Students left Hanging in New York

17. September 2020

The interview with Michaela Bakala was published by the news server Echo24 on its website on September 16, 2020.


Being a student in a foreign country is a luxury to which a number of Czech students have become accustomed. Not just within the framework of EU programs such as the popular Erasmus, but full-scale studies at the most prestigious universities in the USA and Great Britain. But this year it is different. COVID has hit universities around the world. A number of them have switched to online teaching and learning, but tuition fees remain the same. Britain announced that once the Brexit transition period is over, students from the EU will no longer enjoy their benefits, and will have to pay higher tuition fees, among other things. The Bakala Foundation and its chair Michaela Bakala will offer help to students in such a situation.

What is the genesis of your foundation?

Zdenek Bakala was charitably supporting several projects when I met him. Projects in education, helping people in need, restoring historical monuments, and publishing interesting and noteworthy books. But his support and charity were not driven by one strategic goal. When we met some twelve years ago, he was beginning to cooperate with the Václav Havel Library, and he asked me to help him set up a program with a mission. Together we began to build The Bakala Foundation.

His life story, success, and the very reason for his migration were driven by his yearning for education. Zdenek decided to emigrate to the United States because he was refused admission to high school despite being a star pupil in primary school. He would’ve only been allowed into occupational school. His mother confirmed that he’d been wronged and that the road to his dream was blocked in this country. This was toward the end of the 70s, during the time of the so called “normalization.” All children whose parents did not cooperate with the regime faced this difficulty. They knew there was no point in sending their application to certain universities. My mother had a similar experience. As a daughter of an evangelical priest, she had no chance of being admitted to a university in Czechoslovakia. Zdenek realized that if he wanted the chance to study, to achieve something in his life, he would have to get out of the country. And he made it. He graduated from some of the best schools in the United States. He was admitted to Berkeley in California and continued his studies at Dartmouth, one of the world’s best business schools. This inspired me, and people I worked with at the time, and I realized that education is the best investment.

Was the life story of your husband the only motive, or were there some other considerations?

When we look at the world today, we see a crisis in politics, leadership, and society. Society struggles with the perception of reality, because the truth is distorted by fake news. It made us realize that there are no quick fixes. It is necessary to give people access to quality information and education so they can form their own opinion. We were discussing these issues even twelve years ago. That is how we came up with our motto, “Education is the Best Investment.” The other activities followed. It is no longer just the scholarship program we honed and shaped to match the market demand; it’s much more.

We looked at what was on offer in this country and decided to support not only masters programs, but also bachelor programs. We also now help younger students – eighteen and nineteen years old, so they can see the world even before they enroll in a master’s program. The Foundation identified quite early that there was a potential in this area to complement other foundations and programs. Such as Erasmus, or the Kellner Family Foundation, which offers programs to high school students. We also decided to broaden the scope, not to limiting our activities to a particular field of study or territory, but offering opportunities at prestigious universities, whether in the United States, England, or other European countries. We look for people with not simply good academic achievements but also a life dream. After selecting our scholars, we want to provide more than just financial support. We want to guide them during their studies, stay in touch with them after they graduate, and see how they do in their chosen profession.

So you stay in touch with your graduates?

Our Foundation team stays in contact with them as our alumni club, which has some 160 to 170 members today. But there is certainly no condition that they have to return to the Czech Republic, work for us, or repay us. Students spontaneously began to communicate with each other, exchange information, and they come to us proposing to do something in return, not just for us, but for the country, or for other students. Over the years, our Foundation has built a database of contacts and data to provide students and parents information on admission tests, and writing recommendation letters. We also provide information about legislation changes, what additional financing sources are available, and how to choose the right university. For example, students may come to us saying they would like to study at Cambridge, but we might show them that Stanford is more suitable given their field of study. We organize motivation road tours so that high schools and universities learn about our Foundation and recommend it to their students. Our Foundation’s only condition is that we do not support those who can afford to pay for their studies; we only support those who need help. We are getting known in the Czech Republic, and the number of quality applicants is growing.

Are they not mainly from elite schools and from Prague?

