Stimulating a competitive era for Poland’s universities?

After nearly four years of dialogue between the government and Poland’s academic community and a year after the introduction of the new law on higher education, a decisive moment has arrived: the Polish ‘Excellence Initiative – Research University’ has started.

At the arcades of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, the names of the 10 universities selected to receive additional funding for research for a period of seven years were announced this week.

It may seem a modest move at first, but in reality it is a break with a decades-old tradition, both when it comes to financing state institutions as well as their management and it opens a new era for Poland’s universities.

The stated purpose of the Excellence Initiative IDUB (in Polish: Inicjatywa Doskonalosci–Uczelnia Badawcza) is to stimulate a small number of Poland’s best universities to become more like their research-intensive counterparts in the West.

Under this programme 20 higher education institutions were invited to apply. Universities were asked to prepare a report containing analysis of their strengths and weaknesses but also to outline their plans for the future.

International evaluation

The task of evaluation of the reports and the selection of the 10 best out of the group of 20 was left entirely to an international team of experts led by Professor Lauritz B Holm-Nielsen from Denmark.

The 15-strong team consisted of professors from the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Belgium, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. Among them were former university presidents, rectors or vice-rectors of such European institutions as the University of Göttingen, Aarhus University, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Southampton and the University of Manchester.

Members of the international team were selected in a way that ensured that different disciplines were represented.

Professor Holm-Nielsen is a co-author of the 2017 Poland’s Higher Education and Science System report prepared for the European Commission programme Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility.

In their reports applying for research excellence status, universities presented a SWOT analysis of their academic potential and their plans on how to achieve the programme’s set targets in the future. Each of the applying universities was asked to indicate five research areas where they wanted to compete with the best in the world.

“It has not been easy an easy task,” said Arkadiusz Mezyk, rector of the Silesian University of Technology. “Scientists from different university departments argued, in a heated debate, in favour of their discipline, afraid that if left out of the project, it would not get sufficient financing.”

The international team assessed the plans proposed by the 20 universities and their feasibility using the five specific criteria for this programme:

  • • Increasing the global impact of the university’s research.

  • • Enhancing research collaboration with research institutions of high international reputation.

  • • Improving the quality of education and research for students and those doing PhDs.

  • • Improving professional staff development, especially for young scientists.

  • • Improving the quality of university governance and management.

The international experts interviewed the teams who prepared the reports in order to have a better understanding of the potential represented by each.

Professor Holm-Nielsen, chair of the international team, stressed that “the panel has worked fully independently and the ministry has respected the arms-length principle and provided objective, excellent statistical and other materials”.

This was confirmed by Jaroslaw Gowin, deputy prime minister and minister of science and higher education. Gowin said that he trusted the judgment of the international experts and followed their recommendations 100% regarding the selection of the 10 universities to receive the additional funding, which amounts to 10% more than regular budget allocations.

The 10 selected universities

Five comprehensive universities, four universities of technology and one medical university were selected.

These were (listed in order of the scores given by the international team): University of Warsaw, Gdansk University of Technology, AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, Warsaw University of Technology, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Medical University of Gdansk, Silesian University of Technology, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun and the University of Wroclaw.

Both Minister Gowin and Professor Holm-Nielsen made it very clear that this is only the beginning; it takes a very long time to change traditions and embedded, institutionalised practices. Under the new law, universities are free to change, to do away with the strict faculty or department splits and organise excellence clusters or interdisciplinary units. Yet, so far very few institutions have chosen this path.

As Professor Carl Johan Sundberg of Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden said, the 10% over the budget is a lot of money, especially given this is not ring-fenced money. Universities are free to use it in any way they choose.

He added that there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for the programme from the winning Polish universities. The question, however, was whether they would have the guts to promote new ideas and spend the extra money on the most promising projects.

Gowin also underlined that success would, to a large extent, depend on strong university leadership. The new law has given rectors far more power than they have enjoyed in the past. It is the rector, not faculties or departments, who makes the most important decisions with regard to university finances.

Worth noting was Gowin’s strong emphasis on Europe. He said that, as in the past, universities would provide a guarantee of the development of Europe in the future. According to Gowin, internationalisation is part of the university’s mission and at the same time a prime condition for its development.

Though only 10 of the 20 institutions were selected to receive the extra 10%, the remaining 10 are not losers either. They will still be getting 2% additional funding.

Monitoring and assessment

The 10 universities selected to participate in the Excellence Initiative will be monitored and assessed. Mid-term assessment will take place in 2023 and a final assessment will be conducted in 2026.

The financing will continue after this date, however, but not for all 10 institutions. At least two of them, which are lowest in the ranking, will be siphoned off. In 2026 they will be replaced in the next edition of the Excellence Initiative by the best institutions that have not been financed in the present Excellence Initiative.

The idea behind this ‘tournament’ mechanism is to motivate rectors and academic staff to work harder, but also to stimulate a process of consolidation and mergers as the present higher education system in Poland is deemed to be far too segmented.

Professor Marcin Moniuszko, vice-rector of the Medical University of Bialystok, one of the best institutions among those that did not make it into the top 10, said: “The bigger and stronger research structures will have a better chance to break through in the next Excellence Initiative project.”

Dr Sijbolt Noorda, chair of the Magna Charta Observatory and former president of the University of Amsterdam and member of the international team, talking at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, said: “Implementation of the ambitious plans drawn up by Poland’s universities will not be easy, but universities who do so successfully will be in a position to compete with the best academic centres in Europe and in the world.”

Waldemar Siwinski is president of the Perspektywy Education Foundation, Poland, and vice-president of the IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence. Kazimierz Bilanow is associate at Perspektywy Education Foundation.