Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem

Author: Dr. Andrew Tuson MAUA,
Study Tour Coordinator, Consultant and Interim Manager,
Association of University Administrators

The Association of University Administrators conducts Study Tours annually to investigate an overseas higher education system. A report is written of the team’s findings. We are grateful to the Leadership Foundation for their support of the forthcoming report.

This year, the Study Tour was in Poland and like previous tours it had the following objectives:

  • To undertake a fact finding mission and produce a report on the Polish higher education system which incorporates analysis of similarities and differences and considers ways of sharing best practise;
  • To enable participants to gain an international perspective on aspects of higher education decision making, policy and practise;
  • To allow tour participants the opportunity to challenge their existing notions about higher education and undertake research in a non-UK environment.

Poland is a hidden gem in Europe, with more history, science and culture to offer than is commonly realised. For example, Polish mathematicians originally broke the Enigma cipher, work that shortened the war and saved countless lives. (Bletchley Park extended their work to later versions of the cipher and made it work on an industrial scale).

Initial desk research revealed a number of interesting and distinctive features of Polish higher education. For example. Polish higher education has a large recent private higher education sector that has played an important role in widening participation. Poland’s system has also undergone vast change in recent years. The system has played a key role in supporting Poland’s transition towards democracy, entry to the European Union and alignment with the Bologna Process. As such the focus was on three overarching themes:

  • Quality assurance;
  • Student demand, including internationalisation and the rise of the Private Sector;
  • Governance, including the student voice.

Three cities were the focus during our visit on the 10-17 May 2015: Warsaw, Poznan and Krakow. We visited between a number of public (Warsaw University of Technology, Adam Mickelwicz University and the Jageillonian University) as well as private providers (TEB/WSB, Vistula, Collegium Da Vinci and Kozminski). We were also received by the Polish higher education ministry and the PKA (the Polish Accreditation Committee).

The report will likely be published by November, but for now here are some initial impressions.

  • There is a clear and pressing issue of demographics in the sector. Since 2006 the student population has declined from about 2 million to just under 1.5 million. The situation will bottom out in 2025.
  • The Polish QA body, the PKA, runs about 1000 reviews a year. Unlike the UK, external examiners are not used by HEIs; rather external academics look at samples of work as part of the PKA review process.
  • Internationalisation is a recent consideration (there are only about 45,000 non-Polish students in the system), and the drivers appear to be not as commercial as would be the case in the publically funded UK HEIs. There are a lot of students from the Former Soviet Union in Polish universities (Ukraine and Belarus account for half of their non-Polish students).
  • The democratisation of public university governance with key officers (e.g. Rector) being elected; in the communist era the post-holders were appointed. Students are required to be represented in key governance committees including some that make financial decisions, by law. This applies in both private and public universities.

From a leadership perspective, it is remarkable how Polish higher education has responded to so much change. It had to expand rapidly, introduce and regulate a large private sector and upgrade its infrastructure. How Poland builds its capacity to respond to future challenges will be of interest going forward.

For more information on the team and where we visited. Please read our tour blog which can be found at auapoland2015.blogspot.co.uk.

Our next Study Tour will take place in the Netherlands on Tuesday 10 – Friday 13 November 2015. To find our more please visit AUA’s website www.aua.ac.uk.