The political changes in eastern Europe that began in 1989, and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, offered chances for universities in the region to establish closer relations with academic institutions in the West, and to introduce internal reforms necessary to modernise higher education and research. Market economy and democratisation brought new opportunities but also new concerns.
Fortunately, Polish universities under communism were able to retain some freedom and were allowed to maintain limited contacts with the world academic community. Nevertheless, Polish academics were aware of political and financial restrictions imposed on them and suffered from frustration and the feeling of inferiority vis-a-vis their colleagues in the West. Developments in the country and in the region meant, first of all, democratisation of university politics, freedom of foreign exchange and relaxation of currency regulations.
All Polish universities took advantage of newly-opened possibilities and reorganised their internal structure, elected new people to offices and sought more freedom in relation to central state agencies, especially the ministry of education, which in the old days controlled academic life. Democratisation brought not only the right to choose but also the burden of responsibility. Freedom is difficult, and many people, also in the academic world, found themselves unprepared for the challenge of democracy which replaced the old centralised system, tough as it was, but also secure, known and less demanding.
Some faculties and departments reorganised their internal structure, reversing changes imposed by the communist regime in an attempt to centralise and control. A major step taken last year by the Jagiellonian University was decentralisation of decision-making process and finances. Faculties and deans elected from among the professors assumed control and responsibility for most of the university policy, including international co-operation, research, teaching and staff.
This reform brought a lot of freedom and independence, but also new responsibilities, especially because available resources were limited. Central governing bodies of universities, rectors and senates, are nowadays less concerned with everyday management of the universities, and more with strategic planning and previously-unknown fund-raising activity.
Teaching has also been reorganised. Most faculties and departments introduced new curricula, based on a credit system, allowing for more flexibility and more individual studying. The aim of the reform is to redirect education towards more choice, intellectual independence of students who ought to be able to construct their individual programmes best suited to their interests, and to develop critical thinking. Apart from the obvious advantages there are also dangers. In some departments which introduced new curricula, some students tried to avoid courses which were difficult, even if they belonged to what was generally considered part of the core subjects, central to the discipline, choosing instead attractive but somewhat marginal courses. This danger is now often being averted by allocating supervisors to all students, whose responsibility is to assist students in their choices and to teach them basic skills and methods of intellectual work.
In the old days, when all students had to follow the same, rigidly structured programme, they were obliged to take particular courses even if the intellectual fashion of their generation suggested a different choice. Now students choose for themselves, and consequently they often select courses which respond to current fashions or practical demands of the day. This is particularly evident in the social sciences and humanities. Academics and teachers are now able to use their imagination in order to propose curricula, some of which reflect the intellectual interests of the staff, while others meet new needs of the society, such as a necessity to train specialists in European affairs to which many universities respond by offering curricula in European studies.
A new system of financing research was introduced that consisted in the establishment of the Committee for Scientific Research, a state agency which distributes the funds allocated for research in the state budget. The money, in a form of grants, is given on the basis of competition and peer review. This is a major change compared to the old days when positioning in the power structure and networking determined chances of receiving funds. Also, since it became possible to exchange Polish currency into hard currencies, universities have been able to purchase books and high quality equipment for their research.
The problem is, however, that the funds are very limited. There is so far very little chance of obtaining money from private sources or from business, partly due to the unclear and continuously changing tax law.
There is also very little money coming from the ministry of education, which is responsible for covering all expenses connected with teaching and for paying salaries. In real money, the budget for higher education has decreased over the past four years despite the simultaneous increase in the number of students.
The Polish government spends proportionally much less on education, not only than western countries but also new democracies such as Hungary or the Czech Republic.
Even if universities carry out reforms, which consist also of cuts in the number of staff, especially in the administration, there is still not enough money to pay decent salaries, not to mention recruitment of new people. Unfortunately, the developing job market attracts the best graduates, who give up academic careers because they must survive and support their families.
It is also difficult to invite foreign lecturers who might be able to fill gaps in the expertise locally available in particular subjects. Political constraints that prevented visiting professors from coming to Poland in the old days no longer exist, but financial problems remain, and Polish universities must rely on international exchange programmes such as Tempus, which provide money for visiting lecturers.
The continuous demand caused by the increase in student numbers may result in a fall in the quality of teaching. But to survive, higher learning institutions must make money on their own. The most efficient way to achieve this is to charge for tuition. The Polish constitution states that all education is free and asking students to pay tuition fees is therefore not allowed. However, this law, as it is commonly interpreted, does not apply to extramural students. Consequently, practically every university has developed extramural courses and accepts tuition-paying students in large numbers.
This practice undoubtedly increases the general level of education, but, if continued, it may lead to domination of extramural studies over regular ones, which would probably result in deterioration of the academic standards. It is therefore evident that, even if market reforms bring many positive changes in the academic world, fundamental reforms in the system of financing higher education are necessary, if universities are to continue their role in society in this crucial period of transformation.
Zdzislaw Mach is professor of sociology at Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland.