Final thesis or project? Let the universities make the decision

He is new to the top echelons of university leadership and brings a fresh perspective on the academic world. This summer, Petr Sklenička became the president of the Czech Rectors Conference (CRC), while he has also been serving as the rector of the Czech University of Life Sciences (CULS) – one of the very few large universities whose record remains unblemished by any plagiarism or sponsorship scandals – since last year. His primary goal is to make things simpler: eliminate pointless red tape and give universities free rein to determine the form of their students’ final theses.

What does the new president of the Czech Rectors Conference (CRC) think about the new research evaluation methodology M17+? What is his opinion on partnerships between universities and private enterprises? How does he see the plagiarism scandals, Polish reforms and giving preference to excellent universities, and what challenges will universities particularly struggle with in the decades to come? You will find the answers to these and many other questions in our comprehensive interview with Petr Sklenička.

You have been the head of the Czech Rectors Conference since this August, so less than three months. What surprised you the most when you took office? What was not as you expected?
Actually, there were no real surprises – all of those probably happened when I became a rector and a member of the CRC 18 months ago. The biggest shock for me then was the amount of bureaucracy. We have to deal with a deluge of documents, amendments to laws, comments on new programmes and so on. In recent years, we are constantly asked to respond to something and there isn’t much time for our own initiatives.

What would you like to introduce or change as the CRC president?
I have a number of goals that I want to promote. First and foremost, I want to make sure that we maintain equal conditions for all Czech universities when it comes to evaluation and funding. However, I would also like to suggest specific steps to curb the administrative burden on universities. The rampant red tape takes up a lot of energy that could be put into improving performance and uses up a lot of money that could be more effectively used to improve quality. I want the Czech Rectors Conference to represent all universities equally and I would like to strengthen the communication between different types of universities. Last but not least, I want to extend the professional capacity of CRC so that we have the analyses we need on time and we can publish statements grounded in solid expertise. As a partner to the Czech Ministry of Education, Parliament and other authorities, the Rectors Conference should retain the ability to make strong arguments, which is not easy in these busy times and with rectors already saddled with a heavy workload.

You said you would like to suggest specific steps to curb red tape. What do you have in mind?
I would like to simplify the administration required by some grant agencies and the Jan Amos Komenský Operational Programme (a new EU operational programme to support education and research – Editor’s note). The Czech Science Foundation is a good example that shows that this is achievable and that grant administration can be tolerable and manageable even if it is done by the researchers themselves. The officials from other agencies have come up with such complicated systems that a single experienced administrative worker per project is not enough. This dead weight of red tape often impinges on the creative core of the project. Very recently, the CRC made suggestions to the proposed amendment to the Higher Education Act and based on the comments of some of our members, we suggested further changes that would somewhat alleviate the administrative burden on universities. We are also awaiting the appointment of the new chair of the National Accreditation Bureau to discuss suggestions to limit the paperwork required for accreditation and during regular quality checks.

Have you already taken any specific steps as the CRC president?
We are currently discussing options to hire more legal and PR staff for the CRC with the Ministry of Education and it seems that we might be reaching a solution. I am also planning to reach out to the individual universities and ask them to identify the unnecessary red tape in the current system, so that we can try to either limit or eliminate it.

This interview is taking place shortly after a teachers’ strike for higher pay. While these were not university lecturers, what is your view on this? Do you agree with the strike?
I understand the striking teachers. Just like university lecturers, they are still underpaid, even though it is obvious that until the education sector can offer reasonable salaries that would incentivise the best candidates to study education and – most importantly – remain in the field, any education reforms that we implement will fall short of the goal. Personally, I see the relative decline in primary and secondary education as resulting mostly from the long-term lack of competitive wages in the education sector. Our children must be taught by the best. Becoming a teacher must be your first choice, not a backup option. On the other hand, it is rather unusual for teachers to go on strike just when they are actually getting a raise. This could lead a part of the public to misunderstand the situation. In my opinion, teachers should have gone on strike much earlier, when their real wages were decreasing or stagnating in the long-term.