I don’t believe that I have missed a single interview, and I can say that the norm is changing. In the beginning, many successful candidates were from Prague, where more leading high schools are located, such as Kepler, Kellner’s Open Gate or PORG school. We’ve since had candidates from Brno, though not many from the rest of the country; unfortunately their English was not very good. But in the past eleven to twelve years, I have seen this change. The diversity and quality of the students are increasing.

What are the key aspects for getting a scholarship?

In most cases, the applicants have already been accepted to their university of choice. So the process starts well before we meet face to face. We do not test their knowledge, it’s already been done by someone else. If a student has been admitted to Oxford or Cambridge, I am not going run my own tests. They are doctors, philosophers, theologians, teachers, or students of English literature. I always tell myself, girl, you should have studied harder, because they make us feel humble, even when they are just in their twenties. Some are high school graduates going out into the world, who have gotten all A’s, proved themselves exceptional in some area, communicate well, and speak fluent English. I often hesitate to ask the applicants a question for fear of revealing my inadequate knowledge or shortcomings.

Have you set any restrictions? Somethings that tells you not to accept a person?

Yes. First, an applicant must prove they are in need, that they require financial support. Secondly, they have to demonstrate that their test results are comparable with those of the other candidates. They must also submit an essay and two letters of recommendation. Only a few applications out of some 250 are set aside. Sometimes it is obvious they do not meet the prerequisites, or their test results are inadequate. Such students have no chance to be interviewed by us or admitted to the universities they’ve listed. They may be invited for a brief talk, and we’ll tell them: “You need better grades, come back next year or try another university. You will not get in Oxford, but you may apply for this or that university.” This is why we provide our advisory services, to help people avoid wasting their time and being disappointed.

We also consider their personal values. We want to see if they are aware of their broader responsibility, not only professional. So when we talk to a doctor, engineer, chemist, or physicist, we ask about their view of world affairs. We want to know how they feel they could change the world for the better. We try to make them aware of the “giving back” principle. If they get help from someone, they, in turn, should help others.

Do your scholars face problems on their return to the Czech Republic?

They have not always received a warm welcome when they came back. The Students gain new skills abroad, they grow up, and their personality changes. These experiences take place far away from family and friends, making their return to the Czech Republic more difficult than they often expected. They encountered a kind of jealousy. “You took this opportunity and now you think you know better than us. You haven’t been here, so why should you have any advantages just because you went to Harvard?” A person may be disappointed by such an attitude, but that is simply the way things are in the world. Even such an experience has its value. We have students who wanted, on their return, to become diplomats or state officials, and they will get there sooner or later. Some of them already are, thanks to the European Union, and they are greatly appreciated. Sometimes in this country, we still think along the lines of “we and they.” We think we live in a world of our own, in a way.

How much did the global pandemic complicate studies abroad? For example, the fact that universities are switching to online teaching? Students may not too happy they have to pay the same tuition fees while sitting at home and getting homework over the internet.

You are absolutely right. I don’t think this is the solution for education, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary. And I don’t think working from a home office is a solution either. I had a taste of that as a mother of four kids, locked up at home for several months, helping them finish the school year. So I know quite well what it means for both the parents and their children. We have seen how students abroad felt. There was huge uncertainty and disappointment because half of the experience and benefit of studying abroad comes from meeting the global competition and exchanging information, only professionally and personally. At universities, they are members of workgroups, they have their professors with whom they communicate on a first-name basis. Those professors spend some of their free time with the students. In the evening, they may meet them at a sports event, or in a pub. Sometimes professors invite students to their homes for a discussion. This is a entirely different lifestyle, all the more appreciated because one cannot find it anywhere else in the world.

An on-line education is no substitute for that. From time to time, we interview people via the internet if they are already in the USA, England, or Asia. But that gives us only half of the experience, half of the picture. It can be a useful tool in an emergency, but it is not a solution. Of course, when a lockdown is imposed for a month, there is no problem staying home for a month. But that cannot be a rule, i.e., stop going to school, stop meeting, and only study online instead.

So your students are unhappy?

