Internationalization for Poland

Internationalization of higher education is becoming a new mantra for the Polish government. 

September 13, 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.  Part 2 follows.

Kontowski:      Internationalization of higher education is becoming a new mantra for the Polish government. In June, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education signed an agreement with the UAE to attract more of their students. Poland already has similar agreements with Oman, Malaysia, and China.  The enrollment of international students in Poland has grown from 2% to 3% since 2013. Do you think that it make sense to pursue these agreements? Currently we enroll just 5 students from UAE.

Altbach:           It all depends on the goals. Why does Poland want to internationalize its higher education system? There is a need for a national policy focused on the possible benefits to various actors.  Any internationalization strategy needs to be based on “why”.

There are a number of countries that just internationalize to make money. Australia is one example, although I wouldn't say that financial gain is the only reason that they have internationalized over the past 25 years, it has been a key motivation. The Australian government expects universities to generate a significant portion of their income themselves and has reduced allocations to the universities.  International students comprise 25% of the total student number. 

If Poland is internationalizing to generate revenue, it's going to cause more headaches than you think.  It's not easy to internationalize.  Why go after the Gulf or the Arab world? This is not necessarily a bad idea, but what are the incentives on the Gulf side and Polish side for doing this?

Kontowski:      At least at the Polish side, it seems to be part of some bigger plan. The ministry has recently initiated a project “Uczelnie Przyszłości” (Universities of the future), with 75 m euros for internationalization.

Altbach:           What will €75 million euros do for Polish universities? How is the money going to be spent?

Kontowski:      On international accreditations, lectures by foreign professors and degree programs in English for universities apply for funds from this program.

Altbach:           Many countries have established policies to increase the number of degree programs taught in English.  But there is some pushback: why are we doing it? What's the real purpose of teaching in English?

In Russia a number of top universities have developed programs in English —in part, for local students. Same thing in China. They want to improve the level of English of the domestic students and there seems to be a local market interested in these programs. Students want to study in English because they have a better chance of getting a scholarship to go abroad for PhD’s and master's degrees. And students with higher levels of English can function better globally, in the so-called “new economy.”

But you do have to ask “Why?” because it's expensive and difficult. Countries like China and Russia are ending up having duplicate courses: the local language degree and English language degree. They are offered by the same university for basically the same student population. 

Many experts are no longer so sure that it's a really good idea to do that.

Kontowski:      Why not focus on providing good instruction for Polish students instead? Would the proposed programs attract international students, and even if they would, what is the main objective of attracting them?

Altbach:           It is by no means assured that international students will be attracted to Poland, whether the degrees are in English or Polish. Maybe you need to start by asking why international students in Poland represent only 3% of the enrollment now?  There is a lot of competition from better-known universities within the European Union and by larger neighbors like Russia. My own guess is that such programs would not attract large numbers of international students.

Kontowski:      Does “good university” necessarily mean today ‘international university’?

Altbach:           That's a fundamental and complicated question. If you look at the ranking criteria, internationalization is almost always one of the factors measured. Certainly science and scholarship are largely international today. There is also a much larger international student market and to some extent, a more competitive international market for faculty. The mark of a top university that can play in the international big leagues is international students, international faculty, and international publications.

A good university, that is a university with good academic standards and that produces students who actually know something when they finish their degree, isn’t necessarily international. I think a national university that doesn't invest heavily in large numbers of international students or degree programs in English etc. can also be a good university. But a good international university must look abroad for ideas—and invest in infrastructure and its professors—high quality higher education cannot be achieved without adequate resources. However, great universities must be significantly international in their outlook, orientations, and programs. 

Kontowski:      What is the Polish situation then?

Altbach:           Poland is part of the EU and increasingly looking across its borders to other countries. On the other hand, it's a fairly big market in itself; it's not a small country and it has rich academic tradition of its own.

