Review of 2018: Accreditation, a new way of evaluating science and more money for PhD students

For Czech higher education, 2018 was another “fateful eight” full of big changes (in 2018, the Czech Republic remembered 1918 and 1968, years which brought great change to Czech society as a whole – the establishing of a new republic independent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and occupation of the republic by the Russian Army in 1968).

Schools were given institutional accreditation, a new tool which should give them more autonomy. A new way of evaluating the results of science was introduced. PhD students got more money from the state. And there were several cases of plagiarism. What other big topics changed and influenced Czech higher education in 2018? Here is the Universitas magazine review of 2018.

January: More money for PhD students

At the beginning of 2018, Czech graduate students were given more money after the Ministry of Education sent CZK 400 million more to universities. The low level of the scholarship is only one of many reasons why half of Czech PhD students do not finish their studies, however. There is a problem with their supervisors, for instance. According to Martin Fusek, a director at the Czech Academy of Sciences, those without grants should not take PhD students at all. Furthermore, PhD student representatives said that the whole system must change: increasing scholarships is not enough, and finance should also be given by universities.

According to Miloslav Machoň, a winner of the prestigious Hlávka Prize and a social scientist at the Prague University of Economics, the undignified conditions for PhD students have improved thanks to the extra money, but the uncertainty has remained. A new handbook for PhD students that came out in August should help them, too. Downloadable from the web for free, it provides prospective and current PhD students with useful information on how to choose the subject of their doctoral thesis, their supervisor and the place where they want to work. It also has useful tips on studying for a PhD abroad. According to a researcher from the Ceitec Research Institute, however, the responsibility should lie with the PhD students themselves: now adults, those who do not really want to do science seriously and who go for PhD just because they do not know what else to do, should not start doing PhD at all.

February: Predators and a new way of evaluating research

For years researchers have criticized the current Czech system for the evaluation of scientific outcomes, which supports the grey average and publishing in predatory magazines (read more here). This should change from 2020 with the introduction of a new methodology to replace in full the much-criticized current system. The current national evaluation of research results is criticized for being susceptible to abuse, primarily because it does not take into account the quality of scientific findings; its main criterion for the allocation of money to research organizations is simply the number of outcomes. According to its critics, this system has negatively affected the Czech scientific publishing environment, which has been reduced to the effort to acquire as much money as possible. Scientific articles have also often appeared in regional journals with minimal impact or directly in predatory journals. The new way in which science in the Czech Republic will be assessed will allow schools to acquire the first funding for 2019. At first, this will still be a relatively small amount – around CZK 190 million. The methodology should be completed in 2020, when billions of Czech crowns will be allocated. As Petr Dvořák, Vice-President of the Council for Research, Development and Innovation and one of the authors, notes, as the new way of evaluating science will create a big bang, it must be introduced slowly. 

March: Institutional accreditation

Defying expectations, almost all major public institutes of higher education immediately requested a new system of institutional accreditation. For ten years from September, the first four of these – Charles University, Masaryk University, Palacky University and the University of Pardubice – are able to accredit their own study programmes, also acting as guarantors of the quality of the programmes. Successful applicants for this “big” accreditation must have developed international cooperation and set up an internal evaluation committee. Other schools are in the process of preparing their applications for institutional accreditation.

April: Rankings and departures abroad

Czech education does not compare well on the international stage, and, according to some, the situation is getting worse (read more here). If something does not change quickly, in a few years Czech science may have fallen behind other developed countries. According to the most cited Czech scientist, the chemist Pavel Hobza, this is the result of many worsening ailments in the Czech Republic. The government provides too little support for research, excellent scientists are leaving the country for better conditions abroad, and academic senates, which are in charge of making decisions about important parts of university life, including money, are incompetent, Pavel Hobza, who discovered improper hydrogen bonding, told Universitas magazine.

How can we keep young people in the Czech Republic doing science? In a Universitas magazine questionnaire, three scientists and winners of many prizes compared the situation in science in the Czech Republic with their experience abroad. These are: Jana Roithová, a chemist who has received two ERC grants and now works at the University in Nijmegen; Vítězslav Bryja, a molecular biologist and geneticist from Masaryk University; and Michal Otyepka from Palacký University, a physical chemist and holder of an ERC grant. 

