Beyond pickled cucumber

October 16, 1998

George Blazyca describes how Poland is using student loans in its switch to a modern market economy

Poland is best known for its pickled cucumber and vodka but it should be known as the home of thick fudge.

The country is launching student loans for the first time. Yet, according to the constitution, higher education is free and charges are permitted only for "educational ancillary services".

It is no surprise that fees have crept in as public institutions have sought survival by devising full-cost courses to meet the 1990s boom in job-relevant higher education and training.

Polish students welcome loans. They are worth about 40 per cent of average wages, but must be repaid quickly, over no more than twice the loan period. There is an added inducement: get top marks and the loan is waived. It is all very different from pre-1989. But with communism's collapse, education had to change if Poland was to modernise the economy.

The task was immense. Whereas in developed Western countries the ratio of services and industry's share of the gross domestic product is typically about 70:30, in Poland and other planned economies it was 30:70. "Fordism on steroids" is how Francis Fukuyama once put it.

The industrial sector was hugely overblown. The economy had a producer bias to the neglect of the consumer. It was an economy with hardly any marketed services (financial, leisure) and public services decaying visibly.

Education and training had a crucial role to play. Not that the old system lacked educational achievement, but it was geared to the demands of "production for the sake of production", and not to meet human needs or desires. It produced engineers, rocket scientists and Russian speakers, but few accountants, marketing specialists or other modern language experts.

An economic revolution was in prospect with structural changes that would affect millions. Education demand shifted and, with a short lag, supply responded. Banking, finance, accounting, marketing, management and English became the vogue.

"Enterprise" began to figure large with masters of business administration programmes and professional courses mushrooming. Psychology, management, finance and English are the subjects in big demand in 1998-99. Some star attractions include the acting academy in Krakow with 25 students for every place on offer, hotel and tourism studies in Sopot, Gdansk and Gdynia (20:1).

At the other end of the spectrum physics and engineering do not do so well. For the first time the prestigious University of Warsaw abandoned its traditional physics entrance exam this year. Russian, of course, is not so popular and Romanian in Poznan had only five applicants for 15 places.

Initially it seemed that the supply side in Poland was poorly equipped to respond to the challenge of an emerging market economy. Universities were under-funded and staff were under pressure. Some university teachers had marketable skills and took a lucrative leap into the private sector on a full or part-time basis, but for others life was uncertain.

A quite new development was the emergence of a small, private higher education sector. By 1997 there were 137 private university-level institutions, many of them working with Western partners, catering for 16 per cent of all students. The state system, in turn, expanded its course portfolio offering full-cost evening and weekend studies, such that in many Polish state institutions the lights hardly ever go out.

There was an explosion in part-time studies. The participation rate doubled. State support, however, stood rigidly still. Students began to dip into their pockets.

Western aid was modest. PHARE provided start-up funds for transformation and the United Kingdom's Know How Fund has run bilateral programmes.

Curriculum development got off to an energetic start and a rich web of international educational partnerships has replaced the previous stiff formal exchange sponsored by a Stalinist-style Academy of Sciences.

These days it is hard to find a UK institution that has no East European link. Poland is a young society going through a demographic explosion in the 17 to 19-year-old age bracket, so young people exert greatest pressure on the higher education system.

As the country dashes towards modernity (and it is a dash, with annual GDP growth rates of almost 7 per cent per annum although bound to be dented by the Russian crisis) some gaps will become more exposed:

* Poland has little if any distance learning although this is a big country with a scattered population (agriculture accounts for about 28 per cent of jobs)

* there is no genuinely UK-style Open University

* HE/FE partnerships are few

* Non-traditional students are not well catered for

* Business-education partnerships are underdeveloped.

Economic restructuring has proceeded fastest in the Warsaw, Poznan, Krakow and Wroclaw areas. Industrial restructuring is beginning on an enormous scale like in the coal and steel sectors in Katowice, where 10 per cent of the population live (and one solitary MBA programme exists).

The World Bank and the European Union promise support for retraining. In other regions science clusters may be beginning to appear. And Poland's imminent Nato membership has stimulated demand for English language skills in the armed forces.

As long as the economy is growing fast so will education and training demand and the scope for international partnerships will be undiminished.

George Blazyca is professor at the centre for contemporary European studies at the University of Paisley.

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