Emigres seek Polish recognition

January 2, 1998

Poland is expected shortly to recognise degrees from the Polish University in Exile (PUNO), the London-based higher education institution for Polish emigres founded after the war.

A law under debate in Poland will recognise PUNO qualifications issued up to June 1990. The cut-off date is not arbitrary. Immediately after the second world war, a number of ad hoc arrangements were set up to allow Poles whose education had been interrupted to serve in the British armed forces to complete their education.

As part of the plans for resettling Poles who did not wish to return to their newly Communist homeland, temporary Polish colleges were attached to a number of British universities. These were later phased out and the Polish community in Britain, which numbered about 140,000, decided to establish its own university to be run on traditional Polish academic lines and employing Polish academics.

PUNO opened in September 1952 and received its founding charter in December from the Polish government-in-exile, which had been based in London since 1940, but was no longer recognised by any major world power.

To many of the millions of the world Polish diaspora, the London Polish government was still the only legitimate successor of the government, which had been forced to flee Poland after the Nazi invasion in 1939.

When Communist rule in Poland ended in 1989 and it became clear that the moribund Soviet Union was not going to intervene to re-establish communism in Poland by force, the London Polish government resolved to wind up its activities.

Ryszard Kaciorowski, the last Polish president-in-exile, made a formal visit to Warsaw and handed over the seals of office and insignia, which their predecessors of 1939 had taken with them when they fled, to Poland's new leaders.

The government could claim to be the legitimate heir of the pre-war government. But the status of PUNO, which was derived from the government-in-exile, was now cast into a legal limbo.

PUNO's role had changed over the years. It issued only a handful of first degrees a year, mainly to new arrivals from Poland who had had to leave part-way through their studies. It also conferred higher degrees on graduates of British, European or American universities who, in addition to a professional qualification, had taken a PUNO degree in Polish history or literature, for example.

By 1989, PUNO had become mainly an adult educational college and cultural centre, organising open lectures on Polish culture, history and tradition.

In 1990, Poland passed a law recognising both private and state universities but forgot about Polish private universities abroad. The new higher education bill seeks to rectify this.

In the meantime, the status of PUNO graduates is problematic. Since the Polish government accepts its status as legitimate heir of the London government-in-exile, it logically should accept PUNO degrees.

Accordingly, the bill before parliament recognises PUNO degrees up to the time that the final president-in-exile handed back his seals of office. The few PUNO graduates since that date will probably still be able to get their degrees validated, but will have to apply individually to a university in Poland.

Jan Drewnowski, rector of PUNO, says links with the academic community in Poland are growing. Many academics from Poland give occasional lectures and these ties could be formalised in some kind of distance-learning scheme.

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