Party leaders across the Czech political spectrum have welcomed the appointment as education minister of political scientist Petr Fiala, an academic with no party affiliation, though the leader of the main opposition says budget constraints will hamstring the new minister’s efforts to reform the sector.
Fiala was nominated to the post by Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS), for whom he served as science advisor, after consultations with junior coalition partners TOP 09 and members of the as yet unnamed political grouping of Karolína Peake, formerly of Public Affairs (VV).
Upon being officially nominated for the ministerial post, Fiala, the rector of Masaryk University in Brno from 2004 until 2011, said his immediate aim was to “stabilize the sector and create an environment in which there would be mutual trust among all participants working for change that the education system will undergo at all levels.”
TOP 09 chairman Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister, said on the Czech public television political talk show “Questions of Václav Moravec” over the weekend, “Prof. Fiala is undoubtedly one of a few candidates who enjoy general trust.” ‘Prof. Fiala is undoubtedly one of a few candidates who enjoy general trust.’
That could not be said for the previous education minister, Josef Dobeš (VV), who resigned in March ostensibly in protest of the government’s decision to decrease his ministry’s budget by Kč 2.5 billion, but observers noted he had been widely criticized for failing to properly audit European-funded projects or put in place sufficient checks on projects.
The chairman of the main Social Democrat (ČSSD), Bohuslav Sobotka, welcomed Fiala’s appointment but said in a television interview that the ministry’s budgetary constraints are so severe — due to austerity measures the center-left party is promising to work to quash — that not even a respected expert would be able to readily improve the situation. “I consider it entirely dismal that the post of education minister has not been filled for several weeks while we are amid a debate on a university reform,” he added.
Apart from mismanaging funds, Dobeš had come under fire for his efforts to reform the education sector. On March 16, the deans of all 10 faculties of arts in the Czech Republic called on PM Nečas to dismiss him, charging he was incapable of preparing proper draft laws on universities and tuition fees and shunned open discussion with university representatives. ‘[It] is essential that competent people who have experience do not walk away from politics and government.’
Fiala, a familiar and respected figure in academic circles, is expected to reach out to university representatives to involve them in reforming the higher education system. The draft proposal presented by Dobeš in October 2011 would see public universities financed in accordance with their quality, merge a number of smaller schools, and introduce tuition fees for university students — the main point sparking young Czech scholars to stage protests in February.
The incoming education minister appears confident he is up to the task. “In my articles and books, I often wrote that in order to achieve improve our political culture, it is essential that competent people who have experience do not walk away from politics and government,” Fiala said on Monday, acknowledging that a herculean task awaited him.