Four Dialogues on Internationalization at the European Periphery: Part 3

 A conversation in four parts between Daniel Kontowski and Philip Altbach.  Part 3: Making sense of Polish Protests.

September 20, 2015

Kontowski:      Does internationalization mean declining interest in humanities?

Altbach:           In many countries international universities frequently emphasize STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), and business administration. Important disciplinary areas in the social sciences and humanities frequently get forgotten.

Humanities and social sciences are still – or maybe even more - necessary in a globalized society. The answers to questions, and even jobs in these societies are not just technical or managerial. They depend on how you understand different societies, how you can interpret where you are in the broader global context.

Kontowski:      While humanities faculty face growing pressure to publish, and in English, they receive lower subsidies, worse facilities, and less money from grants. In Poland this has led to first protests in three decades.

Altbach:           Well, if you look across the world, including the United States, the humanities and the social sciences have never gotten funding from government resources at all comparable to what the sciences receive.

This is particularly true during the last 50 years. Before that, there was hardly any money for anything. When the governments started to invest in research, they typically invested in the fields they believed would provide a quick payback in terms of some economic development and the STEM fields, that may not offer a quick payback, but might contribute to economic development in the long run. 

So, Poland is not alone in this at all. I would say that other countries have been hit even harder. Look at the direct withdrawal of subsidies in Japan. In the United Kingdom, the humanities and social sciences have been subject to huge cutbacks.

One can see increasing numbers of students choosing to study in fields which will give them immediate benefit in the job market and that's true everywhere. Russia mighty be an exception —where some fields in the social sciences do pretty well, because graduates are getting jobs in journalism and in career tracks related to business that didn’t exist before. The hard sciences, something Russians were very good at, now offer fewer employment opportunities because of the decline of many industries, particularly those related to the military.

Kontowski:      Politically active professors and students were a phenomenon during the sixties, but globally universities are not a place of protest anymore.

Altbach:           The 1960s were the unusual time for a variety of reasons. A lot of it had to do with the internal dynamic of higher education at the early stages of massification and in the growing numbers of institutions. Students were experiencing deteriorating conditions, and new social classes were entering the universities. The professors found themselves under tremendous pressure because of growing enrolments.

Most importantly, there was a realization that universities were important institutions in modern societies. Before that they were small, elite institutions, and professors were very happy because society left them alone. And they had a very high status—this was the case in much of Europe including Poland.

And all that of course changed during the sixties. Societies were changing, the middle class was growing along with the massification of higher education throughout the world.

Massification in the former Soviet bloc came pretty late. This is surprising, since the ideology of socialism was that everybody should be equal and have equal access to higher education. But actually the percentages of young people opting for university over vocational study remained fairly low during socialist times.

I have never believed that there was an international student movement. I always thought that student movements came out of particular national circumstances. In a few cases, regimes were toppled by students. In others, such as Tiananmen Square in China, regimes felt threatened by students and toppled them. The demonstrations in a number of countries against the apartheid regime in South Africa helped convince the South African government to change.

I think, as you say, the era of mass student movements is over. We haven't seen it for a long time, and I don't see anything coming.

Today, students are much more interested in getting a job as a result of their university study and have less time and interest in protesting (which may get them dismissed from school or slow down their studies). The IT revolution and changes in communications have created different power centers. Social media plays a very significant role on campus. The world is different now.

Kontowski:      Surely it is. The economic benefits of higher education are smaller, yet college tuition has skyrocketed, especially in the U.S. and UK. Economically struggling European countries, especially in South, have many graduates who cannot afford to live on their own. We can also see that in Poland —a higher education diploma no longer guarantees a decent, middle-class living.

Altbach:           That's probably true. I believe in every society investing in the first university degree is worthwhile. Even in America, where the cost is, by global standards, rather high, those who have a four-year college degree earn significantly more money and have better job prospects over their lifetime.

There are two ways of looking at it—the payback from a college degree is less than it was. On the other hand the benefit of having a college degree versus not having it remains almost unchanged, so you are still much better off.  Higher education is still a very good investment. And people realize that. Otherwise, massification and demand for postsecondary education wouldn’t continue to be as strong as it is in most of the world.

Kontowski:      Young faculty in Poland have bleak prospects due to demography and economy. The number of students is down 25% in just 8 years, graduate enrollments up 400%, academic jobs even more scarce than before, stagnation in government funding. Small wonder they protest.  

Altbach:           The academic profession is a somewhat different case, although what you suggest is correct. This is not a good time to launch an academic career. If you look across the world average salaries are steady or declining. When universities were elite environments professors never got rich but they had high status, still a good middle-class lifestyle and rewarded by high prestige. You can't eat prestige but it still makes a difference for many people.

Professors also benefitted from the by job security that they had. In Europe most professors were civil servants and appointed for life. Tenured faculty in the US and Canada has similar security. So that was a nice life. During the period of a great expansion, faculty numbers and salaries grew, but it turned out to be a temporary blip. Government investment did not keep pace with continued expansion and the conditions of the academic profession began to decline and have continued to do so.

Kontowski:      Most silently wait for better times. They make less money, but are generally happy that they make any money at all.

Altbach:           In some countries - including all of Eastern Europe - academics were never paid well. In socialist days they got other benefits —free housing, educational preference for their kids, paid & longer holidays, etc.—but when that ended and salaries didn't go up it became a big problem.

We did a comparative study of academic salaries in 28 countries a couple of years ago and found that the lowest salaries were China and Russia. It's very hard to keep good people in the academic profession if the salaries do not allow for a decent living. Professors in many countries have to take on additional jobs. 

Even where academic salaries are at a decent middle-class level in Western Europe, the US, and Canada they haven't kept pace with salaries outside of the academe. If you compare what a person with a PhD earns within the university with someone with a similar amount of education outside university (a lawyer, a medical doctor, business consultant) the academic salaries never compare favorably with those outside academe.

Kontowski:      So how can you attract the best and the brightest to academia in this situation?

Altbach:           The answer is, you don't. However, there are certain people who are attracted to the “life of the mind” even though careers are difficult and salaries low.

Kontowski:      Is it what is now nicknamed “Pendolinization” (alluding to new Polish Pendolino train: fast, serving just five cities, expensive), or “island modernization” in Poland?

Altbach:           Well, the small number of research universities at the top of any academic system in much of the world are getting better; they're getting more competitive in terms of student entry. The quality is either maintained or improved. The conditions of academic work or salaries are improving —not because the salary structure, but because these professors are paid extra for doing research and other things. This is the case in both China and Russia.

And the institutions on the bottom of the system get worse. The main reason is the pressure of numbers. People who are teaching in those places have even greater numbers of students and their salaries are not typically going up.

Kontowski:        But even at the top universities in Poland it is almost impossible to get decent working conditions.

Altbach:           There is more and more reliance on part-time faculty in the academia globally. In the United States now half the new appointments to academic jobs are full-time and eligible for tenure. The other half is part-time or full-time contract appointments. Examples, like those from Latin America, show that you can't build a top university on the basis of part-time faculty.

Daniel Kontowski is a doctoral student at the University of Warsaw and a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College.   Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director of the CIHE. He is also co-editor of The World View.


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