Science and the Family: It’s all right, but...

Combining family life with a career as a top scientist is a difficult task, in the Czech Republic as elsewhere. Although the Czech Academy of Sciences tries ever harder to support families, the situation is not ideal. It is very common that one of the partners has to put their research aside.

Moreover, women are not in charge. As a report by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic shows, there are still not enough women in leading positions. Only two rectors and less than a third of vice-rectors at Czech public universities are women. What prevents women from getting these top positions and how the number of women in the highest management positions of universities and scientific institutions can be increased was revealed in a Universitas magazine article, together with a questionnaire among rectors and deans of Czech universities. 

May: GDPR and schools

In May, the rules for the protection of personal data began to apply. The European Regulation (General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR) delivered more rights to the people concerned and more responsibilities for schools. Although universities had been preparing for the rules for several months, it was difficult for them to get retrospective approval from people or to understand different interpretations of regulations, the feature in Universitas showed.

June: Do we have too many or too few university students?

After Eurostat published new data on higher education in EU and other European countries, and especially after the publication of the OECD’s new edition on Education in its member countries came out in mid-September, many articles appeared in the Czech press on how our universities are lagging behind schools elsewhere in Europe. So, do we have too many university students or too few? 

Plagiarism

At the beginning of the summer, universities had to deal with several accusations of plagiarism. The Minister of Justice resigned and two titles were taken back from alumni of Charles University. Still, the rescinding of university diplomas is rare in the Czech Republic in comparison with neighbouring Germany, for example. Until recently, universities had no support from the law. You can read about this topic soon in Universitas. 

July/August: Missing teachers and doctors

In the Czech Republic there is a severe shortage of teachers, including university teachers who will educate future teachers at faculties. Teachers at faculties of education receive only 22 thousand crowns per month, less than a shop assistant in some supermarkets. Czech faculties of medicine, however, have already received funding promised by the government. In the next ten years, schools should receive about 6.5 billion crowns extra, allowing them to raise the number of new medical students by 15 per cent. However, in the Universitas interview Aleksi Šedo, Chairman of the Association of Deans of Medical Faculties and Dean of the 1st Medical Faculty of Charles University, warns that taking on more students is not enough to improve the whole system. 

September: In a healthy body...

Sport at universities is in decline – even though universities and sport complement each other, as several university representatitves agreed in the Universitas questionnaire. Many sports have been born in a university environment (frisbee, for example), or else undergraduates have helped them to spread. But when it comes to real action and everyday life, declarations  of support often do not correspond with reality, the university representatives say in the feature. Would university leagues help? University ice hockey has already begun. 

October: 100-year anniversary

Last year, Czech universities celebrated their 100-year anniversary along with the republic itself. Three new universities were established shortly after the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia, soon to be joined by others. By 1920, there were thirteen universities in Czechoslovakia. What was waiting for them?

November: Brexit

In the autumn, Britain's departure from the EU escalated, although at the end of the year what Brexit would look like and what specifically would change in science, joint projects and student travel, was still unclear. In a series of views from various perspectives, the President of the European University Association, the British Ambassador in the Czech Republic and scientists themselves made it clear that precise information was still lacking, although universities in Britain and on the continent were already preparing for different outcomes. We outlined several scenarios as to what cooperation in major science programmes and Erasmus might look like. Read more here, stories about scientists here.

December: Small but smart?

Social Agriculture, Drones, Internet Affairs, Arboriculture… There are many small fields of study, but only a few of them are unique and have a promising future. What connects them? Although they are often specific to a region, they can be of national, even transnational importance. A field which at first may seem marginal can be very attractive, due to its narrow profile. “All our graduates are employed, and most of them find employment in the field,” says Pavel Kozák, dean of the smallest and newest faculty of the University of South Bohemia, who is engaged in research on crayfish. “When I started with crayfish, many people saw what I was doing as unnecessary. At our faculty today, more than ten people deal with this issue in the wider perspective of ecology and protection of the aquatic environment, and the field has developed at other universities, too,” he says. Read more here