Australian and Slovak Universities compared by Peter Barrer

17/09/2010 22:05

I have been at Comenius for nearly a year now, and I am probably still acclimatizing to the peculiarities of university life here. While superficially similar, the student experience in Slovakia is actually very different to university life in my homeland.

The first thing to strike me was the very location of the faculty buildings – sprinkled around the city and quite often in central locations. Universities in Australia and New Zealand are predominately in a campus style and have expansive grounds incorporating many faculties and student services in one large space. These campuses are usually on the fringes of the city centre or in the suburbs, where land for their construction is a lot cheaper than in the centre of town. Such a concentration of students from various faculties allows for the formation of an organized student union movement which has an influential political voice in student welfare issues and the running of the university. The student union generally has its own building on campus which provides a range of services including accommodation, health and employment services, a range of clubs, weekly student publication and cafeteria as well as a range of shops.


One of the notable features of having an organized student movement is that protests over important issues - particularly student fees - are quite common and can attract a lot of media attention. When I was an undergrad I remember students occupying the rector’s building and lecture halls and bringing the running of the university to a temporary halt. Politicians sometimes get egged (just as they are here, as Mr Rydlo recently found out) whenever they dare to visit university grounds. Nonetheless, politicians from a range of mainstream and more radical parties make regular visits to universities in election year to try and attract the student vote.   

Students in Australia and New Zealand must pay tuition fees of at least 2000 Euros a year towards their tertiary education (it depends on the course of tuition: humanities cost less, dentistry costs more). Most of the total actual cost is still met by the government for citizens and permanent residents, whereas international students are subject to full-fee tuition of at least 10,000 Euros a year. Many students take out a student loan to meet the costs of courses and their weekly living: the student loan scheme is administered by the government and has much better conditions than a commercial loan, so it is not generally seen as a conventional form of debt. Most students also have part-time jobs to see themselves through university. While I was a student I worked as a gardener, in hospitality and as a retail assistant in a shoe shop usually for the minimum wage, which actually was not that bad on the occasions it was a cash-in-hand (untaxed) job.

The number of international students in Australia and New Zealand is probably around 20 percent of the total student body. Universities actively seek international students with the lure of an English-language tertiary education at quite prestigious universities (many Australian and New Zealand universities are in the top 500 international rankings). Needless to say, international students are a noticeable presence and add to the character of the campus as being something of a global village. The same can be said for the academic staff as well: I was taught mostly by foreigners (North Americans, Ukrainians, Russians and Europeans) as an undergraduate. By contrast, it is difficult to find a foreign-born lecturer at a Slovak university. This is because the conditions for academic staff in Slovakia are nowhere near attractive enough to attract international talent. This is a great shame, because Slovak universities would benefit greatly from their input.                        

In terms of subjects, it is common to study some 4, 5 or 6 units over a semester in either one or two disciplines, the potential combinations of which can stretch over different faculties due to cross-crediting. For instance, students can combine units from Law, Psychology, Economics and Modern Languages to cobble together a university degree. In comparison, the Slovak system is far more aligned to established academic disciplines and is more restrictive.

The material state of universities in Slovakia does not compare favourably with universities in Australasia at all. I was a little shocked upon my arrival here, but I have come from a privileged academic background – albeit one which I had to pay for.

In Slovakia there is much prestige placed on one’s academic qualification to the extent that people address each other by their title, have it on their ID cards and, in some cases, even on their headstones. As a point of contrast, Australasian society does not place a great importance on academic titles; I remember once informing my employer at a language school in New Zealand that I had received my Master’s degree. He responded, “That’s nice. Good for you!” and gave me a pat on the back and that was that. There was no raise in pay or any other acknowledgement forthcoming. Over there it is far more important what you know, not what academic title you have. It is probably just a matter of time before the same happens here.

As for fees-based education, such a discussion will also take place in Slovakia as universities here look for ways to finance their activities. Perhaps this issue will finally see students do something to state their opinions on their education. It is fine to protest against such things as Slovakia’s Patriot Act, but students should also openly and vehemently express their opinions on things which affect them more directly at university.       

Peter Barrer