The emergence and growth of private higher education in Poland has been widely regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the country's transformation in the 1990s. Now, however, the sector is endangered - not only due to great demographic pressure, but also to unfair treatment of private institutions by the state. These issues dominated celebrations of the 20th anniversary of private higher education in Poland last month.
Poland has one of the highest shares of private sector higher education in the world: 32% of all students are enrolled in private institutions. The dynamic development of the sector was a result of political changes after 1989, as well as a response to huge new demand for higher education among young people from the Polish baby boom, who entered high school or universities in mid-1990s.
In the two decades from 1991, 350 private higher education institutions were created in Poland, and at the same time the number of state universities grew from 96 to 135.
Student numbers skyrocketed. In 1990 there were 400,000 students; by 1995 the number had doubled to 795,000; and by the end of the decade the number had quadrupled to 1.6 million in 2000. In 2009 there were nearly two million students in Poland, the same number as Germany which has twice the population. Poland's gross enrolment ratio very quickly reached the impressive level of 48%. Since 1991, Polish private higher education has produced a total of 1,574,000 graduates
The new sector has been scattered and very diversified - the average number of students in a private higher education institution does not exceed 2,000.
Some institutions have managed to build excellent reputations in Poland and internationally, and have won the right to grant PhDs. They compete successfully with the best state institutions. For example Kozminski University is 32nd in the Financial Times ranking while the best state business university, Warsaw School of Economics, is 80th. Others have filled educational niche in smaller cities, broadening the educational horizon for local youths.
But other private higher education institutions have turned out to be short-term business ventures providing their students with diplomas for a moderate price, and the bad reputation of these institutions has been tarnishing the good name of the entire Polish private higher education sector for the last two decades.
As research through the years has shown, the main recipients of private higher education are young people from poorer households, usually studying extramurally while working. They are students who have been unable to win places on prestigious, free-of-charge study programmes at state universities - places that, paradoxically, usually taken up by more affluent big city dwellers.
Private institutions have thus enabled social advancement for a large group of ambitious, hard-working young people. This contribution of the private sector to the democratisation of tertiary education in Poland should not be overlooked.
But now the expansion of the private sector is over. Polish higher education faces a huge demographic decline and in 2020 there will be 361,473 19-year-olds - 48% fewer than in the peak year of 2002 and 32% less than last year.
Prognostic simulations show that in 2020 all candidates for higher education will be able to find places in free programmes at state universities - both strong students and those less well prepared. Given this situation, it is difficult to imagine fair competition between state and private higher education institutions and it is pessimistically predicted that up to 75% of private providers will shortly disappear from the Polish higher education map.
Regression of the private higher education sector is already a fact.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year, 17 institutions are in various stages of liquidation. The number of students is also decreasing, and private institutions now have 80,000 fewer students than in 2007. Institutions are trying to deal with this difficult situation by consolidating (merging into larger structures) and by trying to counter the fall in domestic students by attracting international students.
What steps does the state take in this situation?
To quote the report Private Higher Education in Poland 2011 published by Perspektywy Education Foundation in June: "The state, instead of striving to make use of our country's unique development capacities made up of the combination of intellectual capital, organisational potential and the material background of non-public higher education institutions - simply passively awaits the results of the demographic decline."
Dr Krzysztof Pawłowski, rector of the highly respective private institution WSLNU in Nowy Sacz, confirmed this opinion: "We feel that to 'our' ministry we are just an unwanted burden which should just kindly disappear on its own."
Why this aversion to the private sector?
The academic oligarchy which, according to a 2004 World Bank assessment and a 2009 diagnosis prepared by Ernest&Young for the ministry of higher education, is extremely strong in Poland has for 20 years been watching the development of the private sector with distrust.
The appearance of the private sector forced the state giants to think in competitive mode, which was not received well. Also, the oligarchy could not exercise the same control over private as over public institutions - it has been the market deciding on the economic situation of higher education institutions.
Quickly the private sector began to be blamed for all the problems plaguing a fossilised Polish higher education system, especially the general decline in quality.
