Future of Higher Education

Two figures in university education in Poland — one Polish, one British — discuss planned changes by the government aimed to improve Polish institutions’ standings in international rankings.
Close, but no cigar

Due to rapid globalisation, Polish universities are competing with institutions from all corners of the world. With pressure to respond to increasingly fierce competition, higher education systems are forced to improve or risk falling behind. Poland’s largest university and one of the most prestigious, the University of Warsaw, was ranked 319th on the US News Best Global Universities Ranking for 2017. However, neither this, nor any of the dozens of other universities in the country made the top 400 list for the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, or even the top 500 ranking by Times Higher Education.

In an effort to improve Poland’s status in the world of academia, the education ministry has introduced a number of changes, which it says will improve the quality of education and are a response to the rapidly changing economic and demographic situation in Poland. New rules regarding the allocation of resources and awarding grands have been implemented in an attempt to stabilise university finances. In addition, the student staff ratio will drop, and the minister in charge has said the universities should increase the number of teachers so that students have the best possible support from the faculty.

In order to gain insight into rankings and changes, Poland Today spoke to Professor Maciej Duszczyk, Vice-Rector for Research and International Relations at the University of Warsaw. His research focuses on migration policy in Poland and social policy.

What impact do world rankings have on the standings of Polish universities compared with counterparts overseas?

DUSZCZYK: Of course, for universities like the University of Warsaw, the different rankings are very important. But I often question the method and factors which determine the ranking. Every day I see 20-25 different rankings from various enterprises, but I decided to only focus on three – the Shanghai Ranking, Times Higher Education, and US News – because these rankings are the most influential in the academic world. However, I have some problems with the methodology. For example, with the Shanghai ranking, universities can improve their ranking by hiring Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Is it difficult to accurately assess a university and measure the quality of education?

Absolutely. That’s why we don’t refer to just one ranking. Most of these rankings are based on publications, but if a Polish historian for example, publishes only in Polish and no one outside of Poland is interested in Polish history, it is difficult to be internationally recognized unless you are a physician or other field of study. It’s easier for researchers in English-speaking countries like the US, Australia or the UK to publish their work. That’s why I decided to focus on three rankings because they use different methodologies.

Do you support the plan proposed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education?

I am a member of a committee for the ministry and of course I try to do my best to improve our system, but I’m only one of 50 people who are advisors to the prime minister, but I think the idea is good because they want to establish strong research universities which can compete with big universities not only from the European Union but also from China, India and other parts of the world.

What are the challenges the higher educational system is facing is the present day and age?

We are currently experiencing a very big demographic change which is why we are in the next stage of our development in the higher education system. We should not base our system only on the number of students as was previously done. Universities were only interested in improving their offer to recruit more students, but they should build their future on the quality of the studies. The Education Ministry proposed a new model of financing universities and it’s a very good step. The plan also decreases the student-to-staff radio. It’s 13 to 1 right now. Next year, we will base our recruitment process not on the number of students, but focus on the quality of those students.

Do you expect to see a change in the status of Polish universities in the rankings?

I’m a little optimistic because I think the proposal by the ministry will improve the higher education system in Poland. I think we also need to ask people in academia about solutions, and I hope to have different conferences all over Poland about different aspects of higher education. The ministry is focusing on research excellence, and to improve the quality of study. I’m optimistic, I’m not 100 percent sure of course, but I’m looking forward to this process and the final step will bring positive change to Polish universities.

Professor Maciej Duszczyk, ViceRector for Research and International Relations at the University of War – saw. His research focuses on migration policy in Poland and social policy.

‘We need to think whether standing in front of a class for hours doing a formal lecture is the best way of teaching these days.’

Have you seen a change or improvements in the higher educational system?

LONGHURST: Not enough. I think they have an idea where they have to be but the bureaucracy and the ideas are old. Poles are quite entrepreneurial – they have businesses and small enterprises, but in academia there aren’t many academic entrepreneurs. They are held back by an old-fashioned academic culture which is very hierarchical and the ministry isn’t being dynamic and open enough to change. There’s a lack of profound revolution and not enough evolution. They’re not responsive enough to these global opportunities and they’re not realistic about demographic changes which means the number of Polish students is rapidly diminishing and their parents see more value in paying for a UK education, for example.

It has been said that classes in Poland focus on theory rather than practical skills and when students enter the workforce, they’re unprepared. Is there any truth to this?

This is another way academia is not being responsive enough to changing circumstances and students’ demands, which is often the case in many countries. I’ve done a lot of work for the EU in terms of advising universities about how to improve their curriculum, how to make teaching methods more innovative, how to bring elements of employability into curriculum so that students take up jobs when they leave and have critical and analytical skills. We need to think whether standing in front of a class for two hours doing a formal lecture is the best way of teaching these days.

What about teaching in the UK?

It’s more like the American model – student-centered learning. I’d say in terms of teaching methodology, assessment and critical thinking, Poland is a good 10-15 years behind. People like me and other colleagues from the Anglo-Saxon world are trying to bring those elements in, but we often hit a brick wall – not at the institutional level, but at the ministerial level because they’re so prescriptive upon what universities can do. They micro-manage academia rather than leaving professors to be innovative in their course design and their methods. And that is a big difference with higher education in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Why don’t Polish professors try to implement these Western teaching methods?

I think the vast majority of academics are simply too busy with very diverse drags on their time and energy; they have so many teaching hours, their salaries are so low – even with a Ph.D. They have so many demands on their time to do research and administration so they often just don’t have the physical time to reflect and think, ‘what’s the optimal way of teaching my course? How can I best assess my students to benefit them?’

What is a potential solution to this problem?

We need a dose of academic entrepreneurship. We need the ministry to give academics and heads of universities more freedom because they’re the experts in academia. They know what works but we need to think more internationally and implement student-centered learning.

What are your other concerns regarding the students?

Some students come in with a sense of entitlement – they expect to pass. They genuinely believe they won’t fail. Students have gained more territory and they see themselves as clients too much and they expect to pass. But this might be a bigger issue in other countries as well, including the UK.

The ministry proposed a decrease in student-to-professor ratio. Do you think this will improve the quality of education?

In theory, yes, but it will require that the professors adjust their teaching methods, assessment methods and attitudes but it’s hard to encourage Polish academics to think differently. Also, their salaries are so small that they’re not incentivised to take on extra work when they can be doing something else and earning more money. Professors need to be paid more, have better contracts and only then can we really start thinking about investing in student-centred learning.

Universities all over the world are moving towards internationalisation. Is Poland on board?

In Poland, universities see it as a choice. But internationalising your institution, your offer, your mission, is not a choice. It’s really sink or swim and it’s not just about having more classes in English – it’s about having an open approach, it’s about encouraging more student and staff mobility, it’s about engaging in international projects and hiring non-Polish staff. Embracing internationalisation is the key – it’s not just a buzzword.

Dr. Kerry Longhurst is a professor at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw. She has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Birmingham and an MSc in strategic studies from the University of Wales. She completed an Advanced Marie Curie Fellowship in Paris, and was a senior lecturer at the European Research Institute at the University of Birmingham. The British-native has been living in Poland for six years.

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Written by: Monica Zielinski

Monica Zielinski is Poland Today's online editor and social media manager. She is a Polish-American journalist who also works on international projects headed under Rzeczpospolita. After earning a journalism degree from Southern Connecticut State University in the US, she moved to Warsaw to reconnect with her Polish roots and work in her field.