Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia Aim to Raise Their Higher Education Profile

New York Times

Charles University in Prague was founded in 1348. Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, has been around since 1364, while Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest has been operating since 1635.

But after 40 years of communism, the educational systems of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have fallen behind those of their Western neighbors. Now, education ministers from those countries — who cooperate on a variety of issues under the umbrella of the Visegrad Group — have decided to band together to learn from each other and make strides toward reform.

“We have seen a rapid development of our higher education systems over the last 20 years,” Josef Dobes, the education, youth and sports minister for the Czech Republic, said during an interview last month in Prague. He added that the influence of the Bologna Process, which created a European Higher Education Area to facilitate international cooperation and academic exchange, has changed the way the four countries view their educational systems. They realize, he said, the importance of being open to more student mobility, including recognition of foreign degrees, and of other countries recognizing degrees from the Visegrad countries so that their educational system and its graduates can stay internationally competitive.

Barbara Kudrycka, the minister of science and higher education in Poland, said by e-mail last month that “the higher education systems in our countries were developing for decades in similar conditions and therefore, just after achieving long awaited democracy, were to deal with similar problems: far too low population of students, as compared to the Western countries, ‘academic drift’ in study programs and others.”

“Now we try to do our best to make up the past decades’ delays,” she said.

In November, the education ministers from the four countries decided to form a working group made up of people from the ministries and academics. The ministers would like to see this group share the best of individual changes being made in each country. The goal is to strengthen public confidence in higher education across the region as well as build trust in individual universities and their results so that the nations can better compete in an international context.

The ministers say the group will discuss how these measures will be implemented to achieve both national objectives, based on their own education laws, and international ones, based on E.U. and Bologna Process directives.

“We want to set quality standards and professionalization of accrediting agencies; introduce a transparent system of access to information and establish a working group for reform,” Mr. Dobes said. “The aim is the modernization of our higher education systems, namely evaluation of quality so that we foster public trust in higher education outcomes.”

One of the objectives of the E.U.’s Europe 2020 plan is to increase by 40 percent the number of youths who complete some type of post-secondary education by 2020. Poland and Hungary have recently made major changes to their higher education systems. Poland, for example, implemented a new system of institutional accreditation, while Hungary put a focus on research universities. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are working on new higher-education legislation as a way to improve their education systems.

In Slovakia, Jozef Jurkovic, director of the Higher Education Department at the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport, said improving his country’s quality-assurance system and how its results are measured was high on the list of desired changes. He sees the Visegrad Group as a good vehicle for cooperation.

“We need a more effective usage of public funds and we can learn each one from other. We can avoid mistakes that were made in other countries, and — as we say ‘more heads, more brain’ — we can use the capacity of all our national experts and education policy makers more effectively and implement changes faster,” he said.

One of the goals of the Czech Republic is to improve quality through international cooperation.

“Working together across borders has important potential if we can endorse the integration of universities,” said Jiri Nantl, the director of higher education at the Czech Ministry of Education. “We want to promote cooperation with other universities and having the same standards of quality naturally makes this process easier.”

In their November meeting, the ministers also talked about strengthening links between higher education institutions and employers. They said they would like to see more degree programs consider the needs of the labor market and better train students to meet the needs of their future employers.

“These reforms should benefit the business community,” Mr. Dobes said. “With a common understanding and greater agreement on the requirements of degrees, universities and business could work together more efficiently.”

The officials say that the need to have outside forces with whom to share ideas and experiences should not be trivialized.

“When trying to progress fast, friendly advice is most valued,” Ms. Kudrycka said.