Hundreds Join Protest in Prague Against Underfunding of Universities

The aim of the protest was to draw attention to the insufficient funding for higher education and the low wages of some university staff. Credit: Hodina pravdy.

Prague, Oct 18 (CTK) – Hundreds of university students, academics and university staff gathered outside Charles University’s Faculty of Arts in Prague yesterday afternoon to express their dissatisfaction with the funding of universities in the Czech Republic, before marching together to the nearby Education Ministry.

The aim of the protest was to draw attention to the insufficient funding for higher education and the low wages of some university staff, said representatives of the Hour of Truth initiative and university workers’ unions, the organisers behind yesterday’s strikes and protests.

The afternoon protest near the Faculty of Arts was attended mainly by people from Prague schools, including the Academy of Fine Arts, the Academy of Performing Arts and some faculties of Charles University. There were also representatives in Prague from the West Bohemian University in Plzen, and Palacky University in Olomouc, where the strike was also taking place.

The protesters carried banners with slogans such as “Academic work is not a hobby”, “Stop cheap science” and “Top science for minimum wages.”

The march partially blocked traffic, with demonstrators whistling and chanting slogans.

Meeting representatives of the Hour of Truth and the university workers’ trade union after the demonstration, Education Minister Mikulas Bek (STAN) said their demand for the universities budget to be raised by CZK 3-4 billion next year is unrealistic. He said the ministry planned a CZK 1 billion increase, which trade unionists said was insufficient.

Unionists are ready to strike in the future, said Ondrej Svec on behalf of Hour of Truth.

“It is clear that CZK 4 billion is not a realistic expectation next year,” Bek told reporters after talks with the protest organisers. “I held a discussion with the strikers and repeated the offer I have already made to university rectors, that we would allocate an additional CZK 1 billion next year to enable public universities to adapt to the new budget methodology, which will motivate universities to reduce the huge differences in salaries between individual faculties.” 

According to the academics, however, the amount promised by the minister would not solve the underfunding of higher education and the low salaries of some academics. Svec said the unions and the Hour of Truth would wait to see whether the CZK 1 billion increase in the university budget would be felt by the poorest faculties. These, he said, are especially humanities and social science faculties. If this does not happen, he said, the protests will continue.

A protest action on Friday, 17 November is under consideration, and academics have not ruled out further strikes, including cancelling lectures and not holding state examinations.

Bek said the problem of universities had a key solution within the universities themselves, which can allocate funding differently among individual faculties.

Bek also drew attention to the differences in salaries between universities and faculties of the same school. This is the fault of rectors, deans or academic senates, he said.

Referring to the ministry’s data, Bek wrote on Twitter yesterday that while professors at Masaryk University in Brno earned an average of CZK 121,520 a month last year, people with the same title at Charles University earned an average of CZK 89,919. The wages for assistants at these schools stood at around CZK 55,000, according to the ministry’s data.

However, the cited amounts include European money and scientific grants. Trade unionists noted that obtaining grants is difficult, with only about 15% of applicants receiving a grant. The protesting academics have also rejected the claim that the faculties themselves were to blame for the underfunding.

The disgruntled academics are demanding an increase in the education budget in 2024 and following years, up to the average level of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, as well as an amendment to the higher education law to improve the financial situation of postgraduate students. If the demands of the striking academics are not met, the group plans further protests.

“The budget for higher education should gradually increase until we reach the level of spending on universities in relation to GDP to the average of OECD countries,” said Svec.

According to Eurostat data, public spending on tertiary education in the Czech Republic corresponds to 0.86% of GDP, while the average for EU countries is 1.27% of GDP.

According to the government-approved draft budget for 2024, next year’s budget for higher education is the same as this year’s, with CZK 30.9 billion earmarked for education at public universities. The budget for the entire education sector for next year is expected to be nearly CZK 269 billion. According to university representatives, the budget for universities is short by about CZK 11 billion.

Recently, Minister Bek announced that there is a consensus in the government to increase the 2024 university budget by about CZK 1 billion compared to the original proposal. However, according to the chairman of the University Trade Union, Petr Baierl, this sum is intended to cover the expected higher energy prices. “The salaries of faculty workers will not be raised by this money,” he said. He also warned that unless the ministry increases the amount of money earmarked for the educational activities of universities, both academics and non-academic staff will start leaving schools.

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