in my life I would like to go back to Slovakia, because it is my homeland. It doesn’t really depend on the economic or political situation. It is just a long-term plan to go back and live there.”
For Martin, this question is more complex, and political and social issues play a bigger role.
“I think about going back, almost every day. But the problem is that the conditions there aren’t really go. The political situation in Slovakia, for me personally, is not great. For now, I want to develop my potential, travel, to get more experience and then probably to go back.
“A lot of young Slovaks they go back immediately after finishing school and they have problems finding a job. The situation there just doesn’t permit them to develop their potential. Of course, it is really important to go back, because if no one goes back, the future looks really grim.”
Many Slovaks have found a home in this country, some have started families and most are a highly productive part of society. At least 150,000 Slovaks are working in the Czech Republic right now, both in lower skilled positions and in the highest echelons of the country’s business leadership. Those who studied here have a good chance of using their degrees to advance their careers in this country and elsewhere, but it seems that at least for Martin and Michal Slovakia is still the place they would eventually want to settle.