My guest today is 22-year-old Prague history, English and American Studies student Matouš Turek, who is a member of the “Week of Unrest” student movement that has been protesting proposed government reforms to the education system. So Matouš, what exactly are the proposed reforms and what don’t you like about them?
“There are two pieces of draft legislation. The first concerns the autonomy of universities – how they are to be governed - and the other concerns financing and is called ‘financial help to students’ which, I think, is kind of a funny title. The first introduces changes to university autonomy, which means that an altogether different system of governing schools is created. Presently, economic senates are the governing authorities of universities around the country. And then you have rectors. And the proposals would mean that these senates lose, one could say privileges, but it’s basically their rights as the economic senates are currently elected by the academia. But under the changes it would be a so-called board of directors or a university council, as it has been labeled, who would decide about budget matters in particular.”
And this is something you feel that would give the government extra influence over universities? How would the changes reduce autonomy in your view?
“It certainly would, because one third of the board of directors would be appointed directly by the Minister of Education. Also, the government would confirm the selection of the board of directors. So that creates direct political influence on the governing bodies of the universities, which is something unheard of in civilized countries, I think.”
And the second part of the proposals relates to how universities are financed and as I understand it, this would create a fee system for students capped at 10,000 crowns. Is that correct?
“Yes, there has been some talk recently that this might be changed but we really don’t know. It’s mostly words and no real assurances so far. But now, the financing from the state goes through a so-called normative. So you have an amount that goes to each student. It’s multiplied by a coefficient, which is higher for technical universities and lower for humanities. And a historical point is that this led universities to take in many more students. And this was endorsed by the government and has been up until now. But now, the government has realized that it’s not tenable; that we can’t have so many students, which is perhaps true and makes sense. We have many more students by percentage in the population than we had ten years ago.”
So the reforms would actually serve to reduce the number of students?
“They probably would.”
And that is a good thing? Because you hear a lot of debate these days that in order to compete with China and all the rest of it, we need to educate our populations. But you’re saying that there may be too many students?
“Well, from an economic point-of-view, there are just too many universities and students. If you look at the number of private universities, which is a different matter, but the number of university educated people there is going up as well. The quality of the education is the problem. And it isn’t possible for it to be funded at such a scale. The real problem is that the private universities are not regulated in any way, so you have the public sector, which is pressurized by this legislation, but the private universities are not mentioned at all.”
So right now, education for Czech university students is free. The proposals would what you presumably view as opening the door to fees, which once that door is open they can go up any time. Is this something that you are fundamentally opposed to - the idea of student fees and indebting students to pay for it?
“The big question is whether we want to lower the number of students on the basis of their intellect or on the basis of their income. And that’s what the government has gotten all wrong, I think and we think. Because if you introduce fees, which would not be nominal – I think that many of the student activists are not opposed to nominal fees paid as you go. But not after you earn some money in employment – that is not the way to go as we have seen in England and in other countries. We would accept if quality really was the factor that decided how many students are admitted into universities, rather than the thought that I have to pay off 100,000 crowns after I graduate.”
So how would students pay this? Do the reforms mention anything about some sort of student loan mechanism?
“Yes, the financing law is concerned mostly with loans. The proposed loans would be guaranteed by the state, but the guarantees are to the banks. So the banks get steady interest rates, which would be paid for by the government and once a graduate attains, I think, twice the minimum wage, he then starts paying that loan off. This seems strange to me because double the minimum wage is much less than had been proposed before. That really is not a lot of money. The reason why Education Minister Dobeš says that fees are justified is that the students should not expect society to pay for their privileges. But wee see an educated society as an absolute must in the world and if you make people pay for their education, you’re going to exclude a whole lot of people who may worry that they won’t be able to pay.”
When you look at something like the English example where a few years ago the system was changed from free university education to paid education, one of the criticisms of those reforms has been that it actually hurts the middle classes the most because the poorest students get subsidies and the wealthiest have no problem paying. What is your take on the British example? Is that something you are suspicious of?
“I think that in England there is a greater degree of trust in institutions. So scholarships and financial aid is somehow managed in a tenable way. Here, we don’t think that this is going to be the case either for the middle classes or for the poorest. It represents a kind of psychological barrier that first you make people think about the money and only then about education. And education should come first.”
Is not the present merit-based system also open to corruption? Because you sometimes hear stories about various universities admitting somebody because they are the friend’s sister’s uncle’s brother and that kind of thing... That is quite common in the Czech Republic. How would you reform this problem?
“That problem is a great problem, you are right. And actually, the rector’s conference and the student initiative have criticized the current legislative drafts that they do not take on this problem anyhow. And we are definitely for an analysis of the system and how it works because there hasn’t been any real analysis of the financing or of the working of the universities. So it might be dealt with in the future, and it should be dealt with, but the current proposals don’t even mention this. One thing that could help is a quality control system from the accreditation commission. And this is actually taking place in Plzeň, for instance. I think that the Plzeň law faculty crisis is quite well known about. There were students who received their diplomas without any effort, so the accreditation commission decided to shut down the entire faculty. But now there are efforts from the government – from the Minister of Education – to halt this, which is absurd. We are all for quality control. Of that there is no question.”
And we are recording this interview one day after - students say 10,000, the police say 7,000 – either way, a lot of students marched on the offices of the Czech government. That resulted in Prime Minister Petr Nečas saying that he was now willing to negotiate with students over the proposed reforms. So it looks like what was initially proposed is now politically untenable and that there are going to be talks. So are you hopeful that you’ve had an impact? This has been quite a huge PR effort, hasn’t it?
“It has indeed. We are quite happy with how it has turned out so far; especially with the number that turned up to take part. Because it was in the morning, and altogether in the Czech Republic, 20,000 people, mostly students, came out into the streets and many events similar to the ‘university night’ have been taking place. I was there and I saw that it wasn’t just students taking part; there were ordinary people there who came to learn something about the laws in question. So I think it has had a PR effect especially on the population, which otherwise wouldn’t have to care.”
Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about because sometimes you hear critiques that young people are just apathetic and don’t get involved enough in civic matters. So is this as fired-up as young people have been politically since the Velvet Revolution of 1989?
“Yes. The students have realized that it is they who have to care about the universities. It is on the basic level of ‘what is going to happen to me in the next few years?’ and questions about the future. And I think that represents a change. Because the system has been sort of stale, you could say. So in that respect we actually have to thank Josef Dobeš!”
One last question very briefly: since students were so closely involved in the Velvet Revolution, the optics of a Czech government upsetting students is still quote a powerful one – is that correct?
Because you get the public on your side quite easily…
“I don’t think it is that easy because if you look at the media reports, I think that the government – up until the students were out on the streets – have easily - I don’t know if the word ‘manipulated’ is the correct one, but I think so – manipulated public opinion to suggest that the academia are just vying for their own private interests. President Klaus said this too; he even refused to give a lecture which had been scheduled months in advance in Brno at Masaryk University because of the protests. And I think that there is a big ‘no’ from society to this kind of response and that is something we really appreciate.”
Matouš Turek, member of the “Week of Unrest” thank you very much for joining us.