POLAND: Elite research centres, more funding in 2012

Poland is embarking on two major challenges in 2012: the creation of élite research centres to compete internationally in science, and the implementation of a national qualification framework.

The first is an attempt to give Poland a competitive edge internationally in science. The second is a consequence of the move to a European Higher Education Area under the Bologna process.

Centres of excellence

The government is creating a network of centres of research excellence called KNOWs, an acronym for leading science centres, which will be expected to attract top research talent.

It is another example of the global trend towards establishing 'world-class' universities in countries as disparate as China, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Germany and France.

The competition for KNOW status will be open to institutes, consortiums or research centres at universities specialising in sciences, medicine, healthcare or physical culture. Up to six KNOWs may be created in 2012.

They will receive around PLN10 million (US$$3 million) a year over five years, a tenth of the amount provided to the similar Initiative for Excellence research centres in Germany.

The first tenders for KNOWs will be announced in January. Unlike similar initiatives elsewhere in Europe, the tenders will not be for a specific innovation project but will relate to a summary of research activities and prestige, judged by the number and quality of citations, patents and their implementation, and cooperation between the research centre and the business community.

Academics see many weak points in the selection process for the élite units.

According to Professor Jerzy Woznicki, president of the Polish Rectors' Foundation and co-author of a higher education development strategy up to 2020, the competition will result in poor capital concentration.

"The formula of subsidising personnel costs instead of projects, is not the best solution," he said. "Also, the amount of resources earmarked for this strategic initiative is unsatisfactory."

Academics are also afraid that competition may lead to division of university departments representing several fields, as they are likely to have fewer opportunities to compete than homogenous ones.

KNOWs are the signature idea of Minister of Science and Higher Education Barbara Kudrycka, who has just started her second term in office following the re-election of the centre liberal Civic Platform party.

The continuity in the office creates a chance for continuation of reforms that started in October 2011 when an amendment to the Act on Higher Education became law. So far the reforms and changes have been, with some exceptions, largely cosmetic.

National qualifications framework

One of the exceptions is the introduction of a national qualification framework (NQF), which has been forced on the Polish system from the outside by the joint European higher education policy intended to harmonise national systems throughout Europe.

Coordination of national and European qualification frameworks is one of the key elements of the continuation of the Bologna process after 2010 and the creation of the European Higher Education Area.

NQFs are seen as communication or transparency tools that help to clarify the relations between various parts of a national system. They make national qualifications easier to use and understand, both for citizens and foreigners. NQFs also represent a system for describing the knowledge and skills obtained in both formal and informal ways. They enable universities to create new study programmes and determine their subject matter.

This represents a pivotal change for Poland.

Until now, the minister has had a fixed list of approved study programmes and universities were not allowed to stray from it. But in most developed countries qualifications frameworks have been operating for a long time.

NQFs, by freeing study programmes from central state control, enable universities to react faster and more flexibly to the needs of the market and industry. In Poland there are predicted to be more innovative and interdisciplinary programmes and the higher education system will be closely integrated with the European Union.

"This is the only important and real change brought by the amendment," said Professor Ewa Chmielecka, a Bologna expert and higher education researcher.

Trends of 2012

Professor Wiesław Banys, rector of the University of Silesia and chair of the Polish Universities Rectors' Conference, said: "Both changes - selection of KNOWs and NQF implementation - are closely related to the main trends of 2012."

These, he said, were, "stronger internationalisation of universities and mobility of students and scientists, diversification in university financing in relation to the quality of education and research, an increased level of financing of higher education and scientific research from sources other than the state budget, and creation of closer ties between universities and their widely understood surroundings."

In 2012 the budget resources for science and higher education will increase slightly, by about 9%. A total of PLN10.2 billion will be earmarked for higher education. Another very important fact is that the government's long-term financial plan for 2011-14 assumes a steady, annual increase of resources for science of about 8%. The salaries of lecturers are to start increasing substantially from 2013.

Also announced, although so far without a specific timetable, is the creation of an agency supporting student exchange and internationalisation modelled on the British Council, Germany's DAAD and CampusFrance.

"It will be an institution dealing with international exchange of students and scientists on a wider scale," Kudrycka said in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita daily publication.

"Its goal will also be extensive promotion of all possible trips abroad and cooperation offers. The agency could also help some Polish universities to survive the demographic low."

The deepening demographic downturn endangers non-public higher education institutions especially. In 2020 there will be half the number of 19-year-olds compared to the peak year of 2002. The most pessimistic prognoses forecast the disappearance from the educational map (or takeovers by bigger public and non-public institutions) of 75% of some 330 private institutions in the next few years.

One way to keep the best private institutions would be to equalise the access of private and state institutions to state financing for full-time students. The higher education authorities, however, say they have no plans in this direction and have refused to take such steps for the past six years.

Another important change will occur this year, as the terms of office end for many rectors of public universities. Consequently, there will be a generational change in the leadership of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, the most important body representing the interests of the Polish academic community.

The future of Polish higher education will, to a large extent, depend on the vision of the newly elected rectors.

* Bianka Siwinska is editor-in-chief of Poland's higher education magazine Perspektywy, a publication of the Perspektywy Education Foundation.