Poles' vaulting ambition

August 18, 1995

Student numbers in Polish higher education seem set to continue to rise even though, in defiance of government policy, the state universities have recruited 5,000 fewer full-time students than last year - a 5 per cent cut - in protest at what they see as inadequate government funding.

Instead, if present trends continue, rapid growth will take place in the private sector where some schools are offering something very similar to higher vocational education. Fifty of Poland's officially recognised higher education establishments are new private schools, 19 of which were registered during the 1993/94 academic year and a further 18 registered in 1994/95, with many more applications still being assessed.

Together the new institutions account for 32,000 students (4.7 per cent of the total in higher education). Some 17,500 more study outside the state system in the Catholic University of Lublin and in six small theological academies, most of which have been established since the end of the 1980s.

Since each of the 50 new institutions requires at least three years to reach a full complement of students in any course, student numbers will, provided that demand holds, rise significantly even if no more are opened. At present 60 per cent of their total student body are in their first year of study.

The state universities are, with few exceptions, short of funds and struggling to reform themselves. They accuse their new private counterparts of living off the accumulated capital of the state universities, particularly the experience of the many academics from the latter who teach in the private sector to obtain the essential second (or third) salary.

However, this accusation can be levelled at any new institution, private or otherwise, until it produces higher-degree holders of its own. At present only three private schools have been allowed to offer full five-year magister degrees. Admittedly some do not aspire beyond three-year licencjat, but those who wish to offer more advanced qualifications are often making franchise arrangements with western (preferably English-speaking) universities, rather than awaiting the approval of a committee whose representatives are drawn exclusively from the state sector.

The private sector has retorted that if state universities are able to employ academics at competitive salaries and be economically viable then they must be poor house-keepers. The state sector is frequently criticised for supporting "dead-wood".

However, it should be noted that according to a law passed in 1990, a university's capacity to award degrees of a given level depends on the number of full-time academics in that faculty. It is therefore in the interest of the universities to maintain a large teaching establishment and not to reduce staff or increase teaching loads.

Private institutions offering licencjat degrees in, say, banking, and whose business plan does not include the award of doctorates, are under no such pressure, but can nevertheless boast classes by an array of eminent academics who are paid, of course, by the hour.

At the same time, only the state universities offer a wide range of subjects, and by law cannot charge fees for full-time students in the same way as in the private sector where there is a noticeable concentration of activity in the currently fashionable fields related to business studies and the transformation of the economy.

An opinion poll jointly sponsored by the Ministry of National Education and a major newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, suggests that nearly all of a sample of students from relatively affluent Warsaw, two thirds of whom claimed to be already earning incomes equal to the national average, could afford fees of 200 (new) zlotysh (Pounds 53.50) or less per semester. Fewer than a quarter said they would continue to study if fees reached 1,000 (new) zlotysh (Pounds 267.50) per semester. Fees in private schools can be much higher than this (up to $2,500 per year), and a significant number of schools do not yet have their full complement of students.

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