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Enrolments decreasing by one million students? System contraction in Poland and the implications
October 18, 2011 - 8:15am

The fall in enrolment levels in Poland expected for 2025 is the highest in Europe, and comparable in the OECD area only to Korea and Japan (OECD volume on Higher Education to 2030). In one scenario that Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin presents, enrolments in 2025 are expected to fall to 55% of the 2005 levels or dwindle by almost one million students. In Europe only Spain and Germany can expect decreases of significant magnitude by 2025 (Spain by 342.000 and Germany by 209.000). In another scenario, based on trends, enrolments in Poland in 2025 would fall to 65% of the 2005 levels, or dwindle by almost eight hundred thousand students.

In countries where higher education is predominantly funded through private expenditures, such as Japan and Korea, and where there is a combination of aging populations, low birth rates and the saturation of higher education markets following the accomplishment of universal higher education, the relationship between demography and higher education enrolments is bi-directional. In fact, expensive higher education may actually lead to even further demographic decreases. Cost-sharing mechanisms may play different roles in expanding systems than in contracting systems where birth rates are already low, as in Poland.

Various countries experienced (or anticipated) moments or periods of contraction of their systems (Sweden in 1968-1973, Japan in 1992, Korea in 2000, the USA in the second half of the 1970s). But policy lessons from them are only marginally relevant to the Polish case. Public policy for private higher education, or the state planning for shrinking higher education markets, were at the top of the reform agenda in many countries and can dominate the Polish reform agenda today.

Therefore we present here three basic scenarios that relate demography to public/private dynamics:

  • enrolments in full-time programs in the public sector in 2020 will remain at current levels;
  • enrolments will decrease proportionately in both sectors and both modes of studies (full-time, part-time) due to declining demographics; and
  • enrolments in full-time programs in the public sector will increase (if the number of vacancies increases merely by 2% which is legally allowed every year between 2011 and 2020, the public sector will be offering more than one million vacancies by the end of the decade; and these are “first-choice vacancies”).

In the first scenario, in 2020 enrolments in full-time study programs in the public sector will remain stable (about 850.000 students, in 2010), in the second scenario, based on demographic projections, enrolment might decrease to 550.000 students, and in the third scenario, public sector enrolment may exceed 1.000.000 students. Consequently, in the first scenario, the private sector can expect about 250.000 students, in the second about 450.000 students, and in the third only 100.000 or less.

Policy conclusions are surprising. In fact, the largest private higher education system in Europe (“independent private” in OECD terms, fee-based in practical terms) is heavily dependent on a change in higher education financing – namely, the introduction of universal fees in the public sector. It is possible that only the introduction of universal fees in the public sector can stop the gradual demise of a vast part of the private sector.

If universal fees are not introduced, the private sector will be heavily reduced in size. Maintaining the tax-based public sector under declining demographics will be a disaster for the private sector, unless there are mergers between public and private institutions, envisaged in the new law of March 2011. Consequently, the introduction of universal fees in the public sector is the most effective strategy for the survival of the private sector in the years to come. Individual strategies at private institutions will count much less than macro-level changes in funding for public institutions.

The possible policy intervention is either in the private sector only (public subsidization of teaching in the private sector) or in the public sector only (introducing universal fees), or in both sectors (the combination of both policy interventions). The private sector will be desperately seeking survival strategies at the macro-level of national policies. What seems theoretically possible may be politically complicated; lobbying for one or both of the two policy choices is in progress. Given the predictability of demographic factors, the unpredictable political factors are therefore extremely important to the higher education system as a whole.

Poland is exceptional from a global perspective: the distribution of enrolment in the public and private sectors has been shifting while total enrolment in the private sector has been decreasing. Private higher education is expected to have fewer students every year. For a system in which there are 325 private institutions and about 600.000 students today, it is an enormous challenge.

In Poland, contrary to other countries in the region, the current and projected decline in enrolments is fundamental rather than limited in duration. It is unclear to what extent Poland is politically prepared for the introduction of universal fees in the public sector or for the introduction of public subsidies in the private sector. It is also unclear to what extent the survival problem of the private sector will become a major policy problem to be solved by politicians. The introduction of fees may also be politically difficult in the climate of the economic crisis. So far, there is limited awareness of the looming demographic crisis for higher education. But increasingly the public policy implications of shifting demographics on higher education will become a major political challenge.


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