Anna Szołucha, Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences and the National University of Ireland, Maynooth
“More rights for students, new opportunities for young and talented scholars, a tighter relationship of university with business enterprise and world-class science” – this is how the Polish Minister for Science and Higher Education promotes the new higher education law. When she talks about rights, however, she means the rights typical of a consumerist lifestyle. “The young and talented” sound like ageism and connote an elitist view of higher education; the aims of science become typically business-related through the “relationship with enterprise”; and “world-class science” has always been done in Poland, although it is true that this has usually taken place “in defiance of everything and everyone.”
In the past four years of the PO-PSL (the center-right Civic Platform and the centrist, agrarian Polish People’s Party) coalition government in Poland, the actual situation of higher education and science has not changed. During those years, there were a number of minor changes to the laws of 2003 and 2005. Therefore, in order to comment on the state of higher education and science as it is now and as it is likely to be in the nearest future, I can only rely on the official documents about the aims of the reform, the subsequent draft versions of the new law and its final text. Most of the changes introduced by this reform are to take effect from October 1 2011. In this context, I would like to analyze the aims and a few of the concrete legal “solutions” offered by Mrs. Kudrycka (the Minister for Science and Higher Education). I also want to make a few remarks about the debate about the reform.
If we relied solely on the mainstream media, we might have come to believe that the entire debate about science and higher education focused on two issues: the proposal to abolish habilitation and the introduction of fees for students studying in more than one program (unless a student wanting to do that, would be one from the 10 percent of the “best students”). The biggest success of the reforms would have then been the 51 percent discount for rail tickets for all PhD students. Beyond the mainstream, however, a different and more important debate was taking place. It was about the aims of higher education and science. People discussed different models of academic career paths. They talked about how education and science-making will actually change from now on, that is, if they are going to change at all. Today we know for certain that the language that we use to talk about education has already changed. The debate about aims of science and of the university – although closed down by the new legislation – is being continued in social movements and its renewal is the one positive thing in which the PO-PSL government happened to play an indirect and most certainly unintended role.
The coalition government identified the aims of Polish science in very concrete terms. The goals of the new legislation echo the premises of the Lisbon strategy and the 1995 GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) treaty. The changes aim at increasing the competitiveness of Polish HE institutions and their attractiveness to foreign students and scientists alike. Polish universities are to be among the top twenty universities in European rankings before 2030. This shows the uncritical attitude towards “ranking methodologies” and, moreover, it takes for granted that the aims of higher education should be defined according to “European rankings.” The discourse of attractiveness and competitiveness is introduced as a compulsory measure that all universities must live up to. All units that accept these criteria may receive additional funding from a special “quality fund” and acquire a distinguished status of a National Scientific Leading-Edge Centre (Polish acronym – KNOW). Attractiveness and competitiveness are based on an assessment of such parameters (for humanities, social and life sciences) as the number of citations, Hirsch Index, the number of editors of scholarly journals. Thinking about these parameters, I find it hard not to concur with the common reproach that academia only exists – and science is only produced – for its own sake.
When the Ministry speaks about the young and talented scholars and students, it is certain that it refers to persons no older than 35, those who receive research grants from ministerial but, more commonly, business and foundational grant programs, and the no more than one hundred students who get the “Diamond Grant” (research funding for outstanding students with a Bachelor or Masters Degree). Studies are to be designed for an elite of the “talented and hard-working” i.e. as far as I understand it, those who would dutifully adhere to the criteria of attractiveness and competitiveness. The task of schools, universities and polytechnics is to get all the others (“the non-diamonds”) to conform to the needs of a by and large fragile and temporary political and economic system.
