Campaign fuels huge increase in students at technical universities

While the growing worldwide shortage of engineers has become a threat to global development, students have been flocking to technical universities in Poland to such an extent that they are now more popular than traditional universities.

The global engineering industry will need 500,000 extra engineers over the next two decades, according to UNESCO, and many countries are adopting policies to support engineering education at degree level and are encouraging young people to take up technical studies, ICT or sciences.

In Poland, such a policy has already brought impressive results, particularly among women.

For the past two years Polish students have been applying to technical universities in record numbers.

For the first time in the history of the Polish higher education system, technical universities have become more popular than comprehensive universities. In the former there were on average 3.8 candidates competing for each place during the last recruitment season, against 3.3 in the latter.

This year the most popular university in Poland was the Warsaw University of Technology (8.7 candidates per place). Four of the top five most attractive universities – those most often picked by candidates – were technical universities.

Among the most popular courses of study, building engineering came top and computer science third. In Poland the younger generation has started to believe in the meaning of higher technical education.

The ‘Girls as Engineers!’ campaign

Midway through the last decade the technical universities, concerned at lack of interest in their courses and the loss of students to economic studies and the social sciences and humanities, decided to take matters into their own hands.

They united towards a common goal and created a countrywide initiative called ‘Girls as Engineers!’

The initiative, which has been running for nearly six years, was the first promotional campaign in Poland for technical studies and sciences. The decision to target women led to a breakthrough.

To the great satisfaction of its initiators, the Conference of Rectors of Polish Technical Universities and the Perspektywy Education Foundation, from the outset the initiative attracted the interest of universities, high schools, media and participants themselves, who were high school graduates and pupils in final stage high schools.

Professor Antoni Tajdus, chairman of the Conference of Rectors of Technical Universities and rector of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, said: “It did not take much time for us to become convinced that the initiative makes sense, that it increases interest in technical studies – girls excel in engineering.”

Professor Jan Krysinski, former rector of the Lódz University of Technology, was the first rector to decide to start the initiative in his university. He said: “We wanted girls to stop always going to the humanistic and social studies just because these are traditional choices.

“We wanted them to consider the whole spectrum of responsibilities offered by specific education, scientific, engineering studies. We also knew that boys would follow the girls.”

The initiative consists of a nationwide media campaign and a series of events labelled ‘for girls only’ at 20 Polish technical universities. Its central element is a nationwide open day organised in April each year simultaneously at all the technical universities.

The initiative quickly started to have an effect.

During the past five years the national share of women among technical university students has grown by 5% and currently amounts to 35%. In total, there are currently 13,000 more female students at technical universities, despite the general demographic low and decreasing number of students in all types of universities.

In the same period of the campaign, the number of male students at technical universities dropped by more than 10,000, while at some universities the number of female students increased by up to a quarter.

The ‘Girls as Engineers!’ initiative contributed to popularising engineering education among males as well as females. “It made engineering education trendy,” said Beata Ston, a student at Warsaw University of Technology who decided in favour of engineering studies three years ago after attending a ‘Girls as Engineers!’ event.

Government policy

Another factor contributing to the interest in technical education in Poland was a central policy of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

The ministry invested significant resources in support for study courses determined by experts to be strategic for the development of the economy, including environmental engineering, robotics, building engineering, computer science, mechatronics, nanotechnology and nuclear energy.

The ministry 'requests' such a study course to be provided by a particular university and assigns additional resources to it. Special scholarships are made available to attract students.

The initiative has been in place since 2008 as part of the European Human Capital Operational Programme. By 2013 more than PLN1 billion (US$322 million) will have been allocated to it. The ministry has already allocated PLN620 million to 57 universities.

However, there is evidence that the intensive promotion of applications has led to an influx of underqualified students to engineering courses, and poor levels of achievement.

According to the daily newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawn, proportionally only 148 out of 714 graduates from engineering studies started three years ago as part of the pilot programme for 'requested' courses, have graduated.

Experts say the very poor graduation rate may have resulted from the fact that the ministry did not specify any requirements for the candidates accepted for studies by the universities.

Universities, on the other hand, wanted to increase student numbers so they accepted applicants with very poor high school finals results onto ‘requested’ courses.

Also criticised is the fact that the central authorities, instead of handing over the issue of promoting science and engineering education to specialised non-governmental organisations via an open tender in accordance with the European rule of subsidiarity, are dealing with it directly, multiplying bureaucratic structures. In Germany the same European Union resources are handed over to non-governmental non-profit initiatives such as ‘Girls' Day’.

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