Opinion by Martin Hammerbauer | Higher Education in Czech Republic

The Czech Republic has gone a long way since 1989, when the democrats finally overthrew the communist regime during the Velvet Revolution. There are, nevertheless, several remnants of the totalitarian days, which affect how our country functions even today. The state administration remains fairly rigid, and for better or worse, certain aspects of the educational system have not changed much either. The best tertiary education institutions are still public universities, which is a prerequisite for equal opportunities in our country. Since the majority of universities are funded from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic, young people do not usually have to pay additional tuition or other fees. This makes high school graduates more eager to pursue higher education, which is in line with the goal set by European Union of increasing the share of the population with tertiary education.

So far, the situation is similar to that in other EU member states. What is more specific, however, is that the pressure to pursue higher education does not diminish upon finishing a bachelor’s degree. In the Czech Republic, having a first degree simply is not enough, and when people talk about going to university, they often mean pursuing both bachelor’s and master’s degrees as if it was the only option. The question is, why? The common consensus is that a bachelor’s degree is supposed to be more professionally-oriented, while master’s programmes should produce experts with interest in a career in academia, but clearly not all Czechs with the aforementioned perspective want to become academics. They see it merely as a step towards getting a better job – but after finishing their bachelor’s degrees, they already have tertiary education, and they should already have access to the top jobs on the market. But they do not enter the job market at all; instead, they spent two additional years pursuing a somewhat redundant degree that would make them overqualified in any other country. Besides, this additional degree brings a burden for the state budget in comparison to an alternative scenario where students are ready to work after their Bachelor‘s. So do Bachelor’s programmes in the Czech Republic fall behind in preparing students for the labour market, so that they feel they have to study more? Or are the employers simply that demanding and see those “basic” three years of higher education as insufficient?

I believe that, in their own way, both points are correct. Firstly, students often feel that bachelor’s and master’s degrees are not differentiated enough. Of course, this is not the case of all universities and all programmes, but the general opinion is that bachelor’s and subsequent master’s degree consist of more or less the same stuff. This view is unfortunately often backed by experience, including my own. Knowing that there is no clear line between the “professional” and “academic” part (and sometimes no line at all), how do students recognize that they are ready to work? Since everyone seems to be aiming for Master’s, they have little to no reason to act any differently.

Secondly, the demand from employers for Master graduates is immense. Nowadays, there are many jokes among the general public about people who have several degrees and perform a job that a high-school graduate could easily handle. Besides few specialized fields (medicine, law, etc.) a master’s is often unnecessary for the job itself, but you see it as a requirement everywhere. One can thus no longer assess a vacancy based on the demands, as master’s are demanded for basic administrative jobs as well as advanced specialist positions. Besides discouraging BSc. and BA. graduates from applying for such positions, this practice is especially harmful towards women, who are not likely to apply for a job, unless they are 100% qualified.[1] We can thus add gender inequality to the already substantial number of problems caused by this situation. Now, the final question arises – who is responsible for this state, and what can be done about it? I would argue that students are the least to blame of all parties involved. Sure, there are voices claiming that young people study longer just because it is “free” and they are afraid of the adult life. However, as a young person, what can you do? You only have one try to pick the best career path, and if you take a wrong turn, you might feel consequences for the rest of your life. It would therefore be foolish to not pursue an additional degree if everyone else does. I believe this is not the right time to swim against the stream just to potentially prove a point.

The situation is less black and white when it comes to employers. On the one hand, putting exaggerated requirements on job advertisements is surely misleading. Demanding a master’s degree has become more of a habit than a necessity, and when companies complain about insufficient workforce, I would first suggest checking whether or not their demands are set accordingly. On the other hand, they might be trapped in the inflation of demands as well. Suppose a company that sees an additional master’s as unnecessary and is therefore willing to hire people with “only” a bachelor’s degree. Should they advertise a job in this way, what happens? Since everyone’s expectations about the requirements is so high, applicants might see the offer as below-average, being suspicious about why it does not require a Master’s. This way, it is possible that it only attracts the lower end of potential workforce. The company then empirically finds that this was not a beneficial move and steps back to its former, status quo approach. Once again, it seems that the solution is in the hands of the policy makers. The changes required to rectify Czech tertiary education cannot be made overnight, but this also gives us space to discuss the issue and carefully pick the right answer. One way to go could be to insist on gradually transforming bachelor’s degrees to a professional orientation, while moving their more academic parts into the master’s curriculum. Slowly but surely, we should aim for improving the reputation of three-years degrees, so that they are accepted by employers and society once again.

And, when we are at it, why not open a discussion about the structure of Czech tertiary education as well? The first three years earn you a Bachelor’s, a solid degree to improve your position on the job market. On the other hand, pursuing a PhD is a clear route into academia. Between those two, we have a mandatory two-years master’s degree – and that is supposed to be what? So far it is sort of a middle- step, half-professional, half-academic degree, which devalues the bachelor’s while being academically insufficient compared to a PhD. Why not extend the bachelor’s to respectable four years, get rid of the master’s, and follow up right with PhD studies, as the Americans do? Would that not solve the problem and save everyone’s precious time? I do not expect my suggestion to come true in foreseeable future. But I feel the need to write it anyway, as we have to realize one thing: everything can be changed, everything can be improved. And in any case, everything should be discussed.

[1] MOHR, Tara Sophia. Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified. Harvard Business Reveiw, August 24, 2014. Cited April 16, 2019. Link: https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs- unless-theyre-100-qualified.

Opinion piece by Martin Hammerbauer

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