Some allegations were justified - true, private institutions did employ researchers from the public sector by their scores in order to meet staff minimums. As a result, some professors started dividing their time between institutions, and their research work suffered. But this is mixing up cause and the effect.
Massification of higher education was an historic necessity and took place all over the world, although not at the same time. The growth of private higher education in Poland was an answer to spontaneous demand in a situation when the state was not able to deal with the increased need for educational services.
As the report of the Perspektywy Education Foundation pointed out: "It would seem obvious that the state should be interested in supporting private higher education institutions and assisting their development, as this would limit the burden on state budget and [use] private money to educate the workers necessary to the country.
"However, the 20-years history of private higher education institutions in Poland is largely also a history of 20 years of efforts to marginalise this sector of higher education."
Private sector under threat
The effort to marginalise, or simply exterminate, the private sector is best illustrated by the situation since 2007, when the legislature planned a direct attack on it: in a planned amendment to the higher education act, there was to be a provision that each private higher education institution must freeze (deposit) about EUR500,000 (US$694,000) as a security measure protecting students in case of potential bankruptcy.
Such a provision, of course, would result in most private universities having to close operations, as no small or medium-sized business can afford such a mad financial gesture. Early parliamentary elections in 2007 put a stop to that destructive government plan.
Under the present government, defining itself as liberal and pro-business, the situation is still, to put it mildly, schizophrenic. Despite the introduction of some changes standardising both the public and private sectors of higher education, they are still not treated equally in Poland.
On 23 September a conference was organised in Warsaw to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the sector in Poland, titled "Private Higher Education and its Contribution to the Enhancement of the Innovation Potential of Europe in the Global Competitive Environment".
There, special guest Michał Karpisek, vice-president of EURASHE, said: "In the world there is not differentiation between private and public universities, the only functional differentiation is good and bad universities". But such thinking is still foreign to Poland's academic circles and educational authorities.
One way of giving at least high quality private institutions a chance to survive would be by providing state subsidies to help finance full-time students, as happens for public universities. These students make up 17% of all students in higher education, and in my view they should have the right to a grant from the state regardless of the type of ownership of the institution in which they study.
This is dictated by the Polish constitution and there are no legal doubts. The possibility of obtaining a state grant was included in the 2005 act regulating the functioning of higher education.
But despite the legal provision, the minister of higher education for the past six years has not ruled on the matter, thus rendering the provision redundant. Academics in private higher education institutions believe this to be discriminatory.
"We demand grants for full-time students," said Professor Daria Nałęcz, rector of one of the most prestigious private institutions, Łazarski University. "We also expect equal access to investment resources, science and didactics infrastructure.
"This money is not for the owners, the money is for the students and for science, so in effect for society, which does not really care if a product [graduate] was created in a state-owned or private factory, but simply wants to have a good product."
The chances of obtaining a state subsidy, however, is slim and the results of parliamentary elections held last Sunday, will most likely not improve them.
An amendment to the higher education act, in force from the beginning of this month, is another blow for private higher education. It clamps down on the ability of research staff to hold multiple positions - a phenomenon which on one hand negatively impacts the quality of teaching and research, but on the other is a condition of the private sector's existence due to the huge staffing difficulties related to the increase in demand for higher education.
Before the voting on the amendment the rectors of private universities addressed parliament asked: "Should a parliament of a democratic country, a country which chose a market economy, approve an act discriminating against non-public higher education institutions?"
They pointed out that there is no mechanism ensuring competition between public and private universities. Rather, they were dealt with as separate sub-sectors, with the public sector "definitely privileged due to legal regulations".
Children of the lesser god - this is the unofficial term for private higher education institutions in Poland. The sector is undoubtedly under threat and the crisis will worsen as student numbers decline.
But as we all know, every crisis creates development possibilities that, if properly recognised and exploited, can lead to a competitive advantage. Private institutions have proved several times that they have innovation and business genes. Will they be able to find a successful survival strategy this time again?
* Bianka Siwiska is editor-in-chief of Poland's higher education magazine Perspektywy, a publication of the Perspektywy Education Foundation.
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