This year, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the democratic revolution. Is Czech higher education where you would like it to be? Have your visions from 17 November 1989 come true?
I will start with the positives. We now have a number of high-quality universities which have been able to keep the academic freedoms they won back thirty years ago. We still have a unified system of higher education with a wide range of universities, despite some attempts at fragmenting the system and dividing universities into different categories. For the past thirty years, we have been going in the right direction. Our universities are more international and our research is getting better. The question is whether we are going in the right direction fast enough. Czech higher education could have already gotten much further along if it was not permanently underfunded. I know it is a cliché by now, but our universities, research teams and even individual academics are open to global competition. Whoever offers the most usually wins and gets the best researchers and lecturers, the best equipment and hence the best results, which continue to generate further resources. I think we could have done a better job of dealing with the marked demographic decline and allow universities to accept fewer students without losing funding. Let’s face it, the situation that arose did lead to some negative phenomena, which did not exactly help improve the quality of universities.

All in all, however, I think that Czech universities have done well in the free environment of the past thirty years. If your question was meant more broadly, I have to say I am disappointed to see how quickly people forget. We live in a wonderful and free country, we are actually one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet there are growing tendencies that could push us back by half a century. However, I can see that this is now a problem even in established democracies, so it is probably the current trend. Hopefully, it will be short-lived.

What tendencies do you mean?
The populism that is on the rise in the Czech Republic, in other European countries and in the USA. We see how populists from all points of the political spectrum are winning regional elections in the most established democracies. I cannot predict how young democracies, such as ours, will be able to fight back, and I do not know how many votes Czech populists can win over in the near future. I am afraid that the numbers will be high.

What do you think is the greatest challenge awaiting Czech universities in the next thirty years?
Maintaining our academic freedoms and remaining a democratic fail-safe for our country. One without the other is impossible.

A few weeks ago, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education published a list of elite research universities. Based on the recommendations of an international board of experts, they selected ten universities that will be designated “research universities” and will become part of the Excellence Initiative – Research University programme. At least in the next six years, these universities will receive more government funding for research. Do you think this is a good way to go?
With all due respect to our Polish colleagues, there have also been other reforms in Poland where we do not need to follow their lead. I can give you other examples of stable West European countries that do not follow such a model and their universities rank much higher than the Polish ones in the global rankings.

I have been warning against similar attempts for some time now. In research, the conditions should be equal for everyone. Such changes would distort the current relatively fair environment and they would breach the principle of fair competition, which is always the beginning of the end. Both the natural and the economic principles work this way. It would mean the end of a number of top research teams at universities that would not be designated as “research universities”, despite the fact that those teams were better than many of the teams at the “research universities”. Regional universities, which now serve as catalysts of intellectual and cultural life on the regional level, would take the hardest hit.

I do not think that anyone really believes that they can make a university great by changing the rules and giving it money at the expense of others. The real world-class universities are able to obtain significant funding from abroad or from corporations. Giving the so-called research universities more money for the same results will achieve nothing and I genuinely believe that universities will not accept such a system. And if the advocates of this approach clamour for funding quality research, this is not a problem – let’s make the criteria under the new M17+ methodology stricter, but let’s keep them the same for everyone. Nobody has any objections against that.

So you are saying that the Czech Republic should not select elite universities that would receive more funding?
We certainly should not support excellence selectively by distorting the current institutional funding. Let it work the way it works now, through competing for large excellent research projects, and by tightening the rules for evaluating research organisations. Classifying whole universities into different categories and then allocating more funds to some of them is a dangerous simplification that would harm many excellent teams or whole faculties, just because they dared to grow outside a couple of select universities, even though they do world-class research. This approach would limit and potentially destroy such teams. We all know very well that every university has both stronger and weaker faculties and disciplines.
If we start averaging these differences out across the whole university, we will never get out of the realm of social engineering, with corresponding results. Whether you call it incentives, bonuses or use any other euphemism, it means that one university will get, say, twice as much money for the same result compared to another universities, even in disciplines where it does not perform well. If you take a look at the performance of individual disciplines at Czech universities based on excellent publications in the top deciles, you realise that there are over ten universities that regularly appear on top of these disciplines.

In that case, I have to ask – what is your opinion of the Association of Research Universities established this summer by five Czech universities?
I feel that two universities would welcome such preferential treatment; one university in particular is strongly pushing for it. The overwhelming majority of universities are against such a non-systemic solution and I do not think they would accept it. Over the last two years, there were several discussions on this topic in the CRC plenum and they all reached the same conclusion. Yes, five universities established an association of research universities. There is no doubt that they are some of the best in the country. However, are they really the best? Some of the world university rankings would disagree. The best university of the five is ranked around the 300th place in the world, the others are rated lower up to 700th or 800th place. At the same time, there are also universities that are ranked between 700th and 1000th place and they are more dynamic than some of the universities in the association, while other universities have just missed the top 1000. If we give incentives to only some of them, we will hurt the others. Incidentally, what is the line that marks excellence? If you want to be strict, you can say that even the 300th place in the world which Charles University holds is not excellent, that a university has to be in the top 100 to be excellent. If there is something that we have managed to achieve in recent years, it is getting more and more Czech universities rated in these rankings. I believe this is something we can be proud of.