I think everyone is unhappy. Even teachers were not fully prepared for something like this; they must be concerned as well. The restrictions on travel are a big problem, as well, of course. As countries introduce all sorts of measures, some people can travel, some must stay put, some are in quarantine, it is a total mess. Traveling issues led to some heartbreaking cases, particularly in New York, which shut down overnight with a bang. Those students immediately lost their right to accommodation. They were left stranded without warning, not knowing whether to look for some other arrangement or whether to go back, and some just could not go back.

Were you helping them in some way?

We responded very quickly. We set up a COVID helpline and a Brexit helpline enabling students to get information on what was happening. We allocated funds and faculty to make sure they got immediate help. Do you need a flight to get back home? Have you been left stranded? Do you need to cancel an accommodation? Should you pay rent for another month? Those are the biggest problems we are dealing with now. We helped them to overcome the shock, figure out their next step, and not be afraid they would be left stranded somewhere, unable to pay rent, with no access to the latest information.

Another big problem students abroad are facing is the Brexit. Czech students will lose their benefits of EU students…

Our students were used to enrolling in England’s universities, as thanks to the conditions in the EU, it was very convenient, tuition was reasonable. They could travel there without any visas, get insurance, and apply for loans in England. Being in England felt like being home. But that will end overnight. It is not just about the dramatic increase in costs. There is a significant level of uncertainty about whether they will be allowed to stay, and are welcome there. They will have no insurance and their costs are growing.

What’s more, they lost their vision of getting employment in England after graduation. In most cases, they have stayed in England for several years, like in America. They used to tell us they would immediately get offers to work for two or three years. Students don’t graduate one day and show up in Prague the next day. Of course, they plan for their professional engagement, then, all of a sudden, their options became limited. What is happening in the United States today adds to the enormous uncertainty. We are searching for a solution to all of this.

Did that have any impact on the number of applications?

Despite the situation, we have the highest number of students apply to study abroad this year. However, events were overlapping to a degree, as our applications are submitted sometime in May, which undoubtedly played a role. We’ve set up a working group that is examining alternative options. If not England, what about Ireland? This could create an excellent opportunity for universities in the European Union, whether in Germany or Switzerland. Even though Switzerland is not part of the European Union, they have rules like Schengen. The Swiss are very cooperative and open in that area, Belgium, and the Scandinavian countries are too.

Do you have some other plans how to help?

We have just come up with an intriguing idea. We wonder how Czech universities, the quality of which is comparable with other universities globally, might respond – for example, allowing students from other parts of the world to come to this country, by opening more accredited branches of study taught in English. If we cannot leave the country, let them come here. Let’s create a student hub here in Prague or Brno. I think there is the potential to do just that. The crisis we have now creates an opportunity for Europe and perhaps a challenge for the Czech Republic. We have never felt that Czech universities are not good enough, but if students have an opportunity to gain some experience abroad, why not use it? Our students don’t complain about the quality of Czech universities. There is just something missing, so they’ve preferred to go abroad, to widen their experience. We have many respected branches of study and universities that can offer an education comparable to that of European universities. So there is the challenge. If you were to ask me today what we would if not allowed to travel abroad, now this may be wishful thinking, but I would say that international students could come here. We can start providing in the Czech Republic what we used to leave the country to find.

But that will take some time. What do you propose for the short-term perspective?

Many universities in the European Union and Switzerland, would make excellent alternative options, whether in German or English. We will also see how the situation in the United States develops. If the Brexit happens, with all its anticipated implications, then a return to the United States could be viable., To be honest, the cost of living there is lower than in London. So, we are keeping an eye on the developments, and assisting students wherever they are. We are also talking to representatives of alternative universities to see where we can build cooperation and offer students redirection.

Is the British increase of tuition fees final, or do the universities have room for maneuvering or improving the conditions?

It is now up to the universities. I think it is also a question of lobbying. British universities are expecting this development and are getting ready for it. Due to the enormous increase in tuition fees, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are now setting up special funds and scholarships for Eastern European students. They expect the number of students interested in enrolling to drop, and they want to counter that. So far, we don’t know how they will do it; there are no published numbers. Students expect that if the tuition goes up, they will be responsible for paying the fees or seeking scholarships or enrollment in support programs.

