Polish universities respond to the refugee crisis

Supporting refugees takes not only political will on the part of university leaders but also budgetary decisions by faculty councils.

January 24, 2016

The following essay analyzes the scope and reasons for universities to direct support towards refugees following the crisis that has accelerated since last August. The analysis is based on public statements by institutions, media and relevant online resources. The last part relates to the problems resulting from elections won by the conservative national Law and Justice party in October as well as bigger picture after the Paris attacks in November.

On the very day Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit’s published “The Syrian Refugee Crisis – What Can Universities Do?” in University World News, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education organized a press conference addressing the same issue. The University of Warsaw and AGH University of Technology in Cracow announced they will enroll small numbers of refugees, awarding them scholarships and enrolling them in courses in Polish language and culture. The former minister, Lena Kolarska-Bobinska from right-liberal Civic Platform, has asked other higher education institutions to consider joining the movement, and announced a higher education amendement that grants universities more freedom in the recognition of prior learning to facilitate the admission of refugees.

During the following six weeks and the hectic period preceding a new academic year, 22 Polish institutions have commited more than 155 places in language courses, 200 places in degree granting programs (some of them taught in English), 90 places in dormitories and 73 scholarships. This is in a national context of 424 higher education institutions of which only 25% are public—but just one private can be found among the 22.

Given strong anti-refugee sentiments within the society, a rather inhospitable political climate in Central-Eastern Europe (Czech Republik, Slovakia, Hungary), and considering the 6500 refugees that Poland has already agreed to host during high level EU negotiations, this number of university offers is a fair number to start with. But the numbers are rather hazy.

Although the Minister sent a letter asking universities to support the refugees, no single source has compiled the responses. The most comprehensive catalogue has been published on the website of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland (KRASP). The document was released at the end of October with no subsequent information or updates.

The KRASP document lists 19 institutions with a description of the support they will offer. Only four of those issued a public statement on their university’s website: two already mentioned above along with Jagiellonian University in Cracow, and the University of Lodz in central Poland. AGH University of Technology was the only one to announce support for refugees on their Facebook page, only to receive predictably anti-immigrant comments. Only a small number of institutions from KRASP list discussed their support with the media.

The forms of support offered vary considerably. Only four institutions offered broad support — a language course, places in degree-programs and accommodations or scholarship. The most comprehensive approach was offered by the University of Silesia in Katowice (southern Poland). Vice-rector Ryszard Koziołek held a press conference on September 30th and announced that the university would reserve 12 places for refugee students in academic programs in addition to a free language course for 20 refugees and their families. By the end of the month the project became more expansive as the numbers doubled and academic conferences, workshops in the local community and a database of translators were added. Four institutions declared their intent of support without specifying details. Some others suggested that decisions would be made later in the academic year.

There were surprises. The Police Academy invited 15 refugees for language courses. University of Dąbrowa Górnicza, a small private institution, invited 15 refugees for language courses with an as yet undefined option to continue their studies. Karkonoska Państwowa Szkoła Wyższa w Jeleniej Górze (university of applied sciences) and Poznan University of Technology announced they would be taking in 8 refugee-faculty members, but only if the necessary funds are provided by the government or the European Union. Additionally, 3 out of 7 denominational universities responded positively, however the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Cracow opted to support Catholic schools in Lebanon instead of refugees in Poland.

Little has been done to publicly defend these potentially unpopular initiatives. AGH University of Sciences in Cracow and the University of Silesia have see themselves as international universities with broad social responsibilities. John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin and University of Warsaw focused on their history of support for refugees; the latter also emphasized the public role of universities in countering intolerance and used the occasion to acknowledge the support Polish academics received from the Western countries during Communist rule. The University of Zielona Gora near the German border declared higher education to be the best way of integrating the refugees, just few days after the city faced an anti-immigrant rally.

Public support for the refugees came initially from prominent political and cultural figures. It took a month longer for KRASP to publish a statement on behalf of the university community condemning hate speech against the refugees, echoing similar declarations from Germany, Switzerland, the UK, the Netherlands and the European Universities Association. In addition, 26 HEIs have published this statement on their websites, including many that did not respond to the call for support with any commitment.


What does this mean in fact?

Supporting refugees takes not only political will on the part of university leaders but also budgetary decisions by faculty councils.  The details of the kind of support being offered are not clear at all.

Foreign citizens are the only group that pay tuition for full-time studies at public universities, but a refugee who has been “legalized” in Poland enjoys all the education rights of a Polish citizen. As a result, often declared tuition waivers are not really needed. On the other hand, preferential and open admission to degree programs is polemical and has not been promised explicitly by any institution.  How this will all play out is not clear.

It is safe to say that the enthusiasm for supporting refugees is waning. Since October there has been no more news about universities supporting the refugees. The Paris attacks did not encourage more sympathy within the academy as one would hope. And the anti-immigrant tide seems to be rising as the arrival of more refugees becomes imminent.

The political climate for supporting refugees has, unfortunately, worsened. The new government has already made international headlines by attempting to censor theatres and overtaking the Constitutional Tribunal. After the Paris attacks, a senior government official declared Poland would scrap previously negotiated refugee quotas for security reasons.

Jaroslaw Gowin, the Deputy PM and a minister responsible for higher education, seems preoccupied by other issues, including a desire to cancel public support for gay and lesbian studies and to industrialize the country through innovation. The welcome initially expressed by the Polish higher education community seems to be diminishing. One should not be surprised if many public institutions withdraw their support entirely in the coming months.


Daniel Kontowski - is a PhD student at the University of Winchester and a leader of a research project at the University of Warsaw, investigating various European liberal education initiatives.


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