Ambitious universities are testing a federation model
One may ask why Norway and Sweden pay their students to be educated as doctors at Polish medical schools or why German firms happily employ engineers educated at Polish universities of technology. The answer is simple: graduates of universities in Poland receive a solid education at a good European level. And yet, in general, Polish universities are not well known internationally and they lag behind Western institutions in international university rankings.
University rectors realise this and, understandably, get frustrated about their unsatisfactory international standing. But they also understand that to improve their situation they must act.
The new law on higher education may offer them some help. In 2018 it introduced the “Excellence Initiative – Research University” or IDUB (Inicjatywa Doskonalosci – Uczelnia Badawcza in Polish), providing modest additional financing for the two dozen selected universities. The new law has also opened, however slightly, a door to consolidation of higher education institutions.
Poland, outside Warsaw, the country’s capital, has several cities with a concentration of higher education institutions. There has already been an ongoing discussion about whether, by joining forces, the institutions located in one city could improve their situation and ranking. It now looks as if higher education leaders in some cities are ready and willing to make the first step towards consolidation.
Gdansk, a Baltic port city, and the place where the Solidarity movement was born, made the first move. The three institutions, Gdansk University (UG), Gdansk University of Technology and the Medical University of Gdansk (MUG), established the Fahrenheit University Association, a transitional form marking the move from a loose cooperation to a single university.
The physicist Daniel Fahrenheit, inventor of the first instrument to measure temperature, was born in Gdansk. His name is known all over the world. The founders of the association hope that using the name of the famous scientist will make the envisioned university easily recognisable internationally.
Krzysztof Wilde, chairman of the Fahrenheit Association and rector of the Gdansk University of Technology, explains why a federation will be advantageous: “The combination of the capabilities of our universities and the competences of our scientists, educators and students can bring great results and tangible benefits not only for our universities, but also for Gdansk and the entire region.”
Wilde adds: “Consolidation brings a number of other benefits, including reduction of some operating costs. Another added value is the strength of connected universities. According to a study by the publisher Elsevier [prepared at the request of interested universities in Gdansk], our association will be at the forefront of universities in Poland in terms of scientific potential and area of influence.”
He failed to add, however, that the expected effect would be visible in rankings only after the three institutions become a bona fide single university.
Piotr Stepnowski, rector of the University of Gdansk, emphasises that even geography and urban planning favour consolidation: "The campuses of all three universities are located very close to each other, on the main street of the city. We also have many years of experience in scientifically successful cooperation, as evidenced by the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology run jointly by the UG and MUG.”
There are, however, challenges. Unlike in France, where the government lavished abundant funds to create the success of the University Paris-Saclay, universities in Poland may not expect financing of such magnitude to come their way soon.
Also, although a federation of universities that can be formed under the law of 2018 can facilitate cooperation between member universities, what it can do is limited. Institutions within the federation can jointly carry out research, run a PhD programme or commercialise the results of their joint research, but they will maintain their legal autonomy.
Jaroslaw Bosy, rector of the Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences, in an article in Forum Akademickie, raises an important issue, saying: “The present law limits federation to research and doctoral students while the primary nature of a university is teaching.”
Bosy also argues that “a federation that is limited to one city may not bring significant results”, and proposes “to add an international dimension to the federation by including our nearest neighbours, universities in Dresden, Germany and Prague”. International cooperation, in his opinion, would bring added value to the federation.
From Poznan and Krakow to Warsaw
So what is happening in other cities around Poland? Five institutions in the city of Poznan have been cooperating with each other for several years, but only recently decided to create a bona fide federation under the slogan “Unity and Synergy”.
Rectors of the five institutions appointed a council led by Andrzej Lesicki, former rector of Adam Mickiewicz University, with the task of integrating the local academic community and preparing it for the launch of the federation on 1 January 2023.
The academic community in the city of Krakow, with its centuries-old and dominating Jagiellonian University, is also deliberating about how to bring the main institutions in the city together to increase their potential and international prestige.
In Krakow they know that integration works. Several years ago, Jagiellonian University merged with Collegium Medicum, a local medical school. The merger quickly improved the position of the Jagiellonian University in the university rankings.
In Warsaw, talks on federation had been going on between the University of Warsaw and the Medical University of Warsaw and had reached an advanced stage.
In October 2018, the rectors of both universities signed a letter of intent about the creation of the Federation of the University of Warsaw and Medical University of Warsaw. In his address at the start of the academic year 2019-20, Marcin Palys, rector of the University of Warsaw, stressed: “Close cooperation with the Medical University will allow the University of Warsaw to dynamically develop research in medical and health sciences, which has been conducted in many university units for many years.”
In the Shanghai Ranking 2021 the University of Warsaw was in the 401-500 group and the Medical University of Warsaw was in the 701-800 group. The obvious question arises: why not join together to create a stronger academic structure with global visibility?
However, the new rector of the University of Warsaw, Alojzy Nowak, who was elected in June 2020, suspended the consolidation process, arguing that the university should build its own medical school from scratch.
What hinders consolidation?
The first steps towards federation show that integration of academic institutions is not an easy process. Lukasz Sulkowski, a professor at Jagiellonian University, singles out three elements that may block full integration:
• Power – Will integration mean that institutions will not have a rector and departments will be integrated?
• Fear of change – Will people fear losing their jobs?
• Culture – Institutions are often built around different value systems or different styles of management.
These universities’ efforts have recently gained the support of the Scientific Policy Committee, an advisory body of the Ministry of Education and Science. In a statement signed by its president, Marek Pawelczyk, the committee “recommends continuation and support of all kinds of such [consolidation] initiatives”.
The statement refers to the European Union initiative of so-called ‘European universities’ where several universities from different countries jointly run teaching programmes. It says: “It is European universities, especially in subsequent stages of their development, or other international networks, that can provide a good example of the integration of entities in many areas of their activity and the effective overcoming of various types of barriers.”
All these efforts show that while universities in Poland have their individual ambitions, they also understand the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching as well as the value of scale.
In today’s academic world, to be seen you need to be big. The more ambitious Polish universities do not want to settle for being good enough for Poland; they aim to be good on the European and global level.
However, for these dreams to come true, Polish rectors must make an enormous effort. That might mean conducting a more detailed study of the French experience.
A story published recently by The Economist on this states: “Like all mergers, forming Paris-Saclay entailed years of squabbling. Originally, Polytechnique, France’s top engineering grande école, was to join. But it feared losing its reputation for excellence if engulfed by a much bigger university.
“Researchers from all member institutions had to agree to publish under the new name in order to achieve scale and renown. As bickering continued, a national audit concluded in early 2017 that the entire merger project was ‘deadlocked’…”
Polish universities inevitably have this challenge ahead of them.
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.