I was briefly in Warsaw last week talking about university rankings and how to improve overall institutional performance. Poland is one of the most interesting higher education systems in the world right now, so I thought it would be worth talking about what’s going on there.
Among the former socialist states that were not part of the Soviet Union, Poland is the largest, has the longest history as an independent state, and has the longest history of mass opposition to communism. It is not the richest of the ex-socialist states – the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia have done a bit better. But given that Poland has a massive agricultural sector, it is quite astonishing how advanced the overall Polish economy is, with increasing strength in information technology, business services and process manufacturing. It’s easy to see the potential of some Polish cities to become very attractive tech hubs in the near future, given the combination of young talent, moderate wages and low housing prices (and, it should be said, attractive cities, too).
The issue facing Polish policymakers right now is how they move into the next tier of European economies, and in particular how they grow their domestic innovation systems (they don’t use those words, but that’s the upshot). There are large Polish companies, but they are pretty much restricted to the natural resources sector: in the higher-tech sectors of the economy, the big players are all foreign. Which means they are definitely in the market for solutions that create local champions.
(This should sound familiar to Canadian readers).
Anyways, long story short, the government decided that part of the solution is better universities, where “better” means a lot more output. And the way it wants to measure progress is through increases in international rankings. I know many of you think the use of rankings in public policy is pretty infra dig, but to the extent they measure research intensity – and with varying degrees of accuracy they pretty much all do – and since the Polish policy is specifically about improving research intensity, rankings seem like a reasonable tool.
Now at the moment, Poland is not what you’d call a major player in international rankings. There are two or three significant generalist universities (Jagiellonian, Warsaw, maybe Adam Mickiewidz in Poznan), two technical universities (AGH, Warsaw Tech) and a couple of medical schools which are notable, but not exactly powerhouses. In terms of scientific output or significance, none of them would make Canada’s top ten, for instance (though Warsaw and Jagiellonian would make the top fifteen). This shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Among countries with GDP per capita in the $30,000 US range, there aren’t many countries that fare any better.
History is also a factor: since the modern state was only founded in 1918 (re-creating the pre-1795 state out of the ruins of the Russian, Austrian, and German Empires), it was about a century behind much of the rest of Europe in thinking about higher education as a national resource. It also had to start effectively from scratch after the devastation of World War II, and in the social sciences they mostly started from scratch a second time after 1989. Like most of the rest of East-Central Europe, higher education funding was a huge casualty of the transition to the market economy, and it took twenty or twenty-five years for academic pay to rise to a level attractive to young people.
In any case: what the Polish government has done is to push for reforms both on the funding side and on the management government side. The funding aspect is described in this article by colleague Waldemar Siwinski (scroll to the bottom), but basically what they did was offer a 10% funding bonus to the ten universities deemed to have the strongest research cultures (the winners were announced two weeks ago). Also, on an ongoing basis, institutions are encouraged to find areas of specialization for research. On the governance side, boards will have external representation representing 50% of the membership for this first (this seems to be based on similar reforms of a decade or two ago in Denmark and Austria, but of course it is derided as “Anglo-Saxon” by detractors, because that’s a more relatable term of abuse). University rectors (i.e. Presidents) are to be given much stronger powers internally but at the same time state management of the internal affairs of universities will be greatly reduced.
Basically, what the Polish government has decided is that domestic academic habits are the main barrier to reaching European standards. Like most countries in the region, universities in Poland do not instinctively look to raise their game to a pan-European level; there is a fair bit of settling for being “good enough for Poland”. The idea is that external governors will make governing boards less satisfied with the status quo, new money will incentivize more research-intensive (i.e. European) behaviour. And powerful new rectorates will get institutions to move more quickly in the necessary, somewhat market-driven European direction.
Now, you can argue about correlation vs. causation, but it is intriguing to me that among the institutions that have risen the fastest in university rankings over the past couple of decades – specifically those from Australia, Singapore, Korea and China – virtually none have classic, European-style university management characterized by strong faculty control. You can see why countries wanting to make a charge up the rankings like Poland might think stronger central control might make a positive difference in this respect, however annoying it is to traditionalists.
Is any of this likely to make a difference? The money is good, but not great, and as I pointed out earlier this year excellence initiatives that don’t involve simply whopping amounts of cash tend not to have a huge effect. The governance/management changes, combined with new rules on research funding are probably more likely to make a difference in terms of institutional culture, in the sense that they will accelerate trends towards research intensity (though in some respects this still depends on further improvements in government funding).
Some of these changes probably would have happened anyway through generational transition, and because university system prowess is a lagging indicator of national prosperity, Poland’s economic development will over time create the conditions for better universities. But on the whole, these changes are likely to accelerate change in Polish universities that will bring them closer to the European standard. The question, really, is if these institutions can help to generate even faster economic growth before the damaging effects of an aging population really kick in. For that to happen, more sophisticated innovation and technology transfer policies than the country currently possesses are required. But the universities policy is at least a start; and arguably no one else in Europe right now is showing anything like the same ambition.