Foreign Students in Slovakia and Future Backwardness of SlovakiaMichal Vašečka | 8. 10. 13
Currently Slovakia is a successfully transforming country, and in many ways it belongs to the most successful countries of the former "animal farm". It is a member of the EU, NATO, OECD, Schengen, and the Euro zone. These achievements are the result of practically all of the population’s renunciation, civil and political mobilization, and technical skills in negotiating entry into the various "clubs" as well as the still - good quality and relatively well-educated work force. All these things are the achievements of the past. Improved intellectual qualities are needed to trigger the changes required for the successful transition to the post-industrial knowledge economy. Without the potential support and influence from the outside, the situation in Slovakia is still sad today. Slovak science keeps up with the world science only in some technical and natural sciences. Additionally, the fact that past generations of Slovaks who were professionally educated and socialized are leaving is making the situation worse. It is clear to everyone who lives in Slovakia that the country´s intellectual level is beginning to draw from its fundamentals. Its membership in the EU is one of the biggest factors that prevents the country from a steeper fall.
Experts thus agree that in such a situation, the country should start restructuring its education system intensively, with suggestions of investing more money in education and approaching foreign students as carriers of potential for future change. In a declaration, Slovakia´s government says one of its priorities is to increase the number of foreign students in the country, hoping especially to attract well-educated and qualified foreigners. Another priority is to invest in the development of tertiary education. There is a strategy called “Minerva” that is a good example of international integration reaping positive outcomes. This strategy aimed mainly to build up the Slovak economy based on domestic ideas and innovations that had potential to increase the number of high-quality jobs and create economic growth. The authors of the Minerva project correctly recognized the main problems in the country: low quality of education, lack of top people and support, administrative barriers to international mobility, and weak participation in the international system (thus low level of internationalization at all levels).
But what is the reality?
1. Most stakeholders tend to form their opinions of foreign students through the prism of aid for developing countries. Thus, the times that the People's Democratic Czechoslovakia assisted poor and underdeveloped African and Asian countries have determined the view of the need to attract foreign experts even today.
2. In practice, foreign students do not come to Slovakia. Those who do are students mainly of certain technical fields and medicine, but even then, the number is small. These students usually do not have money, intellectual power, or social capital to study at top or any of the Western European universities, so they come to Slovakia. For them, Slovakia is a place to escape from distress and obtain their degree easily. The absence of Czech students in Slovak tertiary schools- despite the fact that they have the best opportunity amongst all foreigners to study in Slovakia- is a good indicator of the quality of Slovak university education. The number of Czech students studying in Slovakia is minimal, while in the Czech Republic, there are more than 25,000 Slovak students, usually the best graduates of Slovak high schools.
3. Many people declare that foreign students are a priority, and yet the universities do not behave according to this. Slovakia lags behind Western Europe in its aims to increase systematically the number of well educated university graduates. This lack of organization has cost Slovakia dearly, creating a steep fall in the quality of university education.
4. Discussions have taken place (as they should be) in many Western European countries on how quality university education is becoming an increasingly stronger factor for the successful and fully-fledged integration of migrants. This debate is practically absent in Slovakia.
The absence of foreign students has understandably a major impact on the quality of university education—it reduces the prestige of the country, future possibilities to attract skilled foreigners, growth of GDP, and so on. None of this, however, bothers Slovakia and apparently will not bother it in the near future. The systemic changes up to date do not create any possibilities for change. To put it simply, there is no reason to believe that foreign students will come to Slovakia in the near future.
There are various reasons for this:
1. Slovakia is perceived to be an academically peripheral, uninspiring, and uninteresting country that does not have much to offer and enrich foreign students with. The already low level of university education has fallen further because the better part of Slovak high school graduates have increasingly studied abroad.
2. Because Slovak universities do not aspire to internationalize, they do not have much to offer to foreign students. The number of subjects taught in English is rather limited, and even if more programs were in English, there are not enough students willing to take them. The reputation that Slovak university education has is one that is not wonderful, even in Central Europe; Slovakia therefore can only dream of having quality foreign students. However, there are a few lowly skilled foreign students present, and they provide hope and belief that the education quality in Slovak universities is not yet tragic.
3. The main problem is how restrictive the institutions are that serve as "gate keepers" to the entrance of the country. This is not an unknown fact, as Slovakia has in general a restrictive approach to foreigners and not just students. The country does not attempt to distinguish the potential of individual migrants.
4. Finally, foreigners feel there is an unfavorable social atmosphere in the country. Even those foreigners who are satisfied with their studies or work too often have bad experiences with locals who feel they own the country.
What is remarkable is that although these facts are known, not much has changed. Even demographic projections say clearly that Slovakia will not go without migrants, not to mention skilled migrants (see).
At first glance, it would appear that the main problem in Slovakia is the low number of migrants and that it loses to the other countries of Central Europe and the EU when it comes to obtaining more skilled migrants. The reality is much more embarrassing—there is an unwritten consensus in Slovakia that the country does not want migrants and that the number of migrants from third countries should be minimized, at any price.
In the nationalist craze of the early 90s, there was a slogan in the country, "We do not want what is not ours, but we will not give what belongs to us". Slovakia’s refusal to open to the world has transformed the slogan today to a more valid, "We do not want what is not ours, but what should be ours we no longer have.”
The article has been written as part of the project Migration to the Centre supported by the by the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union and the International Visegrad Fund.
This article reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
Dr. Michal Vašečka (1972) has B.A. (1993), M.A. (1995), PhDr. and Ph.D. (2004) in sociology from Masaryk University in Brno. As a visiting scholar he operated at the New School University in New York (1996-1997) and at the University of London (1998), in 2008-2009 he lectured at the Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Since 2010 Michal Vašečka is a member of the Board of the Fulbright Commission in Slovakia (chairman of the Board since 2012). In 2010-2012 he was a member of the APVV Board for social sciences. Since September 2012 he serves as a representative of the Slovak republic in the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), human rights body of the Council of Europe.