In the Sad Song of a Village Jester Viktor Dyk satirizes the propensity towards mediocrity of the young Czech nation at the break of the 20th century: “Neither bad, nor good. Something in between.” Something of that kind could serve as an appropriate assessment of the state of education in the Czech Republic and the region one hundred years later.
Following the changes 25 years ago, when most people became aware of the sorry state of the society and economy and of the uphill struggle that awaited us, one alleged comparative advantage remained a beacon of optimism for the future: we were a society of highly literate, well educated, wonderfully skillful people, who were well equipped to cope with any challenges ahead, and would soon traverse the gap and be once again up there with the best.
Unlike other verities promoted by the Communist regime, this one was not entirely a myth. The country was able to draw on more than a century of near to full literacy, on the body of work of a number of world-class thinkers, scientists and scholars and on a deep-seated commitment to the values of education. Even the communist school system, uninspiring and indoctrination-heavy as it was, did a decent job of teaching most young Czechs and Slovaks the basics of the three “r”s and sometimes a little more, something that the more liberal school systems in some of the most developed countries often find harder to do. At the same time, it put a very low premium on competition, and consequently, on excellence. The quest for the latter seems to be eluding us still.
The last quarter of a century has been a history of the struggle between efforts to reform the educational system we had inherited and the insistence that the system was not broken and thus there was no need to fix it. There were many false starts, many great leaps forward and many retreats. The result today is a mixed bag. Certainly, there has been no catastrophic collapse of the educational system due to a more liberal and less disciplinarian approach to students which many have feared. At the same time, there has not been much evidence of scaling new heights and pushing our way to the forefront. In the meantime, other countries (particularly in Asia) have made significant progress in their educational systems, especially in areas that drive the global technological revolution.
So, is the glass half-full or half-empty? Glancing at some of the data on education gathered by the OECD “Education at a Glance 2014” report, the picture is not entirely clear. It seems obvious though that the weaknesses in our educational system are nearer the top of the educational pyramid than the bottom. The Czech Republic (and also Slovakia) has one of the lowest percentages of adults with tertiary education among the OECD countries, although over the last decade it grew by ten percent. Not surprisingly, it has also the highest percentage of population with secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education. Good for automotive industry, perhaps, but hardly for rocket science.
In mathematics, the philosopher’s stone of 21st century technological progress, the Czech Republic scores right at the OECD average, slightly below Poland and slightly above Hungary and Slovak Republic, but falls behind—along with the whole of the OECD—the Asian tigers in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan or Korea. The level of ICT skills in the Czech Republic, on par with Austria, is higher than in Poland or Slovakia, but lags significantly behind the Netherlands or the Nordic countries. Compared to countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland or Japan, the degree of ICT skills is poorly reflected in salary differentials, clearly encouraging the promising geeks to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
All educational systems, or so we hear, are underfunded, but ours seems to be more underfunded than most. Whether in terms of expenditure on education per student or as a percentage of GDP, Czech Republic (in spite of an improvement over the last few years), Hungary and Slovakia’s spending on education is below the OECD average and near the bottom of the OECD range, comparable to non-OECD countries like Russia. The teachers’ salaries, compared to the earnings of tertiary-educated workers in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia (but not Poland), are among the lowest in the OECD.
In the developed world, education has become one of the most important industries, clearly predictive of future economic success. The number of international students has more than doubled since the beginning of the century, reaching 4.5 million in 2012. We may be proud of the fact that the Charles University is the oldest institution of higher learning north of the Alps and it might please us that the Czech Republic is still a rather attractive place to study in, with the percentage of foreign students slightly above the OECD average. At the same time, in none of the major global university rankings will you find a Czech (or Slovak, Hungarian or Polish) university among the top 200.
It is not that there is a shortage of talented young people who are able to use the opportunities afforded by freedom and European integration to obtain some of the best education available. Every week, in my work as a diplomat, I encounter Czech (and Slovak and Polish and Hungarian) students at some of the best British universities, who flourish and excel in a fiercely competitive environment. The problem is that many of them will not be coming back to their home country due to their fear that they will not be able to make full use of their hard-won skills in the academic, public and corporate environment there, and that they might even encounter a sort of an immunological reaction among the locals. A degree of brain drain to the most developed and prosperous countries is an inevitable side-effect of globalization; the lack of support for (and even a degree of distrust of) those who could be the leaders of the future is a self-inflicted wound.
On most of the above metrics, Poland is the one of the V4 countries that has scored somewhat higher, largely due to a progress over the last decade. It shows that reforms are not impossible; they are just difficult. They are also essential; without them we are destined to remain, well, somewhere in between.
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