Europe is falling behind in research and development, so why are governments cutting back on higher education funding?
Serhij Kiš is a doctoral student of philosophy at University of Pardubice, specializing at emotions in disagreements and conflcits.
Czech university humanities departments are consistently underfunded. According to official statistics, a researcher with a PhD title working at Charles University in Prague, the nation’s capital, earns on average 44 560 Kč (or 1.09 times the wage determined to be at the level of a decent living). This amount varies wildly with different regions, ranging from 1.27 times the living wage at Palackeho University to 1.05 times at University of South Bohemia. Keep in mind that these are faculty averages that include grants – the wage-based income can go as low as 0.72 ties the living wage for, say, an assistant professor of German studies.
The situation is much worse for doctoral students. For many years now, the Ministry of Education has funded the studies of doctoral students with a stipend of 11 250 Kč (0.65 percent of the minimum wage). The stipend could in theory be higher, if the faculty would choose to step in with their own funds. This, needless to say, does not happen. Instead, some faculties – seemingly inspired by Netflix’s Squid Game – propose events like a so-called “PhD battle”, wherein doctoral students compete with each other for the one-time prize of 10 000 Kč. For these reasons, both assistant professors and doctorate students are leaving academia for more profitable positions elsewhere.
Why are humanities so underfunded in the Czech Republic? There are a few reasons. First, universities and education have not been a priority of the Czech government for some time now. One piece of evidence for this is the government’s budget plans for the upcoming years. The Czech’s neo-liberal government is currently pushing for austerity measures in order to curb one of its highest deficits in recent history. Unequivocally accepting what Stephanie Kelton has recently called a “deficit myth”, the policymakers aim to bring in more funds by decreasing public spending on, among others, education. This will directly affect the department’s capacity to increase compensation for its employees.
Second, a more systematic reason for the present situation stems from the methodology of distributing the funds. Since the 90’s, the allocation of funds to different study programs is in large part determined by the so-called “economic performance coefficient” (EPC). EPC is essentially a measure of how financially demanding it is for the faculty to put one student through a given programme. On this measure, then, humanities programs have EPC of 1, philosophy 1.2, mathematics 2.25, and medical programs 2.8. According to one study, in 2013 62 % out of all the available funds for universities that year was allocated based solely on EPC. It is therefore an important factor when it comes to funding.
Lastly, there is a strong prejudice against humanities and arts in public discourse. Prior to the current neo-liberal government, the country’s leader was the oligarch Andrej Babiš, whom international readers will know from his appearance in 2021 Pandora Papers leak or from 2018 Transparency International’s accusation that Babiš uses his political power to channel EU subsidies to his company Agrofert a.s.
Unsurprisingly, in his run for the position of prime minister in 2017, he profiled himself as a “businessman” who “gets things done”. With the slogan “To run the country as business”, he gained a landslide victory. Now, if people’s voting preferences are anything to go by, then the popularity of the likes of Babiš (who lost only marginally in the 2022 presidential election) tells us that the inherently un-business-like disciplines such as humanities are not something that is held in high regard in the Czech Republic.
Universities are fighting back
Prior to this year, universities have embarked on bringing a systematic change to the underfunding of humanities. The institutions, unions, and individuals in question banded together under the umbrella initiative of “The moment of truth” and demanded that the government raise the funding for tertiary education for the next year to 0.6 % of GDP. This would not solve all the problems but it would bring the Czech Republic on par with other OECD countries in terms of public spending on tertiary education – which is something the present government committed itself to do anyways.
Next, they demanded that the practice of redistributing the funds according to EPC be either wholly abandoned, or EPC be re-evaluated. The problem with EPC as it is now is that it assigns the value to humanities based on an outdated idea of what work in humanities looks like (i.e. sitting in a room and reading). A recent study from Czech-based think tank CERGE-I shows that despite the fact that humanities actually spend almost as much time on research as other disciplines, their funding in this regard is 1.875 times lower than that of other disciplines. Why? Because of the EPC that humanities programmes were assigned in the 90’s.
Finally, the initiative wants humanities’ doctoral students to have a bigger stipend. Namely, the stipend should be 1.2 the minimum wage (or 0.5 the living wage), which would be 20 760 Kč (€854). This is good, as the small stipend is one of the reasons why only a very limited portion of all doctorate students at humanities actually finish their studies. It is worth noting, however, that there are more problems with doctoral studies, such as the fact that doctoral students do not have the status as a university employee, meaning they lack the basic employee benefits such as social insurance. As of now, no one seems to care in the least.
To achieve these goals, the initiative is now first and foremost trying to raise public consciousness about the problem of underfunding. This they do by striking – once for an hour in March, then for a whole day in October. So far, these endeavours have brought them much media attention and even a meeting with a Czech Minister of Education. No real changes however are in sight. Policymakers have either avoided addressing the issue, or replied with bad-faith arguments according to which the average wages indicate that the situation is not that bad. The problem with this reply is that, as stated already, the average wage appears high because it includes the income from grants. Grants, which only few receive.
And because the reply from the government is virtually non-existent, the association of school unions planned yet another one-day strike on November 27. This one was different in that the striking universities will be also joined by high schools, middle schools, and even kindergartens.
What results did the strike yield? Nothing much, really. In this strike, the demands of universities extended from restructuring of humanities’ financing to the financing of education in general. Arguably the most focused upon topic was the planned layoffs of the so-called non-academic staff (e.g. cooks, janitors, but also special aid workers) in order for the current government to meet their election promises. More particularly, teachers at primary and secondary educational levels were promised a raise of 130 %. But the way the government wants to keep this promise is by cutting the funding for the so-called non-academic staff (e.g. cooks, janitors, special aid workers), arguing that more than 6000 of these non-academic positions are vacant anyways (and completely ignoring the reason why they are vacant – because they at about 1.2 the minimum wage they are severely underpaid.
Needless to say, with the broadening of the aim of the strike, the humanities’ demands are now under the radar.
What to expect next
In my view, it is too optimistic to expect even a partial concession on the part of the government. Unless Czech humanities can clearly and explicitly show why they are important, the public opinion will hardly sway in their support. A couple of one-day strikes will not be able to do the job – and if they did, this still does not guarantee a victory against the government which is dead-set on curbing the deficit with austerity measures. Add to that the fact that Czech physicians – whose work conditions are much worse – have recently also declared that they will protest against legislation that attempts to increase the amount of overtime physicians can be ordered to work. All of this, in my estimation, provides the government with a way to save face when they keep ignoring humanities’ pleas.
These considerations do not merit complete pessimism, however. As stated already, the public has become more aware of the problem. The consciousness has been raised, if only a little, and that is always a good thing. If the unions and workers will be able to see that what they do is of consequence, this will only help their endurance in the fights to come.