The opportunity – or, according to the new PO dictionary,the privilege –of free education would not be now used by students who are dissatisfied with the narrow-minded or monodisciplinary character of their studies and would like to study in two or more programs (this has been fairly common at Polish universities). Less and less provision is made for students with special needs and those requiring social help. The maintenance and the housing stipends will be scrapped. Universities will no longer receive a government subsidy for the tasks connected with education and medical rehabilitation of their disabled students. Instead, they will be getting money for making their programs fully accessible to disabled students, whatever this is supposed to mean. To put this in somewhat cynical terms, one could say that this typically consumerist attitude towards students and their problems (the vocabulary of an abstract access instead of care and attention) is fully justified because over a half of an almost two-million population of students in Poland are already paying for their studies. The new rights that the Ministry is boasting about are also consumerist. For example, from now on, a university will be obliged to sign contracts with all its students.
The new legislation will consolidate a situation in which there are no mechanisms in this country that would guarantee that higher education and science will be socially responsible. There are no institutionalized opportunities for social organizations and movements to influence the course of Polish education and scientific research. In the General Council of Science and Higher Education (a body which establishes educational policies with the Ministry), there will be three employers’ representatives but not one from a union or any other social or political organisation.
From the very beginning, the government claimed that its goal was to make students ready for the needs of their potential future employers, or as it was written, for the needs of the “market.” First, the new law, however, prepares excellent conditions for the creation of new academic and teaching job positions for business representatives! Instead of an employee with a PhD degree, a university can employ two with a Masters if they are deemed to have sufficient professional experience in the area of a particular program of studies. This is supposed to testify to the government’s will to make the professional academic path faster and more flexible. The legislation, however, also allows and encourages universities to cooperate and enter into contracts with business enterprises and companies so that the private employers get to design entire courses and indeed perhaps also programs of studies. In this way, the impact of employers on the content of studies and the entire didactic process is likely to increase considerably.
After four years of the PO government, after the bland and shallow media debate about the new reform, with the silent withdrawal of the “green island” ethos and the diminishing chances for the meaningful shift of funds towards higher education and science, and before the new law comes into effect, it is all too easy to be pessimistic or indeed even apocalyptic. We could lament the end of universitiy autonomy and alarm everybody that higher education is being taken over by the mysterious business interests or mourn the disappearance of the Humboldtian model of research universities. I do not think this is an appropriate way to proceed. We can never respond meaningfully and decisively to the changes that this or any other law introduces if we do not know what the goals of higher education and science should be and before whom it should be responsible. For the time being, the answers that this law provides are not particularly illuminating.
Thankfully, people are not just passively waiting to see what is going to happen. One example of this is an informal group of scholars and students who came together in March 2011 and started to talk about the reform and, more importantly, about education as we would all like to experience it. They called it the New Opening of the University (NOU). These people – and I am very happy to be a part of this group – shared a common zeal to explain how we have come to be in the place in which we find ourselves today. Why was there only minimal interest in, let alone resistance to the new law, on the part of academics? And how come our student movement is still not as strong as we would all wish it to be? We started this initiative as an informal but very well-informed and radically open space to share not only our fears, our good and bad experiences with education, but also our hopes for the future. In the short time since the second half of March, we have managed to organize a day-long workshop attended by students, academics, various unions’ representatives and all those who care deeply about higher education and science in Poland. In June 2011, NOU also organized a national conference and now its planning of an independent research project on the real state of Polish education and science is in full swing. Good things start with small steps and the New Opening of the University will hopefully be such a step but we will definitely need more of them to make our education free and emancipatory and give a bold but thoughtful answer to our government’s great “solutions.”
If the educational system does not serve such goals as living in an egalitarian society and ensuring the freedom of all people, how can we sum up the last four years? It seems that in the nearest future, the most important things are not going to change. Universities will stop nurturing students, giving them knowledge, helping them to think critically about the world and the self. Students will remain unmotivated by these aims. Instead, they will form students to resemble those who are already a part of the system. They will create an army of precarious workers, or, alternatively, aspiring managers who will take social inequalities for granted. A reason why this may be so is that today we are educated as if our reality was unchanging.. Meanwhile, however, with our current education we will have to live for 50 or more years and it may well happen that we will experience a different future in which we are not able to find ourselves and worse still, a reality that we are not able to understand.