Poland: empty university degrees

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.

As a result, the country's two largest and most prestigious universities, Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the University of Warsaw, rank 133rd and 134th respectively in the ranking and visibility of research among 171 European universities. The two are also the only Polish institutions to find a place in the influential Shanghai ranking of universities, although both place below 400 globally.

“The state of research is not good,” finds the report.

Added to the quality problems, Polish universities are also facing a quantity problem. The number of students is expected to drop by about a quarter as Poland's current demographic boom — the result of baby-making during the gray years of late communism — turns into a bust as Poland's low birth rate begins to bite.

On top of that, there is less and less demand to top up the education credentials of older Poles, as those who needed degrees have already earned them.

“Demographic issues will mean big changes for Polish universities,” said Krzysztof Rybinski, an economist formerly with Ernst & Young. Weaker private schools will likely be forced to close, or they will have to consolidate with stronger partners.

The report calls for dramatic changes to the education system, which are now being analyzed by Kudrycka. Some of the proposals include the creation of U.S.-style colleges that will grant four-year bachelor's degrees, a level of post-secondary education currently unknown in Poland, as well as institutions that will give practical professional training. At the top of the new structure would come top-flight research universities.

Kudrycka has scotched proposals to introduce universal tuition fees, something that goes against the current Polish constitution, which guarantees a free education to all.

“I believe that in the next five years, Polish schools will find themselves in the top 50 of European institutions,” Kudrycka said.