Transfer to higher education
The ratio of people with higher education in Slovakia is lower than the EU and OECD average. However, a rising trend is apparent. Many young people recognize higher education as important to success in the job market, as well as to personal growth. While the ratio of higher education graduates is increasing, the number of students at higher education institutions has been decreasing. One of the reasons is that the attrition of a large part of the student population to higher education institutions abroad is greater than the number of incoming international higher education students. The results of the Learning Makes Sense survey have shown that more than half of the secondary school students surveyed plan to study abroad after graduation. The responses of the higher education students already studying abroad suggest that their motivation to leave Slovakia was strong. Reasons given for leaving include the superior reputation of international higher education institutions, or the better prospects in the job market afforded by a degree from abroad. Another issue is that our students also plan to remain abroad after graduating.
The loss of students to other countries, in combination with a demographic fall, leads to the lowering of entry criteria for higher education applicants. The number of open spots at higher education institutions is higher than the number of secondary school graduates, and given that the number of students enrolled plays a significant role in the financing of higher education institutions, each school tries to meet its enrolment targets, even if it means foregoing entrance exams. The qualitative data of Learning Makes Sense suggest that the entry criteria at some higher education institutions are so low that they can be met by almost any applicant. The number of highly selective schools has been falling. Based on the results of the Learning Makes Sense survey, it can be concluded that the abolishment of entrance exams in Slovakia is perceived negatively by students who have decided to study abroad. The insufficient, or non-existent student selection process, does not just affect the reputation of our higher education institutions, it also impacts on their quality. According to higher education teachers, the low aptitude of students is one of the most significant factors negatively affecting the quality of their teaching. The results of the interview analyses suggest that some of them see the reason as being the low level and inadequacy of the secondary education curriculum. Systematic communication and collaboration between secondary schools and higher education institutions is lacking however, leading to a lack of a dialogue on mutual expectations. The perception of students as being underprepared to meet the demands of higher education studies is related to the nature of the degree programmes offered by the higher education institutions. The higher education sector has not reacted to the increasing demand for higher education graduates, and has not been able to accommodate a more diverse student population. In contrast to many higher education institutions abroad, those in Slovakia still offer predominantly academically-oriented degree programmes, and accept secondary school graduates in the expectation of enrolling only elite, academically-oriented applicants.
Low entry requirements in education can contribute to an increase in cases of prematurely terminated education. The interviewees from the Learning Makes Sense qualitative data collection mentioned that, because students did not pass the entrance exams, the selection process takes place during their studies. According to the most recently available data, approximately one third of students in OECD and EU countries ends their higher education without graduating. In Slovakia this ratio is slightly lower. However, our country is an exception because the majority of these students will never return to higher education and finish their degrees. The premature termination of higher education can be the result of an unsuitable choice of school, which is therefore also a reflection of poor career counselling services at secondary schools. It can also reflect the insufficient support of higher education institutions in the process of helping new students to acclimatise. Comparing the opinions of students in Slovakia with those who left to study abroad suggests that our schools are behind in many ways. The results of the Learning Makes Sense qualitative data analysis suggests that some higher education institutions are becoming aware of this issue, and are beginning to find ways to reduce this attrition.
While the applicant selection process can be quite tough, certain groups of people find it more difficult to obtain a higher education degree than others. These include people with a health or social disability, who must overcome many barriers on their road to higher education.
According to the results of Learning Makes Sense, only a small number of students with a health disability chooses to study at a higher education institution. In 2018 there were only seven thousand graduating from secondary schools. On undergraduate and graduate higher education programmes this number has only been around one thousand. This indicates the presence of barriers in the academic environment. The issue of creating a universally accessible environment is currently being debated, partly thanks to the higher education bill binding higher education institutions to offer support to students and applicants with special needs. However, according to the registry these constitute less than one per cent of the higher education population. The reasons for their low representation are varied, and related both to the selective nature of our education system and an inflexible social system. According to secondary data, in addition to the Learning Makes Sense data, it can be concluded that barriers exist also on the part of the higher education institutions, who are facing multiple challenges. In most rooms found in schools and student residences, it is not possible for a person with limited mobility to move independently without the help of others. The removal of IT barriers is also an important challenge, as well as the overall improvement of the information-communication accessibility of the academic environment. Young people with sensory or upper body physical disabilities have a genuine problem accessing information from web domains, while using the academic IT systems also remains difficult.
An encouraging finding is that Slovakia operates two special pedagogical centres supporting students with special needs, mandated by the law to serve as methodological, knowledge and coordination centres for all higher education institutions in Slovakia. The number of counselling and support centres for students with special needs at other higher education institutions is also increasing. At the moment, such centres are in operation at half of the public higher education institutions. The work of these centres or coordinators for students with special needs often affects the quality of the work of higher education teachers. According to the findings of Learning Makes Sense, students with special needs have varied experiences with the personal and professional quality of educators. Low awareness of the needs of individual groups of people with disabilities leads to insufficient support during tuition. However, not all teachers can utilise the advice of a coordinator, other specialists or internal methodological guidelines.
Higher education institutions cannot meet the challenges of supporting students with special needs without systematic backing. At the moment, higher education institutions receive approximately half of the budget required for securing support services. The creation of a universal academic environment remains a vision, in part due to the unresolved financing of the special education centres and coordinators for students with special needs. These have for many years lacked not just financing, but also detailed legal definition, necessary for providing the students with more appropriate aid. A binding directive is especially necessary because coordinators’ job is carried out by people with different professional profiles, and some higher education institutions are not even collaborating with external counselling centres that would have provided a professional assessment for the students’ special needs.
While the number of higher education graduates among people living in poverty and social exclusion is critically low, support for students coming from these environments is limited to offering social stipends, which can help to partially remove the financial barriers. However, experiences from abroad, as well as from the Aj ty máš šancu! [You too have a chance!] pilot programme carried out in Slovakia, suggest that these students also need other forms of support. The results of the Learning Makes Sense qualitative data analysis however, indicate that this topic has not yet resonated sufficiently with most higher education institutions.
The results of the quantitative and qualitative data analysis of the Learning Makes Sense project are presented in detail in the following sections:
The changes in the number of higher education graduates
The ratio of higher education graduates is increasing, but the number of students at Slovak higher education institutions is decreasing
The loss of students to other countries
Many higher education students go abroad in pursuit of a better education, while only a small part of them wants to come back
Enrolment of higher education students
The majority of schools do not select their students
The reasons for studying at higher education institution
Students apply to higher education institutions not only out of interest, but also their need to gain employment
The readiness of secondary school graduates for higher education
The lack of readiness of secondary school graduates for higher education is relative
The premature termination of higher education
There is insufficient discussion on the issue of the premature termination of higher education
Disadvantaged students at higher education institions
The path of disadvantaged students towards higher education is not easy
Education enables individuals to find their place in society. In addition to preparing them for the job market, it also guides them to take responsibility for their own actions. The decision to study at a higher education institution should be made freely, and motivated not just by gaining a degree as an entry ticket to the job market, but also by a desire to improve and grow. A higher education degree is currently a crucial requirement for better opportunities in the job market, but a degree alone is no longer sufficient. The employers of today have even higher expectations. They seek educated people willing to work on themselves and capable of learning. Civil society also needs people who are responsible, motivated and engaged. Therefore it is important that higher education institutions do not only send the signal that they fulfil the role of qualifying people in society, but also that they are a space where everyone, without exception, can discover their qualities, grow as a person and develop their passion for learning.