Academics say university evaluation was driven by politics

Polish scientists say that the much-trumpeted evaluation of the country’s universities, the results of which dropped at the end of July, is an exercise in clientelism that is contrary to the true purposes of academia.

Poland’s Ministry of Education and Science, headed by Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek, delivered the long-overdue results of the evaluation of Polish higher education institutions amidst fierce criticism over its fleeting criteria and charges that the evaluation is driven by the government’s increasingly partisan politics.

The evaluation, as carried out, was the fruit of political needs of the moment rather than an effort to assess universities’ performance, said Adam Leszczynski, a historian and sociologist at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw.

“What Czarnek did was skew the evaluation process to give scientists and faculties close to the government a high enough assessment to ensure that money and jobs in academia flow the right way,” Leszczynski told University World News in a phone interview.

Fleeting evaluation criteria

The minister himself has said that for the next evaluation, covering the period between 2022 and 2026, there will be brand new evaluation rules in place and that the current system is “too complicated”.

Leszczynski said the situation adds to confusion over fleeting evaluation criteria and fears of politicisation of the assessment process.

“Evaluation only makes sense if the process is well prepared beforehand by scientists themselves after as broad a consultation as possible, which takes years to do,” Leszczynski said.

Czarnek took over at the helm of the Ministry of Education and Science, a newly created division in the conservative government of the Law and Justice party (PiS), in 2020, after the dismissal of former minister Jaroslaw Gowin.

Gowin’s heritage in the new ministry was an evaluation process much in the spirit of Anglo-Saxon academia. It, too, had earned criticism for alleged bias towards publications in international journals, predominantly in English.

“Gowin’s reform was biased to give more credit to publications in international journals, which makes little sense when assessed studies are closely linked to, say, Polish literature,” Leszczynski added.

But the form the assessment took under Czarnek is equally, if not more, flawed, Leszczynski and a host of other Polish scientists have long argued.

Stepping in for the removed minister, Czarnek hollowed out – in Leszczynski’s words – Gowin’s “UK-like evaluation proposal”.

The new minister gradually overhauled the evaluation criteria through a series of administrative decisions.

While that allowed him to circumvent the parliament – which would have had to be involved had Czarnek opted for changing relevant laws enacted under Gowin – it also stripped the evaluation process of any pretence of being carried out in communication with the academic community.

According to Aleksander Temkin, who heads the Polish Humanities Crisis Committee, a non-partisan NGO opposing an overly market-like approach to sciences like sociology or philosophy, the evaluation’s initial neoliberal edge was blunted by Czarnek.

“Some changes could be seen as positive, but whatever legitimacy Czarnek’s changes could have had, they were compromised by his politically motivated approach to boosting universities or university departments that are close to his political allies,” Temkin said.

High academic stakes

Yet, wrote OKO Press, a news and analysis website that is highly critical of the PiS government, “the results of the evaluation are of fundamental importance for the survival of many scientific units – as well as for their prestige and environmental importance”.

The evaluation scrutinised every Polish university’s department according to five assessment categories, with scores ranging from A+ (the highest) to C (the lowest).

Budget subsidies will follow the categories, with the higher-categorised departments naturally receiving more funds than the C-rated ones. Results of the evaluation will also determine whether a department can award academic degrees.

According to Leszczynski, the entire evaluation exercise was to boost the standing of that “part of the Polish academia that is close to PiS”.

“Czarnek upended Gowin’s original proposal for evaluation in order to support scientists linked to PiS,” Leszczynski said.

That took place by giving points for publication in specific journals, the list being drafted by the ministry in line with the government’s ideological standing.

As the evaluation progressed, however, the ministry would inflate the weight of some journals. That enraged a number of academics, who said they would challenge the changes in courts, as reported by Poland’s economic and legal newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

As an official at the helm of such a controversial project, Czarnek spent surprisingly little time defending it in the media.

Responding to academics’ announcement that they would take legal steps against changes in the weighting of certain publications, Czarnek said that he “did not understand it”.

“That some universities will remain where they are while the position of others will improve appears to counter dreams of certain academic circles that they must not have any competition,” the minister told the government-owned broadcaster TVP Info in February.

Ideological priorities

An analysis carried out by AtMatic, an analytical company for publishing scientists, showed that the ministry under Czarnek inflated publications specialising in history and culture, and religion the most.

One particularly glaring example was the award of publications in The Sejm Review, a bi-monthly journal published by parliament and focusing on issues such as constitutional law, 140 points as of last December – a major increase from 100 points previously.

Following the first election victory of PiS in 2015, the entire editorial board of The Sejm Review was dismissed in early 2016. Among the authors publishing in the journal are Czarnek himself and other PiS-linked figures.

This reflects the government’s ideological priorities, such as “patriotic education” in schools, an idea criticised by many academics as thinly disguised lessons in nationalism.

A case in point is the ongoing debate in Poland about a high school coursebook titled History and the Present. Critics – among them the Warsaw University’s department of history – argue that, rather than a balanced view of Poland after World War Two, it delivers a right-wing version of it, which the government endorses heavily.