Debate on the future of science and universities in Poland

We need to improve the level of research and quality of education, better adjust education to the needs of society, improve the funding of universities and internationalise them – assessed Minister of Science Lena Kolarska-Bobińska during the debate on the future of universities and science.

The meeting “What our universities and Polish science should become”, held last Wednesday at the Warsaw School of Economics in Warsaw, was attended by more than 300 people, including scientists, university rectors, academics. The debate was organized by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to give the opportunity to confront positions and proposals for changes in the Polish science and higher education system, voiced in recent years by the academic community.

According to Minister Kolarska-Bobińska, the biggest challenges facing the higher education system and science in Poland include: demographic decline changing the structure of education, youth unemployment, globalisation and competition for funds (European and international), as well as new ways of teaching that appear as consequence of the development of new technologies.

Among the challenges, minister also named raising the level of research conducted at universities, improving the quality of education and its better adjustment to social needs, improving organization, management and funding of universities as well as their internationalisation.

Participants of the meeting agreed that the obvious needs include increased spending on science and higher education as well as improving the quality of education and adjusting it to social needs.

Basic (statutory) funding should cover the basic costs of education and research. Today, costs are often shifted to the universities themselves – stressed Dr. Aneta Pieniądz from the University of Warsaw, representing the movement of Citizens of Science. “This means that today universities use the funds for algorithmic employees to finance infrastructure: technical workers, librarians, all those without whom we can not conduct research, but for whom in fact we do not have funds” – she said.

Statutory funding can not be replaced with grant system that allows to fund research, but it should not be used for patching the holes in scholarships for doctoral students or university deficits – she believes.

Prof. Tadeusz Więckowski of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland and Wroclaw University of Technology emphasised that the state budget should fund basic science, but research with practical potential should be developed with the participation of industry. Więckowski recalled a conversation with the head of supervisory board of a large company, who admitted that the use of middle-advanced technology and cheap labour in Poland were behind the success of his company. “But in 5-10 years it will end: staff salaries must go up because of the societal pressure. And if the Polish science does not give us advanced technology, we will falls out of the global market” – the professor recalled the words of the entrepreneur.

Prof. Jerzy Woźnicki of the Central Council of Higher Education noted that higher education has terrible perception among the public, while – along with the science sector – it should be the engine of development of the country. “The amendments, minor adjustments, just reassure the public in the belief that we can not afford such a step. They lead discourage the staff from new ideas, from change” – he assessed.

The conference participants spoke of the need to improve the quality of education. “We will not be able to do this if we do not introduce selection both among students and teaching staff. Deans should not be penalized for removing from the list of students those who are not very suitable. The recruitment process will never select only those who are interested in studying and who are capable. The first year should be regarded as a year of deferred recruitment” – said Prof. Woźnicki.

Prof. Jan Sowa from the Jagiellonian University suggested that demographic problems should be treated as an opportunity to ensure that a smaller number of students receiver better education. “To do this, we need to change the cost intensiveness ratios to offer good studies for 15 people. Why not? It would be very beneficial for improving quality, and positively affect the position of Polish universities in some rankings, which take into account the availability of teaching staff for students” – he said.

Prof. Sowa added that Polish universities suffer from tragic feudalism and hierarchy. In the academic world there are many steps of gradation, and the title of professor is awarded by the president. “This system translates into a fatal functioning of society” – he said.

He also warned that the consequence of the internationalisation of Polish science will be even greater brain drain. “If someone already has postdoctoral fellowship abroad, they will probably stay there” – he said.

According to Aneta Pieniądz, the risks of brain drain and deepening generation gap in many fields of science destabilize the situation of young scientists. “The changes in recent years resulted in a large group of scientists suffering the effects of the of precarisation process. It is difficult to do science, when you are employed for a few months. We must have a system that will stabilise the situation” – she said.

Among the pathologies of the science and higher education system, Dr. Pieniądz also mentioned “nepotism and lack of recruitment transparency”, as well as mass scale, which badly affects the quality of education. “It seems necessary to introduce entry threshold for studies” – she pointed out.

The manner in which the debate was conducted was criticized the Polish Humanities Crisis Committee. “We are very pleased with the minister’s statements about the need for change, we agree with this need, but the actual steps and the manner of public debate, dialoguing with the community, worries us” – told journalists representing this movement Aleksander Temkin.

The Polish Humanities Crisis Committee had demanded earlier from the Ministry the university funding independence from the number of students, reduction the share of grants in favour of stable funding, and increased spending on science. On behalf of the humanists, Temkin called for “the establishment of joint teams, which will negotiate and work on a few key issues for Polish science.” The teams would be composed of the representatives of the ministry, trade unions, the movement Citizens of Science and the Polish Humanities Crisis Committee, representatives of rectors and students.

PAP – Science and Scholarship in Poland

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