Those who advocate for classifying universities and then giving them preferential treatment have not yet been able to present an objective methodology to do that. The only one they presented was very quickly rescinded – it was childishly naive and full of holes. And even if such a methodology could be drafted, how many “excellent” or “research” universities should we have? Three? Ten? Or maybe five? I can also imagine that other universities will create other associations. For example, the technically oriented universities will form an association of innovative universities. Should they get preferential treatment as well? And how about an association of regional universities? They would also deserve to get more money.

You mentioned M17+, the new methodology for research evaluation. How do you rate this methodology and what will the response of the CRC be?
In general, the new methodology is a step in the right direction. I find it too complicated and it will be very demanding in terms of regular expert and panel evaluations. We are already struggling to find good experts for various accreditation, grant and other committees. Those willing to participate are running thin and we keep coming up with new evaluation processes that require them. I know some people that you could call “professional evaluators”: they spend more time on various committees than on their research.

The CRC has already approved the final version of the methodology despite the fact that some of our comments were not incorporated. I am worried about several places in the evaluation that could be problematic at the start, but in general, I just wish there was finally a methodology in place and we could get some stability in research evaluation, which has been lacking for a long time.

The CRC requested that the evaluation of research, particularly academic papers, consider the share of the authors. If the methodology does not do that, it will very much overstate the impact of several universities that have long-established ties to the high-performing Czech Academy of Sciences.

In your opinion, which parts of the new evaluation methodology will cause problems?
The CRC has repeatedly requested that the evaluation of research results, particularly academic papers, consider the share of the authors. If the new methodology does not do that, it will very much overstate the impact of several universities that have long-established ties to the high-performing Czech Academy of Sciences. To put it simply, a paper like this will be paid from the government budget twice or even several times, if several institutions are involved. I have already heard about plans to join several research teams together to increase the number of papers. A methodology that does not distinguish between a paper written completely by a team from the given university, and a paper where one PhD student from that university happened to be in a team of twenty authors from various institutions, will be unfair and will promote unethical behaviour.

I also think that the methodology creates another unnecessary problem when it promotes AIS (Article Influence Score) as a new index for evaluating the journal quality over the impact factor, which is used by the rest of the world and everyone is used to it.

What makes you think so? AIS does a better job of assessing the quality of the papers...
Yes, it is true that AIS does a slightly better job of assessing the quality of the papers, or rather the journal, but almost nobody uses it. Our colleagues among the top researchers from other countries mostly do not even know it. When we work as a part of an international team, it would be really awkward if we started demanding that the AIS score of a journal be taken into consideration when it comes to publishing our papers. This change would make only about a 10% difference in the results of all Czech universities, but the chaos that it creates is not worth it.

A change that will be even more iffy is the fact that many sub-disciplines or categories that we have been used to will be merged into large FORDs (editor’s note – Fields of Research and Development). This categorisation is too rough and it lumps together disciplines that are often very different. This system will be highly detrimental to some disciplines, because in that large FORD, their best journals will not even make it to the top 50%, let alone the top deciles. On the other hand, other disciplines will suddenly do much better. You have to realise that a paper that does not fall into the first or second quartile of these large multi-disciplinary FORDs essentially does not exist as far as the methodology – and hence the institutional research funding – is concerned.

I can see a couple of more weaknesses in the new methodology and we have called attention to them repeatedly. I am somewhat worried that they will cause a general mistrust of the new evaluation system in the first several years, although the system as a whole is a step in the right direction.

Due to the recent International Students’ Day on 17 November and the related events commemorating the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the media recently paid great attention to universities and many academics were invited to speak in the media. What do you think about this? Should universities comment on social issues and developments?
I feel certain that both universities and individual faculty members should comment on social developments, although it is not always an easy task to keep the commentary neutral with regard to any political interests and parties or prominent politicians. However, the answer to your question can be found in the Higher Education Act, which gives a relatively broad definition of the active role of universities in matters that shape civil society.

