Forum Radio: Even God would find it hard to manage!

Thursday, 26 October 2023 19:11

In today’s podcast we delve into the complexities of managing a prestigious institution like Charles University. While the university has made significant strides, it's not without its share of challenges. My guest is Aleš Vlk, an expert in higher education policy, science policy, science popularisation, and research and development. 

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He is arguably best known as the co-founder of online science portal. Recently, though, he ventured into a new and exciting role as the vice-dean for external relations and development at Charles University's Faculty of Physical Education and Sport, where innovation remains a top priority. During our interview, we explore the unique challenges faced in the Czech academic sphere and discuss what Vlk considers a pivotal aspect for students and academics alike: the acquisition of international experience.

Excerpts from our interview:

Connecting the dots: From higher education to science policy

“I studied sociology and also a bit of law and enjoyed it very much. However, I later realised I didn’t want to pursue sociology further. I got a scholarship ‘by accident’ to study in Twente, the Netherlands, where I spent a year at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and pursued my PhD. It occurred to me that Higher Education Policy Studies was very close to science policy and that there was a shortcut from policy studies to both science policy and science popularisation. It went slowly but that was the path I pursued.”

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Making an entrance: Vice-Dean Vlk. Above-right: the new promotional logo of Charles University which complements the school's historic seal. 

Studying and working abroad

“Working or studying abroad is essential and especially important for a small country like ours. It’s the only way to compare, to see how things are done elsewhere, whether different or similarly. Only abroad can you actually learn. I wasn’t only in the Netherlands but also the US, where I saw how things could be done and it still has an impact 30 years later. Seeing how lectures could be done [was eye opening] and even today I don’t think we have achieved their level. In the Netherlands, I appreciated how much theirs was a ‘planning society’. When I was doing my dissertation, my PhD advisor explained: ‘A PhD is not about how clever you are… it’s about planning and discipline! We plan it and then you do it.’ To this day, I think that the majority of uncompleted doctorates come down to poor planning.”

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Aleš Vlk. Portrait by Hynek Glos.

Learning from others

“When I was studying in the Netherlands, I read a very interesting book that posited there were countries that were less willing or resisted to learn from other countries' good or best practices and the ones listed were Russia, Ukraine, and [the former] Czechoslovakia. My personal experience and my own opinion is that the Czechs have a certain [fall back position] that is the 'Czech way'. I think it is a kind of complex in our environment when we are dealing with the OECD or World Bank and we say ‘Oh, that is very specific, we have our own way’ or ‘We are so special’. It’s ok to do things your own way, that is perfectly fine; however, if we were more willing to learn from others’ mistakes, we might get there more easily. We are not ‘Switzerland’ yet! And maybe we never will be.”

Aiming higher

“We have some excellent centres when it comes to research and development and we have some excellent knowledge even within the private sector. I think there should be even more. We are still lacking the next Antonín Holý or the next Otto Wichterle, people who could take aim at a Nobel Prize. We have a very good European standard, there are a few top institutions that have had a big impact such as the Institute of Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences and CEITEC, Charles University has some important groups, but the first two are the absolute top.”

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Forging a shared identity

“Charles University has 17 faculties and the [promotional logo and new communication strategy] are an indispensable step towards greater unity so that the university community as a whole can function better. Otherwise, you can have the experience as I did last year of going to the Gaudeamus school presentation fair and looking at different promotional material, for example, of two medical faculties that appeared to have almost nothing in common. In terms of marketing, that is a disaster and thank god this has begun to change. Some people may have reservations, some people won’t agree, but I think such a step is needed one way or the other. I don’t know how to manage so many autonomous faculties within one university and it is almost impossible within the existing framework. This is a monumental task. In a company, the decision might be one way but in academia and especially Czech academia it’s different. The autonomy of our higher learning institutions from the Ministry of Education is among the highest in Europe, as is the autonomy of our faculties from the top management: even God himself/herself would have trouble managing such an entity!”

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Working as vice-dean at the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport

“One way or another, I have been involved in higher education policy since I was around 18 and I thought I would know something! But I can tell you that if you start work at a faculty it is a different playing field and it’s not the rectorate. When you get involved on the faculty level, only then, I found, do you learn what higher learning is, what teaching is, what administration is and what research is. And I have been enjoying it and have been learning a lot. It’s not an easy process and it was something that was previously missing from my portfolio. Now I have experience from the inside.”

Forum Radio - Interview / Episode 17 / Aleš Vlk - Even God would find this entity hard to manage! / Runtime: 28 minutes and 31 seconds

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Aleš Vlk received a Master’s degree in sociology at Charles University and his PhD in Higher Education from the University of Twente. He is a co-founder of the popular science portal and a respected consultant and science communicator who is passionate about boosting Czech science and education. Since 2022, he has served as the vice-dean for external affairs and development at CU’s Faculty of Physical Education and Sport. Vlk is a co-author a new publication just out, called Science Communication: Úvod do komunikace vědy, outlining the principles of successfully communicating science. Link to the story in English.

Photo: Hynek Glos

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