Poland’s controversial higher education law, which sparked the biggest student protests since the fall of communism, aims for an “Anglo-Saxon” university model that will help institutions “diversify”, according to the nation’s deputy higher education minister.
One of the most fiercely opposed measures in the Law on Higher Education and Science creates a new element of university governance – councils that will draw half their membership from outside academia. The changes introduced in the law, which became effective in the autumn but will be fully implemented in 2022, also increase the power of rectors over university budgets.
One critic had described the law as reflecting both “Poland’s broader authoritarian turn” and “the sweeping neoliberalisation of academia across Europe”.
But Piotr Dardziński, Poland’s deputy higher education minister in the Law and Justice Party government, said the law was needed to “create a policy for higher education which would be similar to Western standards”, following a dramatic increase in participation after the fall of communism.
Excellent Polish scientists were working abroad as their work would be “impossible at Polish universities” because of organisational structures, he told Times Higher Education during a visit to London.
The previous system “regulated every minute element” of universities’ operations and allowed “no differentiation between the universities and no freedom [for] the management of universities to shape [their] own organisation”, argued Dr Dardziński, who is also an assistant professor in the department of politics and international relations at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University.
The university council policy has “provoked a lot of discussion” among academics, who see it “as something foreign, not their own”, he said.
Critics argue that the councils are a step towards the dominance of business interests and will reduce academic democracy.
But Dr Dardziński said that council members will be appointed by university senates. “We wanted the universities to have 50 per cent of people [on councils] coming from the outside so universities would open to the needs of the people,” he added. “We wanted to increase the impact of universities on the social and economic environment.”
Dr Dardziński argued that some did not treat government consultations on the law “seriously” as they thought it would never come into force. He suggested that some protesters “thought this law would never see the light of day, because of how profound it is and how ambitious this new system is. Because people say such things may be done in the United States and the UK but not in Poland.”
Dr Dardziński joked that “although my government is called oppressive by some, the rectors of Polish universities cannot be forced to do anything. If they support a law it is only of their free will.”
And he also said: “In the future [Polish] universities will diversify, they will have different organisational cultures, which will give Polish students the opportunity to choose among different universities. But it will give academics and researchers the opportunity to choose the teams which are best managed.”
The minister said that UK universities “are a sort of benchmark for us. This Anglo-Saxon model is a very interesting one for us.” Although there are no tuition fees in Polish universities, “in the reforms we have tried to apply as much as possible from that [Anglo-Saxon] model,” he added.