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Poland: empty university degrees

Polish universities rank below most other European institutes for higher education.

Wroclaw university
University buildings in Wroclaw, Poland. (Gregorz Hawalej/Getty Images)

Photo caption: University buildings in Wroclaw, Poland. (Gregorz Hawalej/Getty Images) 

WARSAW, Poland — There is a revolution brewing in Polish higher education as universities grapple with wrenching demographic changes as well as trying to figure out how to train students for advanced degrees while producing top-flight research — something they currently do very badly.

Barbara Kudrycka, the minister of higher education, is shepherding a raft of legislation through parliament this fall, all while trying to focus on what universities and colleges will look like a decade from now.

“Poland will only make a civilizational leap when it joins the ranks of highly developed creative societies,” Kudrycka said.

Poland's universities have done one job very well — they have educated millions of people who were left out under communism, when the post-secondary system was reserved for a small elite. After the end of communism in 1989, many people already in the workforce suddenly needed degrees and skills in order to allow them to survive in a market economy.

As a result of a wave of entrepreneurial professors, many of whom had experience with the U.S. educational system, hundreds of private universities sprang up around the country — from the dozens now in Warsaw, the capital, to institutions in secondary cities and even in fairly small towns.

Poland now has one of the largest private university sectors in the world (comprising 325 institutions), which educates about one-third of the 2 million post-secondary students, a rate even higher than in the U.S. In all, about 40 percent of Poland's 19- to 24-year-olds are attending university, one of the highest rates in Europe.

But the rapid growth of private universities, and a similar expansion in public schools, has led to some acute problems, as underlined by a report prepared for Kudrycka by Ernst & Young, the consultancy, together with the Gdansk Institute for Market Economics, a private think tank.

The report found that the majority of private universities are very weak academically, relying on over-worked professors who often teach at two or three different institutions. They show up, give a lecture, then jump into their cars and head off to their next job, spending little time with students.

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More than half of all students also choose easy subjects like management, marketing, media studies or sociology, which do give them a degree, but very little hard knowledge useful in the job market. Those classes tend to be overcrowded, with several hundred students falling under the theoretical purview of a single professor.

“Employers are expecting … that ranks of open, innovative and entrepreneurial graduates possessing professional knowledge and abilities will appear on the job market,” said Andrzej Malinowski, head of the lobby group Confederation of Polish Employers.

Poland's weak universities will make it difficult for the country to shift from relying on cheap labor to competing on the basis of knowledge, which will demand a completely different university structure.

While many universities churn out graduates with few skills, there are also big problems with the biggest public institutions. Although only 25 of the 131 public universities get 84 percent of all research funding, their production tends to be focused on local issues, and is often published in Polish, which means it does not get read or used abroad.