Discover the beauty around you

 By Janusz Mucha, AGH University of Science and Technology, Krakow

There are many faces of the current crisis of academic systems. There are many points of view on the social functions of research and higher education. It is not possible to cover here all of these faces, aspects and points of view even in one country — in this case, Poland. Moreover, it is difficult to collect all relevant “hard data” on short notice. Therefore, what follows, is a comment based on my participant observation of the system as professor of sociology (but not as sociologist of higher education) who, since the beginnings of economic transformation (from the centrally planned and managed economy to market economy) and political transformation (from state-socialist one-party system to liberal parliamentary democracy), has worked in three public universities and in two private institutions of higher education. Now, I work in one of the largest and best public technical universities in Poland and simultaneously in a medium-sized private college about 90 kilometers from my home town. Sociology is marginal in both institutions (although in the university its role seems to be gradually increasing), so I will not devote space to the analysis of these schools.  In this paper, “college” will mean any institution of higher education, “student” will mean college student, and ”social sciences” will include humanities, but also economics and law.

In the academic year 1990/91, there were 403,000 students in Poland, the overwhelming majority in about 100 public colleges. In the academic year 2006/07, there were 1,940,000 students (nearly five times as many). More than 470,000 of them are in private colleges. In 2007/08, more than 56% of students were female. In 1991 there were two private colleges, while in 2006/07 there were nearly 320 of them. Students in private colleges pay tuition, unlike the full-time “regular” students in about 130 public colleges.  Public colleges take in weekend (extra-mural) students who pay tuition as well, something controversial from the point of view of the state Constitution. In public colleges, the graduates receive identical diplomas regardless of the ways they study. Extramural students usually come from underprivileged social classes (unlike the regular students in public colleges). They take 60% of the number of “contact hours” of instruction in comparison with the full time students. In theory the extramural students – the majority in full-time jobs — study more at home. There is no doubt that in nearly all fields the quality of this fee-paying extramural education is lower (or even much lower) than the quality of regular studies in public colleges. Most private college offer sociology at the BA level, most public colleges offer sociology at BA and MA levels.

Between 1989 and 2010, the number of college teachers increased, but insignificantly. In 2009 there were 81,000 college teachers in 130 public colleges and 17,000 in 320 private colleges with the overwhelming majority of the latter either retired from public colleges or hold a “first job” there. In many social sciences it is usual for teachers to have two or more full-time jobs. This has consequences for the time they can devote to research and other academic activities. On the other hand, college teachers, in particular senior professors — those with “habilitation degree” or “second doctorate” — are in short supply especially as a school must employ certain number of full-time senior and junior professors (with PhD) before it can legally open its doors in any particular field.  The fact that many teachers are forced  — by their low salaries and the way the system operates — to take a second job seems to be a major problem for the quality of education and research in the social sciences. This is not a major factor in natural sciences and engineering.

It is hard to compare different ways societies finance research and higher education. However, in the European Union, to which Poland was accepted in 2004, 1,2% of the GNP goes to higher education from national budget.  In Poland, where private funding is virtually non-existent, about .88%  of GNP goes to higher education, and the percentage has fallen systematically since 1995. On the other hand, private colleges get more and more public money for their various activities and student stipends, which has meant an even steeper decline in funding per student in public higher education. Only about 50% of the budget of public colleges is covered by the state so that these schools must somehow find the remaining 50%. They do this in a number of ways, the most important being the “commercial” fee-paying education. Public schools enter the same educational market in which private colleges operate. One should note, however, first that the quality of education and prestige of public schools is on average much higher (but to graduate is more difficult) and, second, the demographic cycle has meant decreasing cohorts of college age youth which makes competition tougher. The number of high-school students and graduates is decreasing so that, at least for the next decade, there will be declining numbers applying for higher education.

The number of students in 2007-8 was 0.2% lower than the previous year. The largest number of freshmen in 2007-8 began to study economic sciences and administration (many more than the previous year) and they constituted more than 23% of all Polish freshmen. The number of freshmen in social sciences, computer sciences, engineering, on the other hand, was smaller than one year before. The number of regular full-time students decreased a little and the number of extramural students increased a little. There are more students taking additional “post-diploma” (not “postgraduate”) courses after graduation. In these special college “post-diploma” courses, more than 68% of students are female.  The number of doctoral students increased, but only by 3%. It should be added, that the doctoral students very rarely receive any kind of scholarship, so they have to get an outside job, if their families do not support them.

Until 1989, about 7% of Polish adult population had college education, now, after the twenty-year long educational boom, the proportion is about 20%, but it is still much lower than in Western post-industrial countries. Poles are proud of the educational boom of the 1990s and the first five years of the 21st century and they believe that their scholars and scientists, especially theoreticians, belong to the best in the world.  For decades the university “full professor” has been the most prestigious occupation in Poland. However, various ranking lists of world universities do not support this self-confidence. One of these lists, the “Shanghai List” of 2009 has only two Polish universities, ranked 303 and 401 in the world, and 126 and 170 in Europe. There are quite a few foreign student at Polish colleges, with numbers increasing every year.  In 2007/08 we had, all together, nearly 17,000 foreign students, 2,000 more than the previous year. While it is not always clear who counts as a foreign student in Poland, still the number is less than 1% of the total.

