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Public Policy and the Stigma of New private Czech Universities

Recent discussions about the need to introduce tuition fees at Czech universities somehow manage to fail to take into account the fact that a number of private colleges and universities have been established in this country in the past few years. Unlike so-called public universities, private universities are allowed to charge students fees for their education. Currently, there are about 40 private colleges and universities in the Czech Republic and 27 public universities and colleges.

While public universities and colleges are explicitly listed in the law on higher education, private institutions are not. Their number keeps changing, as new schools spring up and some existing ones collapse. While it is easy to understand that the law does not list schools whose fate is often at the mercy of market forces, perhaps the omission of a list of private universities from the law also suggests that they are looked at with a degree of suspicion.

Establishing private universities and colleges has not been easy. During the communist regime there were no private universities, and, therefore, the culture of private education had to be gradually built after 1989. Private educational institutions—at the elementary, high-school, or university levels—were regarded with suspicion when they began to appear. Many of them were seen as low-quality institutions that were mainly in the business of making money, rather than providing a good education.

New private educational institutions, including colleges and universities, have also faced serious infrastructural problems. It was quite difficult for many of them to find appropriate buildings and to obtain necessary equipment. They have had to pay market prices for real estate, while public schools could in most cases reside in state-subsidized buildings. The low prestige of private education also contributed to the fact that private schools often found it difficult to attract the best teachers and, in fact, good students. Many students considered private universities and colleges to be only fall-back options to which they would turn only in the case they were not accepted at public universities.

All of those difficulties have contributed to the fact that there are very few private colleges and universities that offer a broad range of study programs. Most of them decided to specialize in specific areas and, almost as a rule, offer study programs that are not commonly offered by major public universities. Many of such areas of study focus on fields that are connected to an emerging market economy, such as business, banking or management. The only private universities that offer a broad range of academic programs comparable to some public universities are those in which the language of instruction is other than Czech.

A Herculean Task

Establishing a private university or college is a rather tedious exercise under the existing law. A new private higher-education institution needs to meet a number of conditions before the Ministry of Education can approve it. Those conditions can be divided into two groups: those that concern the infrastructure, legal status, and finances of the new institution; and those that pertain to the academic curriculum offered by the institution.

The two sets of conditions are connected: the Ministry of Education will not sanction the existence of a new private university or college unless at least one study program proposed by a new private institution has been approved by the state’s Accreditation Committee. Depending on whether private schools offer only BA and MA programs, or also post-graduate studies, the schools are divided into non-university and university categories.

Czech law allows private universities and colleges to register either as profit or non-profit institutions. Those that are registered as non-profit organizations (publicly beneficial companies) can receive state subsidies and grants. Otherwise, the financing of all private universities and colleges is defined rather loosely: the law says the private school must secure financial means. School fees charged to students are left by the law in the hands of each private school; no legal limit is set.

All private universities and colleges have to submit regular annual reports, including evaluations of their activities and educational results. The ministry can withdraw the license under some conditions; for example, if the state’s Accreditation Committee refuses to approve two study programs of a particular school during one calendar year. Clearly, running a private university or college in the Czech Republic is still a very uncertain business.

Some schools, such as the University of New York in Prague (UNYP), or the Anglo-American University (formely the Anglo-American Institute Liberal Studies), have also been able to obtain accreditations for their programs abroad, which makes them more attractive to students whose degrees are recognized automatically both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Those schools that offer instruction in languages other than Czech benefit from the fact that many students prefer to forfeit the benefits of receiving a university degree from an established public university in favor of becoming truly proficient in a foreign language—a skill that often makes them more marketable, especially in areas of international trade, international affairs, and banking.

Home-grown universities that have affiliations with foreign universities and have been accredited both in the Czech Republic and abroad should not be confused with study abroad programs that foreign universities have established in the Czech Republic. There are a number of summer study-abroad programs set up by, for example, US universities; there are also several year-round study abroad programs of US universities, for example, New York University (NYU). Those programs educate almost exclusively foreign students, applying legal and educational standards of their home institutions, and, as a result, do often not need to apply for accreditation in the Czech Republic. Czech students attend such programs usually only within the framework of exchange arrangements between specific Czech universities and the foreign universities that set up study abroad programs in the Czech Republic.

Private universities and colleges in the Czech Republic clearly have a long way to go before they will become fully recognized by the Czech public as real alternatives to established, well-know public universities. On the other hand, the fact the public universities are not allowed to charge fees (which would allow them to admit more students and pay better salaries to their teachers) plays into the hands of the new private institutions.

Prague Business Journal - 25. 8. 2003