Rankings, Mergers, Development

This is the final part of an extended interview between Daniel Kontowski and Philip Altbach, who consider challenges for Polish universities as they discuss critical issues for higher education. 

November 8, 2015

Kontowski: The EU has almost 4,000 higher education institutions, 434 of them are now in Poland. With only 7% of EU population, we host 11% of the higher education institutions. There are fourteen types of HEIs; they report to different ministries; and only about a 100 are public. And yet, the quantity doesn’t translate into ranking-based quality.

Do you think that mergers would help rationalize the system, or if not, at least improve the rankings?

Altbach: I think that's very worthwhile for Poland to discuss, and not because of the rankings. Specialized institutions are part of the history of Poland and Eastern Europe. A lot of this specialization was inherited from the Soviet Union, one of the many unfortunate inheritances. Russians face the same problem and has managed quite a few mergers over the last 20 years. In the Soviet days universities were dispersed among different ministries in addition to the ministry of education — we call them silos.

That doesn't work now for a number of reasons. The global economy has changed so it's no longer useful to keep the silos separated. It was never a good idea actually, but it sort of worked in the planned economy to some extent when you could just assign people to jobs and they did that job whether they were needed or not.

So you got these small institutions, that were too specialized, and there's a very strong argument for putting “Humpty Dumpty” back together again — to benefit from mobility and encourage interdisciplinarity. Plus, it will absolutely help in the rankings. But that's not a good reason to do it. 

On the other hand there are many cases where mergers have failed. It's very difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again because of the different academic cultures that have emerged, because of entrenched personal interests within institutions, because of financial questions and difficulties of getting different ministries to relinquish power.

Again in the Russian case (the Chinese also) you can see that they have been more successful than many Western countries. In part because they have the power to make people do this but also because they allocated significant amounts of money to drive this process.

It’s crazy when a student with a degree in power station engineering (Soviets were very good at that) cannot get a job anywhere else because the education is too specialized. So there is a strong argument for merging specialized institutions in order create more flexible degree programs.

Kontowski:  Does Poland need 434 institutions?

Altbach: I don't know. 400 for a country of 36 million, is not all that many actually.

There is an argument to be made for smaller colleges and schools, depending on geographical location and intellectual focus. So there is no way to say: Poland should only have 236 or some another number; 434 might well be too many and there is a very strong market argument for merging some or many of them to overcome overspecialization

Kontowski: Are mergers more desirable for universities in major population centers, rather than smaller institutions serving the regions?

Altbach: Yes, I absolutely think that it is easiest to do that if the geography works.

Plus, the political problems of taking universities from the local area where they exist and moving them somewhere else are huge. We learned at the State University of New York, where I used to teach, that closing or merging a small institution in a rural area is virtually impossible. There is now no justification for some of these small campuses located in regions with very small populations and few potential students. Yet, to move them, close them or merge them has been politically impossible for over half a century. They have tried, and with very good research on exactly what should be done, but couldn’t overcome the political obstacles.

Kontowski: Some activists propose that we should fund all degree programs in all regions. They argue that the university offer should not be driven by enrollments (or lack of). But while philosophy has been just phased out at a small university in Eastern Poland, in Krakow there are four philosophy degree programs – which is just as irrational.

The obvious alternative would be a merger to make the system more efficient and help us with rankings too.

Altbach: Don't worry about the rankings so much. The rankings focus only at the top of any system. Let Warsaw and Krakow, maybe Poznan and Wroclaw worry about the rankings. That’s reasonable, because they have a chance.

In a country like yours, this is a story of small numbers. In the Czech Republic maybe 2, in Hungary maybe 2, in Russia maybe 20, should be thinking about these things. In America we have about 4000 postsecondary institutions. If you consider the membership of the Association of American Universities, the 62 most elite institutions, and then add another hundred top research universities like Boston College, there are probably 150 research universities out of 4000. That's a big number but it's a very small part of our system. The rest shouldn't be thinking about the rankings even for five minutes. My Russian colleagues worry too much about the rankings also. It is fine for the top universities but that's all. 

Kontowski:  But do we need a philosophy department in all regions?

Altbach:           I think the US has had a pretty good answer to the issue of higher education in regional development. We ensure that there is access to postsecondary education in most parts of the country through community colleges. These are relatively inexpensive institutions offering maybe 70% vocational, 30% general education, with no research mission. They are teaching institutions and it's possible to transfer from them to a university. I consider the community colleges to be the genius of the US system. There is no commitment to have a regular university in commuting distance of all parts of the country.

Kontowski:      But universities help develop the regions, both economically and culturally! Without regional centers, all youth goes to Rome…

Altbach:           The problem of population movement from the periphery to the center is inevitable. It happens in all places.

I taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo for 20 years, a very good university and AAU member. The university attracted students from all of the states and from all over the world, but most did not stay in Buffalo after graduation. They went to New York City; they went to Beijing; they went everywhere. The local economy benefited to some extent from having this world-class university there, but it did not succeed in retaining people who wanted to leave. And in fact, it gave a very good education to local students, who then left.

In the Boston area the opposite happens. People come from all over the US and all over the world to study at and while most of them leave, many stay because the economy and the urban environment attract them. In Boston higher education serves as a magnet for development and has really been quite crucial.  MIT and other institutions have helped to build the biotech industry over the last 30 years, now a trillion-dollar industry and a huge economic driver for the area. 

So, in short, you shouldn't assume that if you have a university in an underserved part of the country that it is going to have economic impact. There may be other reasons to have a university somewhere.


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