I think the Polish society and policymakers need to think very deeply about how much they want to have their universities be part of a broader European and even global context, and how much they want to think of their universities as Polish, contributing to a Polish economy and Polish society in the development of your culture. That is a huge question and a strategic decision that should be made clearly and for good reasons.

Kontowski:      It seems that Poland has more substantial interest in Chinese students and now UAE students, than its eastern neighbors.

There are good demographic reasons to look for new enrollments in Ukraine as their students already comprise 42% (15.000 students) of the international enrollment in Poland. Poland may currently have as many as 400.000 Ukrainians living within its borders. They are calledthe ”invisible migration.” I think Ukrainian students may be equally invisible at many Polish universities; we are far from acknowledging this international population. From a national point of view, it is probably a wiser investment to attract students from countries other than China. We can jump more quickly in the rankings that way!

Altbach:           It seems to me that Poland also obsesses too much about the rankings.

Kontowski:      Because they are the benchmark of internationalization.

Altbach:           That, in my view, is a big mistake. There are many reasons to internationalize: making college graduates better acquainted with global trends, improving foreign language acquisition, understanding the world better, maybe making some money from international students.

The point is that there are lots of reasons to internationalize and the rankings are one small part. For the universities that are not in the top 5-6 in Poland, rankings are not a reason  to internationalize, because they are not going to make it and they should not be thinking about it.

Yes, Poland lives in a somewhat complicated region with a complicated history and to your advantage to watch this great hinterland to the east of you. It has more promise for building soft power, possibly increasing the “stay rate” of students when they finish. It is much more likely that a Ukrainian or Belarusian graduate will stay in Poland than a Chinese.

Poland may be a transit place for students from the east to get an education and then go west. C’est la vie. And of course many Polish graduates will go west as well, because of economic opportunities, salary.

Maybe the UAE is going to invest significant money in arrangements with Poland. That's not a bad idea because it's a good way of bringing money into the system, and it's an interesting way of getting some international experience. Funding is certainly a good thing, but I think it will turn out to be more difficult and more complicated than your ministry thinks.

Kontowski:      We’ve had some ad-hoc internationalization initiatives. In 2014, during the war in Ukraine, 500 Ukrainian students have been offered a one-way "Polish Erasmus" scholarships for up to a year of tuition free studies in Polish universities, with preference given to students from Eastern Ukraine. No data were published as to how many have actually come.

The program is now closed, even though the situation in Ukraine is hardly any better. And it was one-way. Hardly anyone from Poland wanted to study in Ukraine even before the war, and it is doubtful that Ukrainian government could cover the costs.

The KKHP (Crisis Committee of Polish Humanities, the most vocal of recent protest groups) wants to see an exchange of ideas and cooperation without physical mobility of professors with the west.

Altbach:           How exactly do they envision that?

Kontowski:      They do not offer details, but it may be so that humanities faculty get more of the grants supporting international cooperation that tend to be awarded more often to the hard sciences. And we should not promote people who are mobile internationally over those who cannot, perhaps for family reasons.

Altbach:           It is an interesting, but a very difficult concept. There are research teams that now cross borders, which work pretty well. The person from the periphery side —the Polish side — has to have time in “the center” and have a relationship with people working there. Hopefully he or she can obtain some summer scholarships for graduate students from abroad to come work in a lab in Poland.

This is done by the Higher School Of Economics (HSE) in Moscow. Good idea, not cheap, but still less expensive than hiring full-time international faculty. HSE has labs, including in the social sciences, which are mostly what they do. They hire a prominent foreign academic to come over in the summer on a continuing basis to work with Russian colleagues and also train students. And that seems to be working quite well; they've gotten some good people who have committed to this and they have been doing it for 10 years.

Kontowski:      What else can be done in home country?

Altbach:           These days there is much discussion of “internationalization at home”, that is providing a good international experience for local students on their home campuses by integrating them better with the international students enrolled. In the United States we have lots of international students, but most universities don't use them very constructively. And we also don't serve the international students well enough; we just sort of leave them, and we should pay more attention to them.


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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