Internationalization at the European Periphery

The World View is pleased to publish a conversation between Daniel Kontowski and Philip G. Altbach in four parts. The dialog considers international strategy from a Polish perspective.

September 7, 2015

The World View is pleased to publish a conversation between Daniel Kontowski and Philip G. Altbach in four parts. These conversations were initiated by Daniel for a Polish audience and will be published in Gazeta Wyborcza in Polish in a longer version. The dialog considers international strategy from a Polish perspective.

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.

Kontowski:      I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that Poland has decided to honor your vast knowledge by appointing you its new Minister of Higher Education. Bad news: your main responsibility is to make Polish universities significantly more international. If €9 million euro annually was budgeted just for sending bright Polish students abroad how would you choose them and where do they go?

Altbach:           Maybe I’d try to develop some careful linkages in different countries with specific universities, not necessarily in the top 15. You can find many good ones.  And then I’d try to make some a joint arrangement with them.

Kontowski:      That is not hypothetical question. The reforms initiated by the previous minister planned the rationalization of public expenditures by linking spending to benchmarks set by independent agencies. The new government has created "studies for the excellent ones" (Studia dla wybitnych) as its flagship project. The government covers the tuition and cost of living for 100 Polish students admitted to masters-level degree programs at the top 15 universities, determined by rankings.

Altbach:           What do you mean by "excellent ones"?  How do they select them?

Kontowski:      A board of experts working under the minister makes the selection. As no data are available for the current enrollment of Polish students to those best universities, nobody really knows how many candidates expect.

Altbach:           This sounds a little crazy. And what about field rankings?

Kontowski:      They would include the top 10 universities in any ARWU field ranking.

Altbach:           You see the devil is in the details. There are many different rankings. The Shanghai (ARWU) rankings are the best in terms of the methodological rigor, no question, mainly because they don't rely on reputation surveys. But it is also very limited, both in the institutions included, in how they collect data and in the criteria they're using so their standard is much too high to be useful.

If Poland is looking at field rankings, some national ones are quite good and quite accurate for particular countries, seldom are they useful internationally and some of the field rankings are nonsense. So you have to be pretty sophisticated about how you look at that in Poland.

Many universities which are not in top 15 or not in the top 10 in a field will still have very good masters programs or PhD programs in particular fields. If you're just taking University rankings and you're limiting to that, you will miss a lot of really fine masters programs so I think that's a problem. 

Kontowski:      Is the masters level a way to go?

Altbach:           A PhD is theoretically the best choice, but practically speaking, this strategy suffers from a difficult and disorganized academic labor market in Poland. There are not enough jobs for PhDs already in the country, not to mention enough – and of comparable quality – for young faculty returning with a doctorate.

Maybe one way to get around that is what the Chinese do. They have a special track for people who have foreign PhDs from the top universities who come back.  They are on a fast track and receive higher salaries, more or less international level salaries. It’s not cheap. It is costs more money and causes deep internal tensions.

So Poland is probably going for the Masters anyway. But we cannot forget, that in the Anglo-Saxon world, universities frequently don't care that much about students. You have to remember that many universities use their masters programs as what we call 'cash cows' charging considerable tuition, so it's not so difficult to get admitted and the quality varies.

Kontowski:      The program would start next year and is designed with a multi-year contribution of 330 million PLN until 2025.  Critics point out that we should invest tight resources in our own institutions and not contribute to already wealthy institutions abroad. They claim there is only limited public gain to be realized from the program. The ministry denies this and stresses that the beneficiaries would need to reimburse the government unless they either complete PhD studies in Poland, or pay social security for 5 years after graduation.

Altbach:           Various countries have tried the scholarship programs with the requirement that the graduates come back. In almost never works. You cannot force academics to come back. There are many ways to get around. If they don't come back, frequently they can pay the money back quickly.

I am skeptical about spending this kind of money. The masters program at Harvard or even at Boston College and other top American universities, for that matter, is extremely costly while a masters program at some continental European universities will be quite cheap. I used to tell my students to go to the University of Kassel in Germany, where there has been a quite good masters program taught in English, without tuition. And they could get just as good an education as in the US for free. That is also a strategy for internationalization.

Kontowski:      Forcing return from best universities abroad without attractive work prospects . . . there is a stick, but not so much a carrot.

Altbach:           As we have discussed, higher education requires stability to develop its full potential. At some point, you need to figure out how to attract talent to the universities – and keep it. There is no magic bullet and nobody ever succeeded without a significant investment of resources. Lasting change is never cheap.


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