I believe strongly that Britain’s academic world is aware that this is not a problem for the students. It is a sad moment and complication for them, but it is also a loss for England. The benefits have gone both ways. We are not only receiving and Britain only giving. The value of those universities stems from the fact that they have access to the best brains in the world, including Europe, and they are well aware of that. Our students are in great demand and are appreciated. They get high marks and are successful. Those universities use this to present themselves because that demonstrates their quality and gives them added value. The loss of such students will be a problem for England and its universities, and they will have to cope with it.

Something similar is already happening in the United States. The number of applications at the most prestigious private universities dropped by ten percent, that is a lot. The decline in the number applicants is enormous because America now has an adverse reaction to foreigners who want to come to study, work, or ask for a work permit. They are not genuinely welcome now, and all the processes are much more stringent. This phenomenon appeared a few years back, and for the last two or three years those famous universities have been unable to reach their own expectations. People are looking for other options and wondering whether it is worth the effort and risk to pay $75,000 or more at Harvard. Especially America’s costs are so high, and there is no guarantee they will be allowed to stay after school or afford to stay.

Has COVID had any impact on tuition fees? Are there universities that compensate switching to online teaching by reducing their fees?

Tuitions remain the same as before. This is exactly what caused students’ negative reactions. They have to pay full fees even though they are switching to online learning for a full term.

Does your foundation provide something like a gap year, when funds are allocated but person goes to university later?

Yes, we do. Sometimes people ask for it. We also have this available in Switzerland, although in a slightly different form. There have been cases where people know their funds have been approved but decide to go to university later. Perhaps for family or other reasons. Or they take a break from university for some time. It is always a matter requiring discussion, but yes, it is an option.

I expect the most popular countries are the USA and Britain. Have the two crises, COVID and Brexit, changed the preferences with respect to universities and destinations?

The quality of universities there is still the same. I don’t think it will be different in another six months or a year even because of COVID. It is just a challenge for all parties involved. The universities will need to reconsider their forms of education, if these problem do not go away. It is also up to the universities we discussed in Germany and the European Union to respond to this opportunity and attract these students. For example, we offer students the chance to go to Ireland’s universities because it’s in the EU and has good student conditions. The question is, how will countries like Germany, Belgium, and Holland, will respond? They have great universities there. I believe options already exist in a number of those countries, including teaching in English. I think there will be more in the future, but it is too early to jump to conclusions.

There will be elections in the United States soon, so we will have to wait and see what happens to the perception of education and whether the United States will remain open to students. the election will undoubtedly have a significant impact. The final form of Brexit also remains to be seen and how universities in England will respond. The transitional period is not yet over, and no one really knows what is going to happen. People have all sorts of opinions of what could be done, but there is not much choice.

In the meantime, we have a group monitoring the situation and staying in touch with the students and universities. We stand ready to assist students who are stranded abroad, to help them come home or help them cope with their contingencies. If they do the math and realize they can no longer study the selected subject in America or England, we are ready to help them to find an alternative university to which they can travel and afford the fees. That is our plan for the near future.

Do you plan to increase your budget because of the higher fees in Britain and the COVID?

We have set up an external fund for the COVID period. Since we are a family-owned foundation, I don’t have to wait for from board members or sponsors. We immediately set up this fund designed to provide practical help. We may consider increasing it, but we will wait to see whether that is necessary. Whether it is a question of money or whether another form of support is needed. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of money, but sometimes it is not the most pressing problem. It is essential, but there is always a way to find funding from multiple sources. Talented students get targeted loans in some cases; there are various options available. And then there are those alternative universities. Students don’t have to go to a university that costs 80 or 90 thousand dollars a year, or 50 thousand pounds. We can find them a university in the European Union that meets similar criteria but at a third of the cost. The situation is developing, and we will adjust our funding accordingly. That is not a problem, as we, as a family, decide how much money is needed for us to keep our program going.

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