FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PRAGUE, CZ (May 3, 2005). A press conference held last week in the Czech Parliament presented the challenges of widening tertiary participation in eastern European Union countries. Higher education leaders from 17 countries, including the United States and Canada, discussed the difficulty in widening participation within severe budget restraints.
“Increasing access to tertiary education and keeping it affordable for all is a hugely difficult challenge facing the eastern Europeans, as it is for all countries,” says Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President of the Educational Policy Institute, an international think tank on educational opportunity based in Virginia. “For these countries, where access has been traditionally limited and supported entirely by taxpayers, a completely new structure of shared investment in the tertiary system is required in order to meet the mutual goals of increased access and continued high instructional quality.”
Speaking at the press conference, Dr. Swail noted that while the task is complex and challenging, it is ultimately necessary if the Czech Republic and other countries are to compete in the global market place. “One thing we understand is that society must provide its citizenry with the opportunity to learn new skills through tertiary-level education in order to enter and succeed in the global marketplace. We have seen what occurs when this opportunity is not realized. The talented leave and the economy stagnates.”
Dr. Petr Mateju, President of the Prague-based Institute for Social and Economic Analyses, has been pushing the introduction of tuition fees in the Czech Republic for over a decade. “The Czech Republic has one the lowest enrolment rates in tertiary education among OECD countries and also one of the highest levels of inequality in access from lower social strata. We can’t open the doors of our tertiary system to our youth without increasing institutional revenues. The funds are either there or they are not. And if not, then that same door will close hard and fast on those who are less advantaged.” Dr. Mateju, who also is a vice-president for research at the Anglo American College in Prague, emphasized that former eastern bloc countries must borrow lessons from the west by providing private investment through tuition, while also introducing means-tested, specially-targeted financial aid to ensure that tertiary education is affordability for all students. “We believe that those who have the ability to pay should do so at some level,” says Mateju, “but we also are adamant that those who do not have that ability should be given the necessary support through grants and loans to pursue their dreams.”
The conference, convened by the Central European Initiative, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, the National Training Fund, and several other organizations, focused on the emerging differences in the level of competitiveness of European countries in comparison to the U.S. and other advanced countries. Speakers at the three-day event provided data and analysis on the correlation between high levels of public and private investment in tertiary level of education and economic growth and prosperity.
Mr. Walter Bartos, a member of the Czech Parliament and Chairman of the Committee for Science, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, sees the current challenges as an opportunity for the Czech Republic. “We have to change our fundamental approach to education. Education certainly remains one of biggest cultural assets of people and nations. But we should admit that education also becomes a strategic commodity making people and nations more competitive. In other words, European educational systems certainly should maintain their advantage of being strongly rooted in their rich national cultures, but—at the same time—they must open themselves to the challenges from the global trend of ‘commodification’ of education."
Dr. Albert Tuijnman, a senior economist with the European Investment Bank, acknowledged the large investment gap in education between the US and the EU. “We still tend to underestimate the recent finding that both the private and social rate of return on education are much higher than the average return on financial assets and returns on fixed capital,” he emphasized in his presentation. He then informed conference participants about the strategic priorities of the European Investment Bank in human capital sector and encouraged them to consider closer cooperation with the bank particularly in implementing of the “Innovation 2010 Initiative.”
Hans Vossensteyn, a researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) at the University of Twente, pointed out that high-quality mass higher education cannot be funded by taxpayer funds alone. As well, because there is a private return—that is, the student gains economic advantage from receiving a higher education—there should be some capacity and responsibility for that individual to help fund the education.