The Money Game: Czech Universities vs. American Universities

Professor says salary of $1,222 a month hurts academic quality

By Paul McAdory

Salim Murad, professor of pedagogical studies at the University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice, passes to his students an excerpt of a letter, written by Plato, declaring the world’s need for philosopher-kings.

His 50 students spend five minutes reading the text before conversation begins in the long, barren classroom. This is a Czech university seminar on political history: a few students speak, but most recline in the back of the classroom. In a scene eerily similar to that in many American classrooms, students’ laptops are open to blank Word documents. The building at 9 Dekulke is a few miles from the main campus, a cramped corner of the university housing pedagogical and civics studies.

The professor compares the state of corruption in ancient Athens with the current state of affairs in the Czech government, which is frequently targeted by critics for serving special interests and not the public. This has special resonance for Murad, as he is a state employee. Nearly all Czech universities, as is the case across Europe, are state-funded and tuition-free. This is the largest first-glance difference between Czech and U.S. universities: money. And nowhere is this difference more apparent than in professors’ pay.  Whether this difference results in a relative difference in quality is a hot topic for students and legislators mulling over the possibility of instituting tuition fees in the future.

Professor Salim Murad

Professor Salim Murad teaches at University of South Bohemia and NYU Prague Photo courtesy of 

Murad had strong words for the current state of the Czech university system, calling it a “huge state failure” in which schools are underfunded compared to most other European countries.  He recalled his international colleagues’ reactions to news of Czech professors’ salaries: “They don’t believe you in other countries.”

The Czech Republic allocates less of its GDP — 4.1 percent — to education than all other 26 European Union countries but two, according to the Educational, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency’s Key Data on Education in Europe 2012 report.

During the communist era, public spending was inflated and not based on what the state was taking in for revenue. When capitalism exploded here after the totalitarian regime’s collapse in 1989, private sector wages in the former Eastern bloc began to climb steadily, whereas public sector wages — those of doctors, teachers, nurses — remained extremely low in comparison to the West. The cash-strapped Czech government says it cannot afford higher teacher salaries or the amenities U.S. students take for granted such as cushy orientation periods, career development offices, and extensive university-funded resources. There is no cookie night during orientation week, no special excursions or American-style hand-holding provided to new students.

According to Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and head of New York University in Prague, “some degree of financial participation” among students is not a bad thing.  Pehe, who also teaches at a public university in Prague, explained that tuition makes students more responsible for their education while also providing extra funds for research and hiring faculty. Murad has a similar view on American students who “work hard, try to do their best because they are paying for their education.”

Compared to Czech students, Pehe said that American students are pampered, but on the other hand, he added, “They get the service they pay for.”

This idea was reaffirmed by Murad, who, when asked to contrast his experiences teaching at NYU in Prague to South Bohemia, noted that “at Czech universities, whether students are satisfied or teachers effective is not important.”

Richard Muller, a Czech literature professor at Charles University in Prague, has taught at Brown University in the U.S. and currently teaches at New York University in Prague. He took a broader view when addressing the differences between a Czech and U.S. university education.

Muller said American university students “tend to have a broader, less predefined direction in their programs.”  He notes that at Brown, there is a program of individualized study very similar to NYU’s Gallatin school, where students can craft their own major based on their skills and interests.  For instance, at Gallatin, student majors have included the color blue, the subject of evil, “ambition,” and even “ice-cream engineering.”  The freedom, for better or for worse, to come up with a do-it-yourself major would be considered absurdly self-indulgent at a Czech public university. “You could say American programs tend to be shallower, but provide greater freedom. On the other hand, if Czech programs choose a deeper approach, they lead to too narrow specializations.”

Prague Wandering Spring 2013 Issue Number 1

Matyas Hilgert, an alumnus of Eastern Illinois University, and his girlfriend Hope Catan. Hilgert, who lives just outside Prague, said he appreciated the personal approach of professors during his college experience.
Photo courtesy of Matyas Hilgert

For Czechs who attend U.S. schools, the money approach is an eye opener, as they are not used to students treated as customers. Matyas Hilgert, aged 24, graduated with a degree in business from Eastern Illinois University, which he attended on a tennis scholarship.

Sitting in his family’s kitchen in Jiloviste, just outside of Prague, and wearing his college tennis sweater, Hilgert fondly related memories of his four years spent studying in Charleston, Illinois. “If I needed help, I always got it.  Career services, help building my résumé—they prepare you for the real world better than here.” While Hilgert loved his education at Eastern Illinois, he understands that there are some tradeoffs for going to school in the United States. Citing tuition as the big difference, Hilgert noted that it was both “good and bad,” as it generates “more money for education and sports” while also indebting some of its students.

Kristyna Cermakova, a student of Charles University, provides a sharp contrast; “We don’t really have a career center—you have to specifically look for it, ask for it.” Cermakova has experienced Charles University’s professor-student relationship as one rather impersonal, in which students are given much less direction. “No one is going to tell you what to do or where to go—you have to figure most things out on your own.” Cermakova describes her as classes generally consisting of three to four hundred students. “There’s no way for students to participate.” 

Hilgert had a noticeably different experience in his American university. He described a personal approach with professors.  “They saw me struggling and to tried to help out. Whenever I showed interest, they tried to help.” He said his experience at Eastern Illinois was that professors there “always know your name. After graduation, I was able to get six letters of recommendation.”  But there is a major difference between Charles and Eastern Illinois that, to some extent, accounts for this difference in approach: Charles University has 50,000 students, and Eastern Illinois only has 10,000.

When asked if she knew her professors, Cermakova replied she didn’t know them at all.  She is looking to get a recommendation letter, but isn’t sure whom she could ask.   “There’s not one professor in the school who could talk about me.”

“‘Czech students are of two minds. Many reasonable students understand that if they paid, their education would improve. On the other hand, many are comfortable not paying anything.'”

According to the World University Rankings produced by Times Higher Education, Charles University—the best known  Czech university outside of the country—ranks between 301 and 350 (the list begins using block rankings after the 200 mark). New York University ranks 41. With rankings based on research influence, reputation, the learning environment—with “perceived prestige” as the dominant indicator—and several other factors, Charles falls well short of hundreds of North and South American, European, and Asian universities.

So far, Czech polls show students are not in favor of tuition as a means of improving their universities. Jiri Pehe believes “Czech students are of two minds. Many reasonable students understand that if they paid, their education would improve. On the other hand, many are comfortable not paying anything.” The problem is one of inertia. Czech students have never had to pay for university. Convincing them now that they should involves a massive amount of effort aimed at an unresponsive obstacle. This is why, Pehe says, “If it is left to the students, it won’t be solved.”

Paul McAdory is in the NYU Gallatin Class of 2015. His hometown is Clinton, Mississippi.


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Categories: News, Spring 2013 Issue Number 1

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.


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