White Book proposes making universities more competitive
The Ivory Tower of the Czech academic world may need a few practical lessons in business if it wants provide a new generation of students an education that prepares them for the real world, according to a new report. A proposed overhaul of the Czech higher-education system would make universities more competitive by changing the way they do business. The White Book, a draft document under discussion among the academic community and stakeholders since June, proposes reforms that would prepare graduates for the job market and encourage schools to collaborate with the business sector for practical applications of research. At the heart of the plan is the Tertiary Education system, a model that divides universities into three focuses: research and development institutions, theoretical studies and practical bachelor's degrees. The document, the result of a team of experts, was reviewed and commented on by universities, students, ministries, regions and businesses representatives, offering a comprehensive look at the perceived deficiencies of the university system. This comment period, which began in June, was closed Nov. 3, and the White Book has now been passed on to the Education Ministry, which will include its own comments before passing it on for a vote from the government. "Roughly in the middle of December it should be with the government. Then it will be the preparation phase of the Act on Tertiary Education that will include points on the diversification of study programs and university operations governance," said Václav Vinš, director of the Education Ministry's Higher Education Department. Efforts to change the university system have been ongoing for 15 years, the most important issue being the financial viability of schools and their governance structure. Since 1993, the Education Ministry has come up with various recommendations that focused on examples from school systems abroad. But, as attempts to reform university systems have encountered before, academic leaders often favor tradition and may resist sweeping changes. Courage to change "The thought that a person from the outside will enter a school and manage university operations was unthinkable for the academics, and it was understood as an invasion into century-old traditions," said Rudolf Haňka, a professor at Cambridge and hosting professor at the University of Economics in Prague, who was present in Cambridge during a period of major school reforms. "It is natural to be afraid of change, but it is necessary to find the courage to make them. "In 1998, Professor Petr Matějů, now at the Analytical and Conceptual Department of the Education Ministry, began the reform discussions in earnest that would eventually lead to the proposed amendments to the current Act on University Education. The Education Ministry put Matějů in charge of leading a team of independent experts to create the proposal on university education reform. His team found university governance to be a big part of the problem, with inadequate transparency in financial operations and an overdependence on the state budget. Last year, universities received 31 billion Kč for operations from the government. "The reforms in the White Book are uncomfortable for those who are afraid they will have to adapt to new governance, which will make them more responsible for their financial budgets and the success of their graduates after they leave school," said Matějů. "These are schools that will more than likely not be competitive enough and are already conscious of it. "The typical governance structure consists of a rector who is elected by an academic senate, faculty deans who report to the rector and a managerial board that deals with university assets. The White Book proposes decreasing the electing power of the senate and shifting more power toward the board, which would include more people from the business and private sectors."It is also possible that the rector could be a someone from the outside, an experienced manager of a company. This model also proved successful when we look at education reforms in the United Kingdom in the '80s," explained Matějů. The UK reforms were part of the strategy to look at a more Western-style school management model in which universities operate like businesses in an effort to stay competitive with other academic institutions. Reformers want to see Czech institutions make these changes in order to produce a better "end product": the student. In order to do that, they say the university system will have to change its financing models, shift responsibilities to the managerial level of universities and foster an ongoing discussion between the academic and business communities. Global outlook needed "Universities should react to the demands of the employment market and the business community and pay attention to what type of work force is needed. A university student is, by all means, a product of the school," said Simona Weidnerová, a member of Matějů's White Book group of experts. As globalization has forced businesses to adopt a more global outlook and strategy, so should the university system prepare students for the increasingly international job market. "Globalization will force us to make these reforms if we want to stay competitive on the world market. The transformation of our education system and the research and development in the country will help Czech university education be comparable to the world's top schools," said Jan Švejnar, professor at the University of Michigan.The White Book's aims have also been furthered by a tax reform passed in April 2007 that provides incentives to businesses who cooperate with schools by investing in research and development. "A company can subtract the first investment from their general expenses before tax, and the second investment can be subtracted from the profits," said Weidnerová, who added that this is the first step in encouraging communication between businesses and universities.
Bibiána Duhárová can be reached at bduharova@praguepostcom