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Comprehensive reforms of Polish higher education and research systems started in 2010-2011. Their major part was the 2010 law on a new national research council called the “National Science Centre” (NCN). The rationale behind its establishment was twofold: to leave decisions about research funding for fundamental research to the academic community and to increase the competition for research funding. Until the recent wave of reforms, a large proportion of research funding in Poland was distributed through an (almost non-competitive) “statutory research” funding. It was allocated between university units (faculties) based on periodic assessment exercises. And for about two decades it was the major source of research funding for Polish academics.

According to a new law (2010), at least 50 percent of all research funding will have to be awarded on a competitive basis from 2020 onwards. The NCN, as a new independent research council, is a major player in this change of funding regime: away from non-competitive (and institutional), statutory research funding and towards increasingly competitive (and individual) grant-based funding.  A new funding agency, the National Centre for Research and Development or NCBIR supports university-business links.

During its first two years of operation (2011-2012) the NCN funded over four thousand grants (4,360) totally roughly a half billion USD. In 20120, the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, promised that at least 300 million USD per year would be available from 2013 onwards.  The NCN is a Polish equivalent of the extremely successful European Research Council (ERC) that provided 7.5 billion EUR in the 2007-2013 period on what it terms “frontier research”. The rationale for creating both agencies (an independent agency, academics making decisions), the division into streams of funding and the structure of disciplinary assessment panels is almost identical. Funding applications are channeled into three areas: Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; and Life Sciences; and then into 25 panels comprising more than 100 disciplines). The results of calls for proposals in all categories (starting grants, postdoctoral grants, mid-career grants, and established researchers’ grants) have been stunning. They reflect the new the geography of knowledge production as well as the growing stratification of the Polish higher education system.

There are two largest national universities—the Jagiellonian University (UJ) in Krakow and Warsaw University (UW) are in fierce competition with each other earning over 400 grants each.  These are the only institutions ranked in the 2012 Academic Ranking of World Universities, in the 301-400 ranks). UJ and UW together received about 20 percent of all grants and of all competitive research funding. The second cluster of universities are Poznan University (UAM), AGH University of Science and Technology, Wroclaw University and Warsaw University of Technology. The number of their grants is considerably lower though  with UAM receiving 212 grants and the other three universities with 114-145 grants each.

While the research dominance of the two largest universities is clear, what also emerges from the NCN grant statistics is a national Top 10 list. The Top 10 universities have won 42 percent of all grants and the Top 20 institutions have won 55 percent of all grants. The statistics for the most prestigious grants (called Maestro, in line with other categories such as Preludium, Sonata, and Harmonia) offered to top-level advanced researchers follows the pattern. There were 99 Maestro grants and 30 percent of them went to UJ and UW, 45 percent to the Top 5, 60 percent to the Top 10, and 80 percent to the Top 20 institutions. Slightly more than a half of all 40 Maestro-grants recipient institutions, at the other end of the spectrum, received only one Maestro grant. The growing concentration of research funding, talents and opportunities has been clear throughout the last two decades. With new research funding mechanisms, with the increasing effect of competition, further stratification of research seems unavoidable and is consistent with developments across Europe.

We know the winners but who are the losers? The list of recipient institutions includes only 250 in a system of about 450 higher education institutions (including 330 private) and several dozens of research institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences. The list of losers is thus long. The winners are top metropolitan universities while the losers are middle-level and low-level institutions where knowledge production is only marginally competitive. Among the recipient institutions, there are over 100 institutions (or about 40 percent) that received only 1-3 grants and 71 institutions (or about 30 percent) that received only one grant, in most cases worth less than 100,000 USD. The mechanisms of competition are cruel but, as elsewhere, based on the notion of excellence.

The private sector does not fare well; there are only two private institutions among the first 100 recipient institutions and in among top 200 institutions there are only four. Competitive research seems not to be performed in the private sector. There are only two exceptions (which might be termed “semi-elite” private higher education institutions, following Daniel C. Levy’s classifications), both Warsaw-based— University of Social Sciences and the Humanities (SWPS) and the Leon Kozminski Academy, with 29 and 13 grants respectively, and with total funding of 2.5 million USD and 1.2 million USD. Each institutions received one Maestro grant. From the point of view of prestige, the NCN data are disastrous to the whole private sector. They are not surprising, though. The private sector, as discussed in my previous blog entries, is almost entirely teaching-oriented and unable to participate in a competition for national (or international) research funding.  The issue of prestige earned from research productivity is of marginal importance, though, in the context of declining demographics.  According to recent official forecasts of the Polish Ministry of Science, the share of enrollment in the private sector will decrease from about 33 percent to about 12 percent within a decade, possibly leading to closures of 80 percent of private institutions.

The competitive funding made available through the NCN will gradually lead to the emergence of a new class of Polish research-intensive universities. This category is expected to enter Polish public policy discourse with more intensity, accompanied by an ever higher concentration of research funding in the coming years.


Note: The Author is the winner of the NCN “Maestro” grant for the 2012-2017 period for “The Program for International Comparative Research in Higher Education”.

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