Polish excellence initiative aims to close gap to European elite

Critics fear initiative could widen social inequalities

November 29, 2019
Source: Reuters

Ten Polish universities have won a sizeable boost in funding as part of a controversial plan to create “elite” institutions with a research reputation on a par with the best in Europe.

Some critics fear that concentrating resources on a select few, most of which are in big cities, will widen divisions within Polish society, echoing similar concerns about the impact of “elite” universities in countries including the US, the UK, France and Germany.

Under the “Excellence Initiative – Research University” plan, 10 institutions, including the University of Warsaw, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, will receive a 10 per cent funding boost between 2020 and 2026.

“Poland remains, generally speaking, far behind the frontier of science,” said Jarosław Gowin, minister of science and higher education. The aim of the new funding was to “create conditions to reduce the distance between the Polish universities and the best European ones”, he said.

Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, former rector of Aarhus University and chair of the international panel that picked the winning universities from 20 candidates, argued that Poland needed to create universities that could attract scholars from overseas – and lure Polish researchers back to the country – and that as such mobility was essential for economic dynamism.

Currently, many Polish academics “don’t move even from one city to another”, he said. “The whole system is sedentary.”

To oppose “elite” universities “would be a big mistake”, said Professor Holm-Nielsen, a former higher education specialist at the World Bank who has led European Union-backed calls for reform in Polish universities. “Differentiation” between universities was crucial, he said, adding: “There shouldn’t be 400 Harvards in Poland.”

Poland’s push to create “world-class” universities mirrors Germany’s excellence strategy, a policy that since 2005 has channelled money – albeit relatively small amounts – and prestige into a select few institutions.

The policy will widen inequalities between different parts of Poland, argued Jaroslaw Pluciennik, professor of the humanities at the University of Łódź. It risked creating a select few universities that educate the bulk of the country’s elite, as in France or the US, causing social divisions and political anger, he said. “Will students from low-income families be able to get quality education?” he asked.

“Of course most of the 10 universities are in large cities, and even most of the 20 [candidates] are in large cities,” admitted Professor Holm-Nielsen, but he added: “We have to do what we can do on top of the system as it exists. We are not building a new system.”

He said that his panel “went out of our way” to ignore any “political” considerations in selecting the final 10, including “regional distribution” across the country. Instead, the final 10 were those with the most promising plans for the future – including, for example, blueprints to attract more foreign staff and students, he explained.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education emphasised that the extra funding was new, so will not spell cuts for other universities. The 10 shortlisted universities that failed to make the top 10 will also receive a budget increase of 2 per cent. And at the end of the first six-year funding period, two universities will be forced to make way for new candidates for “excellence” status.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

These reforms sound well designed. Some level of increasing divergence between institutions is clearly justified. In a country that does not have a budget that can rival the world leaders in higher education, there needs to be selection of a pool of institutions that can be built up to global first-tier status. It is either that or there will be uniform mediocrity. As one of the study authors noted, there is no chance of 400 Harvards!

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