Poland's Communist government used to claim that its society was particularly well educated. But not only was the average level of education very low compared with European standards, but its quality left much to be desired.
Well-established universities were able to maintain a great deal of autonomy under Communism and to keep contact with western academia as well as with teaching and research quality.
New, smaller universities tried to catch up, largely successfully. The problems were lack of funds and equipment, limited international relations and the limited impact on society of the small number of students they could recruit. The state was prepared to pay universities to train a small number of students, but often more than 90 per cent of candidates were prevented from entering popular departments. The quality of teaching was often high, but for many, education was of limited value because it had little impact on the job market, which was governed by the principle of zero-level unemployment.
After 1989, a change of attitude towards education, which came to be seen as necessary for social mobility and economic success, resulted in an increasing pressure on universities to accept more students. Public universities tried to accept as many candidates as possible without damaging teaching quality. Shortage of money meant they could not hire more staff or buy equipment. Private schools were established and soon outnumbered public ones. They are oriented towards business, management, economics and social sciences, and rely on tuition fees and market forces.
Public universities pressurised the government for more resources, which resulted in public schools being allowed to charge for "some educational services".
The Polish constitution guarantees free access to education but this compromise allowed public universities to open extramural, evening or weekend courses for fee-paying students.
In 1990-91, 112 higher education institutions taught 404,000 students, In 2000, there were 1.43 million students in Poland, enrolled at 113 public and 174 private schools. Private schools increased from 80 in 1995-96 with 90,000 students to 158 with 331,000 students in 1998-99 and to 174 schools in 2000. They teach about one-third of students in the country.
In the same period, the number of students in the public sector more than doubled, while teaching staff increased only slightly. The facilities also remained largely at the pre-1989 level.
Critics say that private schools create inequality, giving more chances to the rich and widening social divisions. The reality is not so simple. Tuition costs are usually not extremely high (about 10-15 per cent of average income). And studying at public universities has never been really free for many, especially those who do not live in towns where universities are located. The present system offers more equal opportunities.
There have also been attempts to introduce quality control. An amendment to the law has introduced an accreditation committee to evaluate teaching quality in public and private institutions. If a department fails to reach certain criteria, it may lose the right to offer degrees.
Private schools have created opportunities for underpaid academics. They can increase their income by accepting second jobs in such schools. Professorial staff are in demand. Private schools must have a certain number of professors to acquire academic rights.
Zdzislaw Mach is director of the Centre for European Studies, Jagiellonian University, Krakow.