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To Each According to His Birth

Increasingly, the Czech higher education system opens its doors to those born with all the advantages – and shuts others out. [Also in Russian.] by Michael Smith 28 April 2006 The Czech educational system produces among the best math and science students in the post-communist world (according to international rankings). Given the prevalent stereotype of Czechs as economic “tigers,” it is easy to presume that the Czechs have developed an ideal educational system that lets many secondary school graduates enter college and excel in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different: A recent, seminal study, based on a wealth of survey data, has shown that the Czech educational system perpetuates socioeconomic inequalities, limits social mobility, and prevents students who want to go to college from doing so. Why is the educational system entering a moment of crisis, and what can be done to reform it?

First, the facts: According to the Czech Institute for Information on Education, over 40 percent of applicants to colleges and universities fail the entrance exams. In fact, approximately 11 percent of applicants failed to enter a college or university at least five times previously. Only 33 percent of Czechs ages 19 to 24 are in tertiary education (compared with 80 percent in Sweden and 63 percent in the United States), which puts it at the bottom of the list of developed countries. The highly selective nature of the admissions process means that universities have to draw virtually arbitrary lines between equally competitive applicants. It is thus no wonder that many university applicants believe that personal connections and bribery play a role in the admissions process; one recent study by researchers at Prague’s Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences even found that the alphabetical order of applicants’ last names has a statistically significant role in drawing the line between those accepted and rejected.

According to the study by Petr Mateju, Jana Strakova, and their collaborators, Nerovne sance na vzdelani (Unequal Chances for an Education), social and economic inequalities significantly determine applicants’ chances of getting into a college or university. While applicants whose parents do not have a secondary-school diploma have only a 37 percent chance of getting into college, applicants whose parents have a university education have a 61 percent chance. Applicants from low-income families have a much worse chance of getting into college than applicants from wealthier households. University students from rich households (those in the top quintile based on a composite of income, occupation, and education) constitute over 40 percent of the student population in the lucrative fields of the natural sciences, medicine, arts, and law. Students from poorer households dominate in the field of agriculture, which arguably provides the least chance for economic advancement later in life. Lastly, though this study did not focus on ethnicity, anyone wandering through university classrooms (or even gymnasium classrooms) would be looking long and hard to find any Romani students.

These educational inequalities are particularly important given the value of a college degree in the marketplace. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Czech worker with tertiary education makes approximately 1.8 times more than his or her neighbor with a secondary school diploma (this compares to the 1.63 OECD average). This means that not only do students from richer, more educated families have a greater chance of getting into college, but they are also likely to earn a lot more when they graduate. Thus the Czech educational system is not leveling, but is further tilting, the economic playing field between people with different socioeconomic backgrounds.

PUPILS IN PIGEONHOLES

What causes this mess? First of all, the ability of students from better-off families to get into college is largely a product of the fact that those students were already attending elite, multiyear gymnasia (academic secondary schools). Gymnasium students have a much better chance of getting into college than students from vocational secondary schools. The type of secondary school students attend is, in turn, highly correlated to the socioeconomic background of their parents. In fact, according to the study, the rigid nature of Czech secondary education (primary-school students have to select their professional tracks around the age of 15, if not earlier) means that a student’s choice of school and professional track has much more to do with their parent’s background than their own interests. Pupils must apply to secondary school, and competition for the best schools, particularly the gymnasia, is intense. Students with the most resources – for example, those able to pay for tutors and exam preparation kits – are the most likely to get into the top schools. As a result, according to the study's authors, “Multiyear gymnasia do not work as an instrument of gradual educational mobility, as is generally assumed, but rather contribute to the intergenerational perpetuation of educational inequalities.” The less well-off students who are more likely get rejected from a gymnasium have few remaining choices and can be compelled to attend an undesirable vocational school specializing in trades for which there are no jobs.

Second, educational inequalities would be less extreme if university admissions weren’t so nightmarish for applicants and their families. Though the number of students attending institutions of higher education has doubled over the last decade (from 145,000 in 1995 to 298,000 in 2005, due in part to the emergence of private colleges), demand for the “free” public universities continues to far outstrip supply. Ideally, in a system of mass education, all students who want to go to college should be able to do so; after all, in the shift toward knowledge-based societies, bachelor’s degrees are a necessity, not a luxury. But in the Czech Republic, university education is driven not by popular demand but by the limited supply of classroom seats in underfunded and crowded universities.

As a result, applicants who get rejected from public universities sometimes enter private colleges instead. Adults older than 25, who rarely get accepted to public universities, also gravitate toward private colleges. It is a myth that Czech students at private colleges come from wealthy families, as their social origin is roughly the same as at public institutions. They pay their educational costs, which are on average three times higher than at public institutions, by working more, living with their parents, and tapping into family savings. As a lecturer at one private college in Prague, I was amazed by the number of students – most of whom did not get accepted to a public university – who had their own businesses or worked at large multinational corporations. However, mixed academic reputations and restrictive conditions, particularly the difficulty of getting outside funding like research or foundational grants, limits private colleges’ ability to be a serious alternative to public schools.

While the Czech government has sought to increase funding for higher education over the last decade, it has not even been able to keep up with inflation and with the number of students, causing the state subsidy per student in real terms to drop by over 30 percent. While OECD countries invest on average 1.6 percent of GDP in their tertiary educational systems, the Czech Republic invests only 0.9 percent, putting the country near the bottom of the scale. Czechs also lag significantly behind in terms of public funding for research and development (at a miserly 0.56 percent of GDP), which is shocking given the government’s tendency to market the country as a high-tech destination.

Arguably, the greatest culprit in the lack of accessible higher education is the fact that university students pay no tuition, putting the brunt of educational costs on the cash-strapped state. It is ironic that proponents of so-called “free education” emphasize that it is socially just, given that the least-advantaged social groups are least likely to get into college to begin with. A modest tuition of about $300 per semester, along with student loans and means-tested scholarships for low-income students, would likely be the most effective medicine for the country’s educational ills, enabling universities to improve the quality of education and the state to expand educational access. Surveys have also shown that a modest level of tuition would not lead many students to leave school. It might force some students to work, which is not a bad thing, given that students at public institutions earn only a fraction of the amount (about 20 percent) of the earnings of students at private colleges. However, staunch opposition by the ruling Social Democrats and some student groups has dubbed such measures radical and scary. But what is perhaps the scariest thing of all is the continuation of an elitist system of education in dire need of systematic change – above all for the sake of educational opportunity and social equality.
Michael Smith is an external researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
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