Plucky Poland defies the odds

December 21, 2001

Nick Holdsworth looks at the battles and victories of former Communist countries as they move towards joining the EU and the Bologna Process.

Universities in Poland have changed beyond recognition in the past ten years, according to Jerzy Woznicki, president of the Polish rectors' conference.

Budget cuts in the early 1990s drove institutions to undertake structural reforms that have included introducing tuition fees, scrapping five-year diplomas and embarking on entrepreneurial schemes.

Poland's 96 university-status higher education institutions have an energy and autonomy unequalled anywhere in Europe except Britain, said Professor Woznicki, rector of Warsaw University of Technology.

After the funding cuts that followed the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, university leaders seized the opportunity to claim more freedom. With little help from the government, universities forced the introduction of tuition fees to fill the funding gap.

Between 1989 and 1999, student numbers quadrupled as universities opened their doors to lifelong and flexible learning, short courses and private studies in addition to traditional courses.

"Before 1995 we did not have a new constitution and so we felt free to make our own decisions about money and pricing in universities. It was the main factor in defining the mentality of academic staff and policy of that period," Professor Woznicki said.

Financial freedom began to wane after 1995 when political control of universities re-emerged. Higher education institutions are no longer allowed to make profits from tuition fees, which must be cost based.

But with fees averaging 3,000-4,600 zlotys (£500-£800) a year, and commercial activities and grants accounting for about one-third of the sector's annual income of 7.5 billion zlotys, universities are a remarkable success story in a region characterised by lingering post-Communist disputes.

In 1989, some 400,000 students - about 1 per cent of the population - were studying at public universities. Today, about 1.5 million students attend universities and there are more than 200 new private higher education colleges.

Capital investment in the sector over the past decade amounts to 600 million zlotys in private money and 2 billion zlotys from "public" sources - the government and commercial activities of the public universities.

Universities were poised, Professor Woznicki said, to become equal Bologna Process partners.

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