Throughout its history the Czech Republic has been renowned for having an outstanding level of education. This small country in the heart of Europe has produced many great intellectuals, writers, scientists and creative engineers. Even so, the famous Czech author Ivan Klima noted in his novel "the Spirit of Prague" that nowhere in the world where the literacy rate is almost 100% is education so underrated. But with today's financial realities, do Czechs have more reason to look at their university education with such disdain?
On Wednesday, students from all over the Czech Republic gathered on Malostranske Square to protest at the state of tertiary education. At the same time the state budget for 2004 was being approved in the lower house of Parliament, which proposes meagre finances for Czech Universities. Funeral procession music was a thoughtful addition by Czech students to illustrate the state of Czech universities. In 2001 a protest with a similar theme took place in Olomouc in east Moravia. The students called it a "happening" and it was entitled "the Decapitation", a blatantly symbolic event in which all public universities were decapitated by the Ministry of Education. I spoke with Lucie Travnickova while walking in a procession of protestors. Shouted in the background were slogans such as "open your eyes" or "ashes to ashes dust to dust." Lucie played a major role in the delegation responsible for the day's protest and I asked her about the theme.
"Well, it is the funeral of Czech public universities."
What are you holding in your hands?
"I am holding small sweets we call coffins. One is made to represent each public university in the Czech Republic and three of them are specially made for one of the deputies Michal Kraus because he was the major figure who said that the Universities would get less money than they were supposed to."
There's a statue of a head here. Who is it of?
"That is Frantisek Palacky, since we came from Olomouc, and that is what our school is called the Palacky University."
You were in the delegation today what happened? Can you tell me?
"Well we went inside the parliament. The receptionist basically turned us away but we managed to talk to some of the deputies. We handed over the coffins and we asked for some of the deputies who are concerned to be called downstairs. They wouldn't let us upstairs as a delegation but no one would come and we actually talked on the phone with the people from the resource commission."
What are you hoping to accomplish by today's protest?
"Well today should be a starting point for some bigger protests. We're hoping to get more Universities involved and more students involved and we're hoping to get the public to realize what the problem actually is."
What problems does your own university have with funding?
"If you look at the buildings they need to be repaired and reconstructed. There is lack of copying paper, insufficient bathrooms and there are not enough books in the University libraries, especially not the major publications that are published abroad which are very expensive to purchase. I'm an English student and let's say there is about 40 of us a week in a literature seminar. There are three copies of a book for us to read each week, which as you can imagine is quite impossible for 40 people to share."
Paul Christianson, an American teaching at the department of musicology in the Philosophical Faculty in Olomouc, shared his impression of the situation.
"The students don't have books, the buildings are falling apart before our eyes, it's a very desperate situation and I'm not even speaking about the pay of the staff and of the faculty. I'm teaching new classes that students need which they only have the opportunity to learn from me coming from the west. I need to get articles from the Internet and then photocopy it for them or have them sent from America and then make copies for everyone - there just is not the financial support that we need."
How long have you been teaching in Olomouc?
"I've actually only been here since September but as it turns out I love being in Olomouc I also love being in the department that I am in. My colleagues are very intelligent, hard working and dedicated and the students are excellent. I love being here but the financial situation is really desperate and something has to be done."
With the Czech Republic's accession into the European Union there is also a fear by students that they will not be competitive within Europe. A lot of students I spoke with mentioned that they might leave to study abroad and Paul Christianson also expresses concern.
"If things don't change drastically professors will leave and students will leave. Some of the countries best and brightest will leave and go to study in Western Europe and America and it is really a shame."
The education Ministry and the universities had asked for an additional five billion crowns to next years budget to improve the quality of universities and increase their competitiveness in Europe. The government however, has only earmarked 1.7 billion due to austerity measures.
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