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Universities as a guarantor of progress in society

Josef Jiřičný, the chairman of International Scientific Advisory Board, comments on the role of higher education.

Josef Jiřičný.

In an ideal world, universities play an essential role in society by fostering innovation, increasing economic development and growth, and generally improving the well-being of citizens. They employ highly-qualified tutors, who pass on their knowledge and know-how to future generations while encouraging their highly talented and motivated students to question the status quo and to seek answers to questions that have hitherto remained unanswered.

Upon leaving university, the graduates’ task is to use their newly acquired knowledge and skills to improve the spiritual and material well-being of their fellow men. As educators, they transmit to the population at large our understanding of the complex world that surrounds us; as lawyers and theologians they help define the rules which we should abide by and peacefully resolve disputes; as economists they ensure that our limited resources are used in the best way possible and that our wealth grows; as engineers they provide us with up-to-date housing, transport and the technology that makes our lives safe and comfortable; as life scientists and medics they seek to improve our physical well-being.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, so we need to ask the question of whether today’s universities fulfil the above roles, especially given the expectations of our politicians.

In anticipation of the challenges posed by the coming age of digitalisation, the European Union set itself three goals that should be attained by 2020: at least 40% of 30-34 year-olds should have higher education diplomas, at least 20% of graduates should have had a period of higher education-related study or training abroad, and at least 82% of graduates aged 20-34 who left education and training no more than three years before the reference year should be employed.

These are laudable goals, but can they be met? And if so, then at what price? Has the demand to provide a larger proportion of the population with university education and the consequent increase in the number of universities created a shortage of highly-qualified tutors? Has the dependence of universities on tuition fees resulted in the recruitment of larger numbers of less-talented students? Has this resulted in the lowering of standards? Will the worth of a university diploma be devalued?

The answers to the above questions are both yes and no. Yes, if the institutions lower their admission standards and compete for students by offering degrees in subjects that do not challenge them intellectually, or by luring them with promises of an exciting social life. No, if the institutions strive to attract the best students by low student/tutor ratios, by recruiting tutors with impeccable academic qualifications and by encouraging original research at both graduate and postgraduate levels.

As a member of its International Scientific Advisory Board, I would like to see Masaryk University (MUNI) rank with the latter institutions. Founded “only” 100 years ago, it is still an infant compared to the 930-year-old University of Bologna or the 670-year-old Charles University (CU) in Prague. Regardless of its age, MUNI has been extremely successful; it is not only the second largest university in the Czech Republic (33,000 students compared to 49,000 at CU) but is also the second-highest in the country in terms of academic ranking.

Laudably, its current, progressive leadership has set itself the goal of changing the status quo and instigating changes that will help MUNI climb the ranking ladder and challenge CU for leadership. This is an ambitious task that will require a major effort, but one that is achievable provided that the effort is invested wisely.

One measure that will need to be adopted is to lower the student/tutor ratio by hiring young, highly-motivated academics with research experience in the world’s leading institutions (postdoctoral assistants, assistant professors). The second measure is to raise the standard of admissions at both graduate and postgraduate level.

The third measure, and one that is easily achievable, is to encourage top graduates, postgraduates and staff to act as MUNI ambassadors abroad and help raise the profile of Masaryk University throughout the whole world. This will make it easier to recruit the top students and staff and help position MUNI among the top universities while – and most importantly - enabling it to fulfil its role in society as a guarantor of progress.

Josef Jiřičný, the chairman of Masaryk University International Scientific Advisory Board.