In mid-October, the CRC called on the Chinese president to intervene on behalf of the former rector of Xinjiang University, Professor Tashpolat Tiyip. According to the CRC, he was imprisoned by the government in 2017, accused of supporting separatism and is now under the threat of a death sentence. Why has the CRC, under your leadership, resolved to take this step and will it continue to voice its opinion on such situations in other countries, similar to the European University Association (EUA) statement on the persecuted Turkish academics?
The CRC will certainly continue to comment on such cases and situations. Our intervention in this case was much appreciated at the November meeting of EUA in Brussels. In fact, EUA is a great platform to amplify the voices of individual universities or national rectors’ associations.

The Czech media recently devoted a good deal of attention to the criticised partnership between Charles University and Home Credit. What is your opinion on this case? Should universities work this closely with private companies outside research?
I think that it is absolutely normal for universities to partner with private companies both in research and in other areas. There are some activities that we simply cannot, or choose not to, fund otherwise than with donations from sponsors, so that we can reinvest all the financial resources gained from teaching and research back to these two principal areas. Obviously, we have to assess a number of aspects of each such offer of partnership or sponsorship; it is not just about the immediate economic benefit for the university.

So you would allow CULS to receive significant donations from private companies?
Of course, we receive such donations and I am very happy that we do. They mostly come from our graduates who want to support specific events or their alma mater as such. However, these arrangements must not bind the university, its students and employees to any reciprocal commitments. We can only envy the US universities that often fund a significant part of their budget from donations.

Since we already touched on the recent scandals, plagiarism is another topic often mentioned in connection with universities. What do you think of the latest suggestion of the Pirate Party, who want to extend the time limit for revoking an academic degree to 15 years from the current three years?
I think that as such, extension of the time limit to revoke a degree in these instances does not pose a problem. The problem is in the length of the extension. While I admit that the current three years is too short a period, I am afraid that a time limit longer than ten, maybe even five years would entail a number of complications. On the one hand, you have to decide what to do when someone’s bachelor’s thesis is proved to be plagiarised, but the person already holds a master’s degree as well. You would also have to assess older theses by the standards of their time. The requirements for final theses are getting stricter every year and what was acceptable ten years ago might not pass muster today. I can imagine that in some cases, a final thesis might not be a required part of the final exams. However, CULS is currently planning to keep final theses in all study programmes.

And do you think that the current rules that require students to write final theses are set up correctly? Maybe this could take other forms, such as developing a material or devising a technology rather than writing a thesis?
Writing a final thesis teaches students to compose a comprehensive text on a given topic. A regular thesis requires defining your objectives, collecting data, reviewing the subject matter, formulating your methods, evaluating the data, interpreting the results and articulating the conclusions. You then have to defend your thesis and engage in a debate with your opponents and the board of examiners. Of course, it can take on other forms, such as architectural designs, works of art, technology designs and so on. The steps I mentioned above may be different, sometimes radically so, but all of these final theses have one thing in common: they are an independent work of the students who complete this process from start to finish and put their stamp on the final product. In some programmes, students go through this process repeatedly when they have to defend their term or year papers.

So you will definitely not push for hands-on final projects?
I will not push for them, but I will insist that each university is entitled to make this decision for itself. This is not something that has to be consistent across all study programmes and universities. Naturally, it must be subject to consideration during the accreditation assessment of the study programme. A large percentage of the final theses at CULS are applied projects – pond designs, forest regeneration plans, designs and production of wood products and other similar topics always culminate in a final thesis including thesis defence. Personally, I do not see any contradiction in this – quite the opposite, in fact. However, as I already said, I would leave it to the university, the guarantor of the study programme or the internal evaluation board to decide whether a final thesis and thesis defence will be part of the study plan.

You have experience with how universities work abroad. Could you give one or two examples of practices that Czech universities should be inspired by and adopt?
I do not think that our universities lack something crucial compared to those in other countries. In some instances, we might even have what others don’t. Nevertheless, I envy US universities for their excellent work with graduates and how they combine studies with sports, including high performance sports, in a generally functional way. We could also emulate the way West European universities create much tighter bonds with the commercial sector in a way that is much more natural and effective than what we do. However, I must say that in recent years, things in the Czech Republic have been moving in the right direction.

The author is an editor of Hospodářské noviny.