Universities join forces to recruit more international students

Polish universities have introduced a free iPhone and iPad app to spread information internationally about opportunities in Polish higher education, and an Android version is promised soon.

The use of the latest technology will move the promotion of Polish higher education to a completely new level, according to a Polish Press Agency report quoting Dr Wojciech Marchwica of the Perspektywy Educational Foundation (Fundacja Edukacyjna Perspektywy), coordinator of the Study in Poland programme.

The number of foreign students in Poland has been growing for the past five years. This year there were 24,253, according to the recent report Foreign Students in Poland 2012 by the foundation. This is a 13% increase compared to last year.

In 2005-06 Polish universities had only 10,092 students from outside the country. Most came from Ukraine (6,321) and Belarus (2,937), with a sizeable group of students from Norway, Spain, Sweden and the US engaged in English-medium medical studies.

Nevertheless, at 1.2%, the proportion of international students is among the lowest in the OECD and EU countries.

Lack of policy

Little has changed since the 2007 OECD report Review of Tertiary Education in Poland dismissed the country’s grasp of internationalisation.

It said there was no national policy to stimulate activities directed towards internationalisation, and “no clarity about any legal instruments that might need to be put in place to foster the internationalisation of the system”. Internationalisation, said the review, was “very limited in scope".

Universities the driving force

In the absence of a national strategy, the main driving force of internationalisation remains universities themselves.

Since 2005, with no support from the authorities, the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, together with the Perspektywy Educational Foundation, has run an integrated programme to promote Polish education abroad titled 'Study in Poland'.

The programme involves more than 40 universities, led by the University of Warsaw and Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

Between 2005 and 2012, universities made a huge effort. They created an extensive range of courses conducted in English, and there are now more than 350 full English-medium programmes at bachelor, masters and PhD levels.

They also created a joint information web portal, and a series of information guides (with a total issue of more than 120,000 copies), participated in 55 fairs in 17 countries across the world, and organised 35 presentations and Polish Days abroad.

The universities are hoping to attract high-quality students from Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

A few years ago, Ukraine was declared by the Study in Poland coordinating committee to be a priority source country, as it is tied to Poland by history, culture and geographical proximity.

The effort has already brought measurable results: the number of students from Ukraine grew from 1,989 in 2005 to 6,321 in 2012, an increase of more than 300%. In 2009 Study in Poland opened its first foreign office in Kyiv, at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

Some universities in the consortium have also decided to create and implement a certification system for recruitment agencies in Ukraine. The system will, according to Marchwica, be ready to launch in November.

Apart from the key Study in Poland initiative, there are smaller, regional consortia operating at various levels, supporting internationalisation and foreign marketing, such as: Study in Warsaw, Study in Kraków, Study in Wroclaw, Study in Pomorskie and so on.

In March this year the Ministry of Science and Higher Education declared itself willing to help promote Polish higher education and science abroad. However, to date there is no information available about the level of financial support.

The problem of international recognition

Despite these efforts, Poland is not widely recognised, and foreign students and scientists do not necessarily associate it with academic excellence, reducing the chances of Polish higher education in the competitive international education market.

Poland lacks world-class centres of academic excellence. This may be changed by a ministry initiative to nominate elite centres of research excellence – KNOWs, an acronym for “leading science centres” – which will be expected to attract top research talent. It is an attempt to give Poland an internationally competitive edge in science.

The competition for KNOW status was open to institutes, consortia and university research centres specialising in sciences, medicine, healthcare or physical culture. The results of the first round were announced in July.

KNOW status for 2012-17 was granted to: the Warsaw Centre of Mathematics and Computer Science; the Kraków Marian Smoluchowski Science Consortium’s Matter-Energy-Future; the Warsaw Academic Chemistry Consortium; a consortium of Jagiellonian University Collegium Medicum and the PAS Institute of Pharmacology; the faculty of pharmacy with the sub-faculty of laboratory medicine at the Medical University of Gdansk; and the Centre for Innovative Research in Bialystok.

Over the next five years each KNOW will receive €10 million (US$12 million) in supplementary financing – but this is only a tenth of the amount provided to the similar Initiative for Excellence research centres in Germany.

Foreign experts were a majority in the process of nominating the KNOWs (18 foreign experts and six from Poland). In a country in which the accreditation process does not, as a rule, involve foreign academics, and in which the possibility of inviting a foreign reviewer or of defending a PhD thesis in English is available only from this year, this has set an important precedent.

However, a lot more needs to be done if internationalisation is to gain momentum in Poland.

For the past four years the Conference of Rectors has demanded an independent, inter-ministerial agency supporting the internationalisation of universities, modelled on German’s DAAD or the Dutch NUFFIC.

But so far nothing specific has happened towards meeting this demand.

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