Education, one of the five headline targets of the EU's 'Europe 2020' strategy, is not worrying the Czech Republic – its national targets seem attainable. Yet during the negotiation process, Prague repeatedly stressed that the EU-wide targets must respect the existing absorption capacity of the market. EURACTIV.cz reports.
No problems with school dropouts
The education target comes in two parts: cutting the early school leavers' rate to below 10% from its current 15% and ensuring that at least 40% of youngsters have a degree or diploma by 2020. As far as the first goal is concerned, the statistics in the Czech Republic are very healthy.
The number of early school leavers stands at 5.6% and the Czechs will have no problem attaining this universal goal, Ond?ej Gabriel from the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MEYS) told EURACTIV.cz. ''We have been meeting the European target for a long time,'' he stated.
Taking the EU as a whole, the highest rate of early school leavers in 2009 was recorded in three southern European countries: Malta (36.8%), Spain (31.2%) and Portugal (also 31.2%). As for the member states bordering the Czech Republic, Slovakia had a rate of 4.9%, Poland 5.3% and Germany 11.1% (Source: Eurostat).
As the overall target was a matter of contention at EU level for several months, the Czech Republic did not have any specific reservations about this part. ''In that case, there were no reservations from our side,'' Gabriel stressed.
Despite the fact that the target will probably be met, Eva Richterová, a long-standing employee of the Czech school system and an education consultant at ZŠ Bílá – a primary school in Prague – believes that the rate could be even better.
In her view, parental support is insufficient and students are failing to fulfil the school's academic requirements. Richterová is convinced that these obstacles can be overcome and that the rate could be improved further. ''But it is a long-distance race,'' she concluded.
A diploma for more than 32% of students
Meeting the second goal – ensuring that at least 40% of 30-34 year-olds have a degree or diploma – could prove more challenging for the Czechs.
Although information provided by the Czech Statistical Office (CSO) shows that the share of graduating students in this particular age group is increasing – in 2008 it was 15.6%, in 2009 around 17% and in 2010 it is estimated to be 18-20% – the Czech Republic is the second worst performer in the EU, behind Romania.
Bohuslav Mejst?ík, a CSO analyst, wants the Czech government to take certain measures. ''In the next twenty years, the fate of the Czech economy will lie in the hands of these two groups,'' he is quoted by news agency ?TK as saying.
However, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MEYS) is optimistic. According to information provided by the MEYS, the share of tertiary-educated 30-34 year-olds will rise to 30% by 2015 and will hit at least 35% by 2020, according to Gabriel. This corresponds to the national target of 32% set by the caretaker government of Prime Minister Jan Fischer, he pointed out.
Michaela Mlí?ková-Jelínková of the Ministry for EU Affairs agrees. She told EURACTIV.cz that the Czech Republic had accepted the target without ''fundamental reservations'' and stressed the importance of ensuring that new graduates are employable and the market is capable of absorbing them.
According to MEYS information system ISA, the unemployment rate of Czech university graduates in the third quarter of 2009 was 17.3% (the EU average was 18.5%). Although this rate is lower than in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, some experts predict that it will rise in the coming months.
But at the same time, they emphasise that the rise in unemployment will probably be slow. It will not be caused by the economic crisis, but rather by the entry onto the labour market of a wave of new graduates that the market has not had to deal with previously.
''These graduates will therefore be forced to take jobs formerly occupied by high school graduates. It's not unusual, as some West European countries have already gone through this development in the past,'' explains Jan Koucký, director of the Centre of Education Policy at the Charles University in Prague.
While negotiating both targets, the Czech Republic emphasised the competences of member-state governments in the decision-making process and the principle of subsidiarity, Mlí?ková-Jelínková added.
What about the new government?
On 13 July 2010, the Czech Republic saw its new government appointed following a month of negotiations: a centre-right coalition led by Prime Minister Petr Ne?as of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) (EURACTIV 14/07/10).
As discussions between member states and the European Commission on specific policy issues in the Europe 2020 strategy are already in progress, the targets agreed by the previous government of Jan Fischer are unlikely to be changed.
''Both targets set for the Czech Republic in the education area are based on the statistics and outlooks which are currently able to predict these figures from their estimated development in the upcoming ten years,'' said Ond?ej Gabriel. Yet he refused to give explicit confirmation. ''Subsequent developments are a matter of political decision, which is impossible to foresee now.''
The new coalition government is planning major reform of the school and university system. For example, ministers intend to increase the salaries of teachers and introduce tuition fees at universities.
These payments – which will be accompanied by the introduction of student loans, savings for studies and direct support for students – have been criticised by the opposition, led by the Czech Social Democratic Party (?SSD). They believe that the fees will keep some students from less comfortable backgrounds out of higher education. Potentially, the move could also have an effect on the number of university graduates.