An event entitled Bethlehem Chapel II was held this week at the UMPRUM auditorium, organised by the Czech Rectors' Conference, the Council of Higher Education Institutions, the Czech Academy of Sciences, the Higher Education Trade Union, the Czech-Moravian Trade Union of Education Workers, the Trade Union of Workers in Science and Research, the Confederation of Industry and Transport of the Czech Republic, and the Union of School Associations of the Czech Republic or CZESHA. Approximately two hundred people, primarily university employees, academics, and other education professionals, attended. Representatives of the government, including the Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation and the Minister of Education, Youth, and Sports, also presented an outline of solutions to the attendees.
A group of young scientists, with banners expressing concerns about the dire financial situation in higher education, walked through the assembly hall during the event. Their banners bore slogans such as “The Government Is Killing Schools” or “I Think, Therefore I Am... and I Can't Afford Rent...” The wording caught part of the overall atmosphere of the gathering, whose purpose was to alert the current government that education and science should not be subject to budget cuts.
Cause for alarm
Conditions are currently far from ideal, with sectors such as education facing difficult economic and social circumstances. Unexpectedly at the event on Tuesday an alarm rang out in the UMPRUM auditorium – a symbol of where the Czech Republic stands. Following the alarm, more than ten speeches were delivered, each packed with statistics and graphs. The presentations served as a warning that higher education in the international context is severely underfunded and that supporting science, research, innovation, and quality education has enormous potential. There necessity for future development and progress cannot be understated.
A knowledge-based economy as a common goal
“A society aiming to build a knowledge-based economy cannot do so without quality education. As the rector of Charles University and chairwoman of the Czech Rectors' Conference, it's crucial for me to emphasise that Czech universities and the entire academic community are ready to contribute to addressing the challenges facing our society,” CU’s Milena Králíčková - also the chairn of the Czech Rectors' Conference – said. She added, “I see enormous potential in our students. My task is to fight for Czech universities to be competitive internationally, for our graduates to be an asset to the Czech Republic and the European Union, and for their mission to be further developed. Only in this way can we successfully address all current and future crises. A knowledge-based economy, built on quality education and competitive universities with competitive salaries, should be our common goal.”
She further stated that increasing institutional funding would help in the efficient management of universities: “We're not asking for a handout; none of us is saying, 'come and contribute to us.' We offer to strengthen capacities and establish conditions for smoothly handling the expected increase in students due to demographic changes in the next three to four years and to collectively face the challenges ahead.”
Almost at the bottom of the barrel
Milan Pospíšil, the chair of the Council of Higher Education Institutions, discussed unity in the field of education and outlined the development of common problems in financing from 2009 to the present. “The data shows that public expenditures for higher education have stagnated in recent years, while the budget chapter for the Ministry of Education has significantly increased. There's room for improvement. Dividing funding is complex, and it's clear that the lack of financial resources leads to tension among universities and individual faculties,” he noted. Pospíšil further mentioned that most European countries are willing to allocate more funds for higher education compared to the situation in the Czech Republic. “We are behind countries like the Baltic states, Slovakia, and Poland, and only Hungary and Latvia are [below] us,” he added.
Institutional funding not sufficient
“For the future prosperity of our country, which doesn't have many natural resources, the only option is to invest in education and science,” Eva Zažímalová, chair of the Czech Academy of Sciences, stressed to all attendees. Financing education and science is, according to Zažímalová and all those involved, highly inefficient. “Furthermore, experimental fields cannot exist without grants because institutional funding is only sufficient to cover overhead costs, rent, and the salaries of the most basic employees,” she specified. She also emphasised, “Science is cosmopolitan. We need to realise that we are competing for scientific professionals on a global scale, not just within the Czech Republic. We are aware that we are not competitive in terms of salaries. Therefore, it's disheartening that we educate high-quality young scientists who then go abroad.” She admitted that everyone is aware of the complexity of the current situation and expressed gratitude for any slightly optimistic signals coming from the government.
Jiří Zajíček, the chair of CZESHA, focused on the interconnectedness of funding between higher and regional education institutions in his speech. “If we want to attract quality teachers or experts from practice, it's necessary to provide them with reasonable funding. I understand that I can't afford to hire an IT teacher away from a bank or another corporate environment. But I need conditions that allow me to reward them appropriately so that they don't need additional jobs. And non-teaching staff? Try finding a janitor for a school in the centre of Prague; it's almost impossible,” he said as an example. That's why he hopes next year's budget will not remain at this year's level, or fall even lower. “It's high time for change. I believe that the government will do its utmost to fulfil all its commitments. That's why we support Education Minister Bek to be strong and continue negotiating,” Zajíček concluded.
