Tittle-tattle in Pole position

October 6, 2000

The hot favourite for Polish president faces a few education problems - not least his own, says George Blazyca

On Sunday, Poland will choose its president for the next five years. This time, unlike 1990 or 1995, few doubt that incumbent Aleksander Kwasniewski will romp home to a second-term victory. But the sheer weight of his support, which polls put at about 60 per cent, has contributed to a lacklustre campaign. The high point was his appearance with Lech Walesa before the "lustration" courts to answer charges (found to be without substance) that each had cooperated with the security services of the communist period.

It was different in 1995, when a tense two-round contest gave Mr Kwasniewski a slender victory over Mr Walesa. This time the money is on a first-round Kwasniewski victory. The big question is how much will the others lose by. Another difference is that Mr Walesa is no longer his closest rival. This time it's Mr Walesa's successor as Solidarity leader, the deeply unpopular Marian Krzaklewski.

Yet another contrast lies in the political tittle-tattle and insinuation being bandied about. In 1995, Mr Walesa was disparagingly referred to by the opposing camp as a mere elektryk (electrician), a man without the refinements needed for a head of state. Solidarity found that it could trade insults on equal terms when it transpired that Mr Kwasniewski had "inadvertently" claimed a masters degree from a programme that he had in fact not completed. Could anyone, Solidarity suggested, trust the magister?

Since Polish presidents have only the most limited of powers these days, it is worth reflecting on why the educational/professional dimension seems so important in Polish society. Even if relatively little has been written about it compared with the big questions of market-building, privatisation and corporate governance, education has changed immensely. It had to. The education system that produced engineers to service the central planning apparatus had to yield to the more varied needs of decentralised markets. New subjects, new programmes and new university-type schools quickly appeared.

Student demand has strong similarities East and West. Psychology, sociology, business studies and economics are a big hit, while the sciences find it hard to recruit. Demand is huge for long-standing specialisms such as the few places in the elite Polish Film School in Lodz.

Private or "full-cost" public provision of higher education has exploded. Demand for business subjects has been met in large part by the private sector and by state institutions developing controversial "private" streams of business in evening and weekend courses.

This has precipitated a legal tussle over what is meant by the constitution's promise in Article 70 of "free" higher education. There is much debate over how to fund expansion. Poland launched cheap, means-tested student loans two years ago.

Demand for teaching staff is growing. The private sector has suddenly created a host of possibilities to make real money. The peripatetic professor or even "founding professor", since a private school needs to have at least five on its books to win ministry accreditation, is a common feature in Polish higher education. The demand for retired academics of professorial rank is said to be buoyant.

There are league tables, too. The daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita does a Times-type ranking, as do the heavyweight weekly current affairs magazines Wprost and Polityka. It will again not surprise THES readers that Warsaw and Cracow universities figure as the "Oxbridge on Vistula".

Finally, plagiarism appears to be a growing problem. This takes the form of routine buying or ordering of essays, dissertations and even doctoral theses, often over the internet, as well as using others' work without acknowledgement (or payment).

Mr Kwasniewski did attend a masters course at the University of Gdansk; he simply did not complete the dissertation and so failed to collect the award - a slip and a misunderstanding that dented his 1995 election campaign. Other politicians have been more conniving. Two serving but little known members of parliament were last year embroiled in scandals that led universities to an unprecedented withdrawal of the degrees they had conferred.

Andrzej Anusz, a Solidarity MP who published the work of another student as his own in the early 1990s, saw Warsaw University remove his MA title. Jerzy Jankowski, from the opposition SLD, was stripped of his doctorate by the Wroclaw Academy of Economics for a similar offence.

A recent public opinion poll may help explain why politicians come under pressure to "improve" their qualifications. It turns out that MPs are the least respected of any professional group - a mid-summer survey showed that only 6 per cent of the population gave MPs a positive evaluation for "honesty and professionalism", while scientists come out top with 62 per cent.

Poland's education transformation is by no means complete. The country still has relatively low higher education participation by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development standards. With a forthcoming demographic bulge of 18 to 24-year-olds and a shortage of provision in deprived rural areas, the thrust of higher education expansion seems likely to shift, as in the West, to matters of social inclusion.

When it formulates its mission statement for the years ahead, the Polish education ministry is likely to opt for "maximum inclusion at lowest cost and highest quality" - sounds familiar?

George Blazyca is director of the Centre for Contemporary European Studies, University of Paisley.

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