University reform does not go far enough, employers warn

Médium: The Slovak Spectator, Dátum: 31.01.2022
Autor: Radka Minarechová

Changes needed to get EU money

DRAFT legislation aimed at overhauling the university system in Slovakia will do little to solve long-standing problems with higher education failing to produce graduates fit for the needs of the country’s labour market, employers have warned.
For years businesses have complained that many students graduate from universities without the skills to meet the needs of the labour market.
They say an amendment to the Higher Education Act approved by cabinet in late December and expected to go to parliament by spring is unlikely to improve the situation. The amendment aims to effect systemic change in the management of public universities, increasing transparency in the appointment of deans, rectors, and members of university management boards. It will also unify the standard length of studies of both full-time and external students, among others.
Its adoption is also important as without it, there is a threat that Slovakia will receive no money from the first EU recovery fund package.
But some employers say that although the legislation has good points, it does not include specific measures to improve the quality of university education.
Moreover, they say that even though the ministry accepted some of their proposals made during consultations on the draft, they were given little opportunity to discuss the final form of the amendment. “No reform prepared by ministerial officials without communication with people with practical experience (from the labour market] will be good,” said Tibor Gregor, executive director of the Klub 500, an association of Slovakia’s largest employers.

Greater influence
of employers

Some of the most prominent debate related over the amendment has concerned the powers of academic senates and university management boards, and the election of rectors.
Universities and employers have differing views on this.
Members of university management boards are chosen from outside universities. Under the current proposal, six of 13 board members would be made up of people chosen by the Education Ministry from candidates proposed by municipalities, employers’ associations and nongovernmental organisations, and an equal number chosen by the academic senate. A final board member will be elected by the board itself.
Under the legislation the board would have a say in decisions concerning the budget and the election of the rector, but would not be able to veto the election of rectors. It will also be more difficult to remove board members.
University rectors see this as a threat to their academic autonomy.
“The ministry ignored our significant objections,” Marek Števček, the rector of Comenius University in Bratislava, told the Sme daily.
But higher education experts see it as a way of opening university management up to the non-academic sphere, including employers.
Renáta Hall, an expert on higher education and external advisor to Prime Minister Eduard Heger (OĽaNO), said the amendment’s proposed changes to the management of universities would have an effect on the preparation of graduates for their future careers as employers would have their own representatives on university management boards. This would allow them to further their interests through, for instance, voting on the university’s budget or electing a new rector.
The Education Ministry has said the legislation will help create closer connections between school management and the non-academic sector, by creating senior lecturer and professor posts open to people with practical experience, and changing financing to enable the more efficient specialisation of schools and more joboriented study programmes.
“The reform of higher education is a process, the results of which can be seen only after some time,” the ministry said in a statement. “The result will be that graduates will be produced who meet the demands of society and the workplace.”

Greater change expected

Mário Lelovský, deputy head of the National Union of Employers (RÚZ), has praised the planned changes to management of higher education institutions.
“They support more professional management, and the more transparent and efficient financing of universities, and the improvement of their quality and performance,” he said.
Andrej Hutta of the Federation of Employers’ Associations (AZZZ) noted that the proposed legislation took into account employers’ requests to link graduates’ theoretical teaching with practical experience. But Lelovský highlighted the disappointment among some employers that the reforms do not go far enough and do not include fundamental and effective measures aimed at improving the quality of university education, preparing the graduates for their future careers and ensuring the brightest talents remain in Slovakia.
“The amendment contains partial changes and solutions, but it is missing a more comprehensive approach,” Gregor of Klub 500 said.
In a recent survey by the Business Alliance of Slovakia (PAS), which included 50 legal entities and five self-employed persons, more than three quarters of respondents said they would support a greater state role in the management of universities, with the government creating an environment supportive of scientific institutions who would cooperate with employers.
Meanwhile, 97 percent said that practical experts should be more engaged in the educational process, and 95 percent said higher education should be more open to the non-academic sector and that people with a good reputation outside of the academic sector should be involved in university management. Respondents also addressed what they thought were the reasons many Slovaks decide to study abroad, most frequently citing the inability of universities to produce graduates suitable for the labour market, and low quality of education.

Lack of discussion

Employers like Lelovský and Hutta believe that some of their continuing concerns over the draft legislation’s shortcomings could have been addressed had they had more opportunity to speak with the Education Ministry.
The ministry has said it discussed the amendment with employers during the legislation’s interdepartmental review process, and that the draft takes into account employers’ needs regarding graduate labour. But representatives of employers who spoke to The Slovak Spectator said they were not invited to any broader discussions. Both Lelovský and Hutta said that despite a promise to attend a working group on the legislation, they were not invited to talks and had limited opportunities to discuss their proposals compared to, say, the representatives of universities.

Crucial for the recovery
fund money

With just a few weeks left before it is expected to go to parliament, the Education Ministry has said further changes to the draft law could still be made as it is debated by MPs.
The government will likely be keen to get it passed as soon as possible as, if it is not, payments from the first EU recovery fund package could be under threat.
Passing the reform is a condition to receive payment of an initial tranche of €458.3 million from the EU recovery fund.
A request for the money, due to be sent in the spring of 2022, can be submitted only if a number of reforms, of which the amendment is one, are approved. The department of the Government’s Office responsible for the Slovak recovery plan operates a traffic light system for the passage of pending legislation, and the amendment is currently labelled as ‘orange’, meaning it is expected to be passed, but possibly with a small delay or partial non-fulfilment.
However, even if the amendment does get parliamentary approval, some experts point out that any improvement in the suitability of graduates for the labour market would not be seen for some years.
“Universities are like big transatlantic ships – it’s hard to change their direction and even if they manage to change direction, their graduates will join the labour market in no sooner than three to five years,” Róbert Chovanculiak, an analyst with economic think tank INESS, told The Slovak Spectator.