A qualified decision
Although not immediately apparent, the situation at universities has an impact on conditions of employers in the industrial and transportation sectors. “I don't need to remind anyone that our country is undergoing geopolitical and technological changes, as well as a transformation of society. If we, as entrepreneurs, want to be successful, we must be able to adapt to all these changes. And who will help us? Of course, universities, our natural and most important partners,” Milena Jabůrková, vice-president of the Confederation of Industry and Transport of the Czech Republic, said. She expressed confidence in the highly qualified statement of the government: “Hopefully, they will fulfil what they promise. What investment could be more strategic than investing in education, higher education, science, and research?”
Education is a priority
Mutual support and viewing the education system as a whole, not subject to financial divisions, were central themes in František Dobšík's speech, chair of the Czech-Moravian Trade Union of Education Workers. “On the one hand, there are generous promises from the government about salary increases; on the other hand, there's the reality of the budget for education in 2024, which is expected to decrease by more than ten billion Czech crowns. For you, it's just a number, but for us, it represents the potential fates of people affected by the cuts,” Dobšík reflected. He continued, “Will they receive redundancy notices? What are the possible solutions? For me and my colleagues, the only answer is that the problem lies in the education budget for 2024, which we see as completely contradictory to the government's statements.”
According to Dobšík, unions representing education workers prefer negotiations with the government within the framework of social dialogue, taking into account their views and demands: “Our goal is not to go the confrontational route, but that requires the other party to listen and seek solutions to prevent social unrest. I believe that economic and ideological biases will not prevail over the priority of education,” Dobšík concluded.
“It's extremely challenging to endure a situation where real wages are declining, and inflation is high. Qualified employees, whom we have trained and are glad to have, often leave for better salaries. I see this as a major defeat. Some programs may even have to be closed because there won't be anyone to teach them," said Petr Baierl, chair of the Higher Education Trade Union, on behalf of university employees. Therefore, the stagnant budget for university employees is considered highly unfavourable.He was joined by Jan Kober, chair of the Trade Union of Workers in Science and Research, who stated, “We demand performances from our employees comparable to scientists and researchers from abroad, who, unlike us, can adequately support their employees financially and socially. It shouldn't be a luxury to start a family and own a home. Unfortunately, the current trend of real wages is pulling us backward and putting us in dangerous traps with destructive consequences,” Kober warned.
Financing - ministerial perspectives
The Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation Helena Langšádlová and Minister of Education, Youth, and Sports Mikuláš Bek shared their comments and broader perspectives on government decision-making regarding education financing with the attendees."The state has truly committed to increasing institutional support, and representatives of universities have also taken on certain commitments. You can judge for yourselves whether they are being fulfilled," urged Minister Langšádlová. She also stated, “In Czechia, there are one hundred and ninety research organizations, and public research institutions are just one segment of them. All must adhere to common rules governing research.”
“Let's take a broader look at the context in which this year's education debate is taking place; we are grappling with old debts and inconsistencies,” Minister Bek implored. He further explained that our system allows for a high level of autonomy for universities in budget management and personnel policies: “It's up to each university to set its salary tables and distribute the funds, which, I agree, flow through too many channels and are overly complex.”According to the minister, it's clear that the path to better funding for universities doesn't involve guaranteeing salaries given their extreme autonomy: “I am prepared to discuss the financing system, which has been frozen for a long time,” he continued. And he stated, “If we call on the state to solve problems at individual universities and faculties, we should be certain that the state will want to manage costs: that would dictate how many professors, associate professors, and lecturers are ‘needed’. And that would not be good.”
Bek is confident that through discussions with the Czech Rectors' Conference and the Council of Higher Education Institutions, the government will motivate universities to reduce salary disparities next year: “The path leads to greater efficiency in institutions, a certain degree of solidarity, and, of course, an increase in state funding. We are currently in a recession, but once growth occurs, there will be room to increase the state budget.”
Joint statement presented on September 12 by representatives of university representation, unions, and professional associations expressed their dissatisfaction with the state of financing in Czech education and science. In Czech
Text: Marcela Uhlíková
Photos: Vladimír Šigut