What is the best role for government in higher education, hands-on or off the table?

It might seem strange that a generation after the fall of the Iron Curtain, good quality education is still scarce in post-communist Central Europe. Of course, the region is not lacking in people with various titles and diplomas from dozens of new colleges and universities. But no Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian university is listed in the top rankings of universities worldwide.

Education is not a priority for any government – except in late summer as children and university students prepare for the new semester. This debate usually revolves around underpaid teachers who fail to provide top-quality education and vague promises by politicians to make a change. For the rest of the year the topic is off the table. Throughout the region curricula vary, but memorizing facts prevails as an educational tool over promoting creativity and critical thinking.

Things have changed since the early 1990s when Central European societies opened up with intellectual curiosity and high hopes for education funding – particularly from the burgeoning EU. Seeking membership in the Union helped increase demand for certification: Many positions in government and health care required a degree in higher education.

Hunting for diplomas

Well, at least what passes for education. In the good old Austro-Hungarian tradition, the desire for titles mattered more than real learning. In the 1990s, this cultural mindset opened a whole new market for private schools and universities as well as the growing public regional universities.
Almost every capital city in the region wanted a university, not only to cater to the real hunger for higher education, but also as a matter of prestige. Statistically, schools in CEE were booming. In 1993, for example, 7.8% of Czechs had a university degree, while in 2015 that number had reached 17.8%, according to the Czech Statistical Office.

When the children of the 1970s Czechoslovakian baby boom reached adulthood in the 1990s and 2000s, it was often hard to get a place at public universities, so private institutions opened their gates. And if you were privileged, like many politicians, it was often easier and quicker to obtain a title, as became apparent after the recent scandal surrounding the Law Faculty at the University of Western Bohemia in Pilsen. Also, many Czech politicians have titles from local Slovakian universities with no international contacts, outlook or ambition to benchmark their performance internationally.

But these times are over. Public schools struggled due to budget cuts during the global economic crisis of 2008; private ones suffered from a dwindling demographic.

As the economies of the region evolved into the workshop of German industry, the countries of Central Europe gradually discovered that they had too many graduates in the social sciences – who are cheaper to educate for universities – and too few technical engineers or IT specialists, who are now in high demand. Not to mention craftsmen and technically skilled workers, whose professions almost disappeared as so many began seeking the laurels of higher education and the once communist vocational schools shut down. Today, to a certain extent, we are seeing their revival.

Some private and regional universities survive thanks to foreign students for whom having a title from an EU school is more important and often cheaper than studying at home. This holds true both for students from Asian and ex-Soviet countries, as well as EU member states like Greece, where studying medicine is far more expensive than in Slovakia, for example.

Education never plays an important role in coalition talks and is not a topic for scoring political points, as one Czech former education minister told me privately. This may seem cynical, but the distress about it is real. Teachers are constantly dissatisfied, as Slovaks have shown in protests in early 2016 and Hungarians have been showing constantly throughout this year.

But perhaps leaving well enough alone is a better option, as recent developments in Poland and Hungary have shown. Both conservative governments want to grab as much public space as possible, which includes pressuring schools and teachers to shape curricula according to the wishes and visions of the governing party. That is beginning to resemble education in communist times, distorting world views and misrepresenting facts. As of now the government has exerted less pressure, but sometimes one gets the disquieting feeling that the past is closing in.