According to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, there are too many social sciences students and too few students of the natural sciences and engineering. However, actually there are no well paying job offers for graduates of these disciplines. Modern industry in Poland means actually local branches of global companies which have their technologically advanced laboratories in other countries and rarely employ Polish specialists. Local Polish companies increase their profit without investing in high-tech. Many graduates of engineering take jobs as office workers, or better paying jobs which do not require their qualifications. There are special stipends for students who wish to study what the government considers to be very important from the point of view of modernization of the country, but there are not enough candidates for these stipends. The potential candidates clearly realize that the chances of getting a well paying and interesting job in Poland are limited. The university system is underinvested and there is a shortage of modern, expensive equipment, necessary for research and teaching in natural sciences and engineering. In the social sciences, the authorities think it sufficient to have libraries or access to the Internet plus time and interest in doing research. As mentioned before state investment in higher education has declined as a percentage of the GNP.

That does not mean that the state authorities, parliamentary politicians, academic teachers are pleased with the situation. Everybody understands that, if Poland is to catch up with the modern Western-style (even East Asian) postindustrial and global economy, the academic system must be changed. However, different groups have different interests and values. This is obviously not specific to Poland. For some, “pure” or “basic” research is important, whereas for others — including local political authorities but also the European Union and its Framework Program, with its very rich but highly bureaucratized European grant system – practical application is important. For some, in social sciences, but not only in them, what is important is the analysis of local and national culture and structural problems (actually, local natural environment as well), whereas for others what is important is that academics publish in English (other foreign languages do not count), abroad, and in ISI periodicals and not in edited collections. The topics, originality, the way of doing the analysis and of presentation of the findings are different if one writes for international audience than if one writes for the local audience. Publishing only abroad and in periodicals that are hardly available in Polish libraries can give one, perhaps, prestige abroad, but will not contribute to one’s prestige at home.

It is interesting, however, that the publication of any finding anywhere is much less important for the evaluation of individual scholars and their institution than their participation in European funded research grants, even if their findings are never published. For instance, for publication of one article in a Polish (and any non-English language) front-line academic journal one can get a maximum of 6 points (English language abroad – maximum 24 points), for an authored book in Polish – 12 points (in English – 24 points), for being the editor of a collection in non-English language – 3 points (in English – 5 points), but for participation (!!!) in any European Framework Program grant – 150 points (the equivalent of twelve authored books in Polish).

It is not possible to present here a balanced view but instead I would like to stress what I think is important for improving the situation. A significant part of the problem lies, however, not within the system of higher education but elsewhere. And unlike the politicians, I do not believe in a fast solution of problems that have been with us for decades.

There is no doubt, in my opinion, that high-school students are not less intelligent and capable now than they were fifty years ago, but the kind of knowledge necessary in higher education is less and less taught in high-schools. For instance, the final high-school exam system, during last twenty five years, did not include mathematics – although in the Spring of 2010 the situation will change. At the same time, political authorities and college authorities complain that there is too small a number of well qualified candidates for natural sciences and engineering studies.

Elementary and high-school-teacher salaries are very low just as academic teachers’ salaries are too. For decades, there has been a “negative selection” for entering teaching. Fortunately, being an academic at least gives one prestige. However, much higher salaries for professors so that they need only be employed in one job would probably improve the situation, even if it caused problems in other realms, e.g. many private colleges would collapse.

Modern high-tech industry and local capital are very important for investment in research and higher education but as mentioned above this source of funding is rare. However, the political authorities, when giving licenses to global companies for their operations in Poland, could require that some of their research units be located here. The manner of taxing global and local businesses could also be a significant factor. More grant money, focused not only on application but also on “basic research” would obviously help.

As regards sociology, since the beginning of the 1990s, the situation has changed but continues to display an ambivalence that had also marked the socialist. The new ambivalence is as follows.  On the one hand, there is much more freedom, and there are nearly no “taboo topics.” Due to the Internet, it is much easier to get some new literature free of charge. The new research grant system (which obviously has its own disadvantages) is much better than the former one. There are a lot of high-school graduates who want to study sociology and even pay for it. As I said before, the educational boom has largely affected the social sciences. This means more opportunities for social scientists to earn money, whether in teaching extramural students in public colleges and teaching in private colleges. However, spending time teaching means no time for research. And teaching itself became less rewarding than before since an increasing number of fee-paying students are of the opinion that because they pay for their education they don’t have to work as hard. They can always go to a less demanding school and – until now – most of the employers do not distinguish between diplomas from better as opposed to worse schools. In addition, colleges are interested in keeping students, so teachers who demand “too much” are often discouraged, in a more or less subtle way.

No summary is possible but let me offer a few end notes. For at least one year the ministry of higher education has been presenting new, tentative proposals to improve the situation. Until now, the ministry is politically too weak to be able to break the resistance of vested interests and implement its ever-changing ideas. On the other hand, the commercialization of research — nearly only those grant proposals which promise immediate commercial gratification are considered worthy of funding – has been introduced quietly and effectively at the same time that an increasing proportion of higher education is fee-paying. Moreover, the criteria of evaluation of the social sciences are exactly the same as for the natural sciences and technology.  That, in the opinion of authorities, will lead to modernization, helping Poland to “catch up” with the “developed world.”


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