Mikulas Bek Uses Last “Dies Academicus” Speech As Rector To Call For Change At Masaryk University

Rector Bek’s recommendations included developing the international character of the university and a shake-up of how universities are funded. He stated that his wish is to see Masaryk University become a “world university”. Photo credit: Courtesy of MU.

Brno, May 21 (BD) – On May 16, Mikulas Bek, member of the Czech Senate and outgoing rector of Masaryk University (MU), gave the annual “Dies academicus” address, his last as rector of the institution. He used the speech to urge Czech universities in general, and MU in particular, to strive to become “world universities” – universities that can compete with the best universities from around the world – and recommended a number of changes that he considers necessary for this ambition to be fulfilled.

Noting that he was less restricted than usual by “diplomatic considerations” as he is leaving the post, Bek presented his personal views on the Czech university sector, drawn from his experience as head of MU, to answer the question of “why Czech universities are not doing better internationally, and why, even 30 years after November 1989, we do not have one or two world-class universities, which would certainly correspond not only to our long tradition of university education, but also to the potential of an industrialized country comparable to the Netherlands or Bavaria.” He mentioned the fact that change is required within the wider Czech university sector as well as in individual institutions, but stressed that “two or three self-confident universities with aspirations could gradually change the state’s higher education policy if they change themselves and the “system” is no longer enough for them to stop them from flying.”

The first recommendation mentioned in his speech was for MU to open itself up to international influences, with a suggested minimum of one third of the university’s employees to be foreign: “Of course, a world-class university must open up to students, teachers and researchers who come from outside… It is only by confronting different experiences and perspectives that the dynamics that are typical of the ‘world university’ arise.” He also urged the university to take further steps to expand its use of English as an academic language and to increase the foreign language skills of its faculty members, with a view to increasing the university’s cultural capital.

He also called for the university to refocus its academic goals towards broader education of students, rather than the increasing specialisation of recent years, which he said had led to university governance becoming fragmented, with different departments fighting between themselves for resources: “In the environment of fragmented specialization, the industry’s selfishness and interdisciplinary racism thrive – all too often I have heard from otherwise venerable scholars that they and their subdiscipline deserve to get favours from everyone else, because theirs is the chosen one.” He called for a revival of the Liberal Arts tradition, and for the university to focus not solely on research, or on teaching, but to allow the two elements to work together for the benefit of the institution’s intellectual life.

Another recommendation was for the university to nurture professional managers, not just academics who had gained promotion to the role: “Personal experience of ordinary academics is not enough – it is about knowledge of legislation, economics, education policy and also many “soft skills” – resistance to stress, determination, and diplomacy.” Furthermore, he called on the sector as a whole to create a career path for successful managers to rise to important positions through merit, rather than as political appointments, and for these managers to then have more centralised executive powers over university governance, to avoid damaging competition between departments.

Finally, Bek called for reforms to how universities are financed. He argued that the government remaining as the sole source of funding for all Czech universities was unrealistic, given the predicted costs associated with an ageing population, and called for an increase to both student contributions to their own education (which, he noted, are among the lowest in the OECD), and partnerships with the private sector, to ease pressure on university budgets.

Bek closed his speech on an optimistic note, saying that while there is much work needed to achieve these changes, there are also many people within MU who are committed to making the university a “world university”.

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