Experts call for radical changes in higher education

‘Suboptimal’ is the key word used as a panel of European experts of the Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility describe the present state of higher education in Poland.

The Peer Review of Poland's Higher Education and Science System report, prepared by the panel, has been a point of departure in the process of drafting a new law regulating the sector of science and higher education in Poland.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the report’s recommendations has not been included in the proposed new law, announced last Tuesday in Krakow.

The report was prepared at the request of Jaroslaw Gowin, deputy prime minister and minister of science and higher education.

The experts diagnosed several key challenges facing Polish higher education:
  • • Underfunding (not a surprise);
  • • Fragmentation of the higher education system (too many small, narrow specialised institutions);
  • • Lack of diversity of institutional missions;
  • • System of quality assurance and evaluation of higher education and research insufficiently aligned with international standards; and
  • • The fact that a large part of Poland's research, development and innovation capacity is outside of universities.
In order to enhance the diversification and profiling of higher education institutions, the panel of experts proposed to strengthen a group of research-intensive universities and clearly distinguish them from a robust and dynamic vocational higher education sector.

A small number of (perhaps 10) research-intensive universities with a high potential for excellent research could be selected in a competition modelled on the German Universities Excellence Initiative and be provided with significant additional multi-year funding.

This suggestion has, in fact, been incorporated into the bill under the Polish name Inicjatywa Doskonalosci – Uniwersytety Badawcze (Excellence Initiative – Research Universities). Universities that qualify will receive 10% more funding from the state budget.

The European experts drew attention to the weakness in the management system of Polish universities, excessive autonomy of individual faculties and departments, and the lack of external influence in the governing structures.

They also see the doctoral training system as an Achilles' heel of Polish science and call for radical reform. There is a need to develop a concept of high-quality doctoral schools and industrial PhDs in line with best international practice, and strengthening of domestic and international mobility of young scientists.

At present 90% of scientists employed at Polish universities landed their job via ‘academic inbreeding’ – based on the prior position they held in the department or faculty.

The unconditional abolishing of ‘habilitation’ – the final stage before a faculty post is awarded – is another important recommendation of the experts.

Professor Georg Winckler, chair of the peer review group, presenting the report at the National Science Congress in Krakow, expressed surprised that this residue of the post-Humboldt idea was still alive in Poland, delaying the opportunity to embark on independent research. Unfortunately, the ossified academic community successfully blocked this proposal from being included in the bill.

Internationalisation strategy

The report recommends development of a broad-based internationalisation strategy for Poland that sets out clear orientations and actions to promote the internationalisation of Polish science and innovation and also mainstreaming internationalisation in existing policies, programmes and institutions.

Help in this field can come from the National Agency for Academic Exchange or Narodowa Agencja Wymiany Akademickiej in Polish. The agency, which will start operating as of 1 October, has been modelled on the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, but it has a much smaller budget and a weaker, less independent position in the legal system.

According to the experts, the process of internationalisation could be hampered by a lack of systematic solutions that would address the growing problem of discrimination and xenophobia in Poland.

Another area addressed by the report but not mentioned in the bill is the ‘gender bias’ problem – the low number of women in science and higher education. The experts recommend a minimum of 40% participation of women in academic careers on all levels.

The challenges are many, as Winckler observed in Krakow: "Poland achieved micro-stability, has undertaken massive reforms, and I have seen it as an economy, experience admirably robust growth, even when the financial crisis happened.

“However, there is a need for a second transition of the economy now. Economists describe that situation, that you can no longer generate growth imitating others; now comes the challenge of triggering growth by developing and implementing frontier innovations.”

He said, Poland, despite past efforts, does not perform satisfactorily in innovation outcomes.

“You need an efficient higher education and science system, which is the nexus of knowledge creation, education, innovation and economic growth. The successful implementation of new reforms is a prerequisite to achieving the country’s goals. Designing and implementing these reforms successfully will require one or two decades of continuous and consistent efforts," he said.

The proposed new law, in part based on the report’s findings, is a step in the right direction. It represents a compromise between what should be done and what the very limited financial resources and the academic community in Poland, reluctant to any change, will allow.

And over this compromise hangs an aura of uncertainty as a consequence of a tense political situation. Though the new law has gone through an exemplary process of consultations, as the ruling conservative party has hinted, the bill may not be passed by the parliament.