Optimism for new era of excellence for Polish universities

A new era opened for Poland’s public universities a year ago when they embarked on an ambitious project breaking with a decades-old tradition, both when it comes to the financing of state institutions and when it comes to the way they are managed.

This was possible thanks to the new law on higher education adopted in 2018 following four years of extensive dialogue between the government and the Polish academic community.

One of the key features introduced through the new law was the “Excellence Initiative – Research University” or IDUB (in Polish: Inicjatywa Doskonalosci – Uczelnia Badawcza) which aims to stimulate a number of the country’s best universities to become like their research-intensive counterparts in the West.

Under this programme an independent international team of experts, led by Professor Lauritz B Holm-Nielsen from Denmark, selected 10 of the most promising universities from a pool of 20 applicants. These are now receiving additional financing to stimulate research. The IDUB project will receive financing of PLN3.5 billion (close to US$1 billion).

Engagement and optimism

The Polish excellence initiative has met with some interest abroad. After visiting some universities in Poland last autumn, Alex Usher, a Canadian expert on higher education, wrote in his blog: “Poland is one of the most interesting higher education systems in the world right now.”

Rectors of the IDUB universities met at a Review Conference with the minister of science and higher education and members of the project’s international team (some in person, some online) in mid-September to report and discuss the steps and measures their universities had undertaken in the first year of the project.

After hearing reports from the universities, Sijbold Noorda, former president of the Magna Charta Observatory (the Netherlands), a member of the international team, remarked: “Instead of waiting and complaining, I see engagement and optimism.” He said he noted a general attitude of “we can do what we want to do”.

This may sound a bit strange in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, public sector higher education in Poland has, overall, not been hurt financially as much as universities in some other European countries, thanks to the compensation offered by the government to universities for some of the losses caused by the pandemic.

So far, the COVID-19 situation in the country is relatively stable and universities, though still relying mostly on a remote teaching format, are ready to resume at the beginning of October.

Under new management

A new impetus may well come from the rejuvenated management of public universities. The four-year term in office for rectors of public universities expired at the end of the academic year 2019-20. The statistics show that the newly elected rectors are seven years younger than those elected four years ago.

There are also three times as many women at the helm of Polish universities. Statistically, a new rector of a public higher education institution is 56.5 years old, while the number of women rectors has increased from five to 14.

This generation and gender change promises greater openness to new ideas.

This trend was apparent at the September conference, too. Speaking to representatives of the IDUB universities, Noorda said: “Embarking on a big task, I see young people, pro-rectors; people who have no complexes, people who have international contacts, people who want to achieve.”

Demonstrating this attitude, Arkadiusz Wojs, Rector of Wroclaw University of Science and Technology, stated: “Our ambition is to become a truly competitive European university.”

Speakers for universities stressed the importance of the additional funds (10% over the regular budget) provided, not so much due to the amount of the additional money but because of their discretionary nature.

“The 10% translates into 50% of all discretionary money, and will allow for demographic change, supporting junior researchers,” said Marek Kwiek of Adam Mickiewicz University.

Marek Pawelczyk of Silesian University of Technology added: “Eighty per cent of these funds will go towards human resources. We will support young researchers to publish in collaboration with foreign authors, engage students in research and attract students and researchers from abroad.”

Embedding research excellence

It became clear from the reports that universities had chosen two different approaches on how to implement the changes foreseen by the project. Some institutions have taken the opportunity to integrate the changes into their core structure while others have created separate administrative units for this purpose.

The international experts warned against having separate units. Ulrike Beisiegel, former president of the University of Göttingen in Germany, stressed that all members of the university need to be involved in the process. Laurits B Holm-Nielsen, president of Denmark’s Foundation of Nature and former rector of Aarhus University, added: “Institutions are already highly compartmentalised and thus lack efficiency.” Simon Gaskell, chair of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, added: “There is a need for engagement of the whole university community.”

Institutions in some Polish cities have been discussing a federation-type structure as a way to stimulate cooperation between universities that are based in one city. This idea is particularly popular in Gdansk where, according to Krzysztof Wilde, rector of Gdansk University of Technology, institutions already run joint seminars and organise many other academic activities together.

The international experts were sceptical about the idea of federations, advocating mergers instead (federation here represents a loose structure where each participating university maintains its autonomy).

According to Gaskell, “mergers offer benefits of economy of scale without losing agility”. Holms-Nielsen was more straightforward: “Why go for a federation when closer cooperation works. Merger is a better way.”

A sense of purpose

Both international experts and Polish rectors agreed that the key elements of the reform’s success depend on the opportunities it offers for young researchers and for an interdisciplinary approach to research.

Jaroslaw Bosy, rector of Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences, stressed: “University organisation must restructure itself, going from an organisation based on faculty to one based on purpose.”

Several participants spoke of the need for greater mobility of young researchers between universities in the country. Both Polish rectors and international experts called for more women to be attracted to a research career.

The reform that Polish universities have embarked upon is a long-range project that may take years. Przemyslaw Wiszniewski, rector of the University of Wroclaw, expressed the hope “that nobody tries to change the law [ie the current law on higher education]”.

Noorda, in his concluding remarks, underlined that “the energy level in universities must be kept up all the time”, but said “it will be critical that the political support stays at the same level”. He added: “Usually, when a new person comes in, he tries to implement his own plan, but here a long-term vision is needed.”

It was stressed many times that the reform of higher education is not just about creating better universities, encouraging better research or gaining a better position in the university rankings.

Universities which are introducing important changes into their organisation, particularly now during the COVID-19 pandemic, must show a greater responsibility towards their communities and must be perceived as making a positive contribution to their societies.

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 an associate at Perspektywy Education Foundation.