Central European knowledge production seems low from comparative perspective. There is a marked absence of Central European universities in global (and especially European) university rankings. In the rankings published by The Times Higher Education in 2011, there are no institutions from Central Europe in the top 200. Only five universities from the region were present in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities—Charles University in Prague, the Czech Republic, rank 201-300, and four in the range 301-400 (Warsaw University and Jagiellonian University in Poland, Eotvos Lorand University and University of Szeged in Hungary). No university from the Slovak Republic, Romania or Bulgaria was ranked in the top 500. This absence illustrates how universities in the region compare with Western European universities. There are many different objections to university rankings and their methodologies but Central European universities are permanently absent from all rankings.
In Central European countries, economic competitiveness is not measured by the same “pillars” as in the affluent OECD neighbors. Michael Porter’s pillars of higher education and training and innovation seem to be substantially less important. Central European economic problem is structural and extremely difficult to overcome, requiring both time and funding; the progress will be counted in years, if not decades, and (mostly public) investments counted in dozens, if not hundreds, of billions of Euros.
At the same time, expectations of higher education, R&D and innovation by governments and the general public in the region are very high, but we view them as largely exaggerated, due to numerous other factors exogenous to the two systems.
Higher education can play different roles in different countries as economies are driven by various types of competition at different stages of economic development. Only the Czech Republic can operate according to the same competitive pillars as the most affluent OECD countries. Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania are in a transition stage. Bulgaria and Romania are in a lower stage of development while other post-communist countries outside of the European Union such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan or Moldova are in the initial stages of development.
The role of higher education is different at each stage and faces different challenges at each according to Porter’s analytical framework. As nations develop, their competitive advantages and modes of competing move from the factor-driven stage (low-cost labor, natural resources) to the investment-driven stage (foreign technology, imitation) to the highest one – the innovation-driven stage (innovative products and services at the global technology frontier, as elaborated by Michael E. Porter for the first time in The Competitive Advantage of Nationsin 1990).
Discussions of knowledge production in post-communist Europe cannot ignore a fundamental distinction between efficiency-driven growth in Albania or Bulgaria, increasing movement towards innovation-driven growth in Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Poland and Romania, and finally predominantly innovation-driven growth in the Czech Republic. More modern higher education and innovation systems alone would not drive economic competitiveness. There is a wide, although gradual bridging of the East/West gap related to a multitude of factors including tax systems, legal systems and transportation infrastructure. Knowledge production in universities in the region cannot be assessed in isolation from the larger economic environments. Higher education institutions cannot be held solely responsible for low economic competitiveness, and higher education reforms cannot be expected to bear economic results as quickly as policymakers in the region expect.
Knowledge production in universities and in business occurs in regulatory environments that influence the performance of universities and companies. In universities, it is funding and governance authority; in the business sector it is often (The World Bank’s) “ease of doing business” that matters most.
Higher education and innovation in Western European countries – as opposed to Central European countries – function in very competitive economies and companies, including companies involved in research, development, and innovation, operate in relatively friendly legal and regulatory environments. This brings us back to two ideas: first, expectations from higher education (and innovation) systems should not be exaggerated in less competitive economies (such as Central European economies). And, second, the role of higher education and innovation systems in Central Europe and in Western Europe is constrained by a multitude of factors beyond its higher education systems.
The fiscal constraints in which higher education in Central Europe operates are high and there are high levels of competition for (scarce) public funding. On the global competitiveness index Poland consistently ranks dramatically low in one of the most expensive categories –the quality of infrastructure is ranked 87th out of 142 economies; the quality of roads ranked 134th; the quality of port infrastructure is ranked 107th and quality of air transport infrastructure ranked 111th. The other Central European countries are also ranked very low in all above categories, with the exception of railroad infrastructure in the Czech and Slovak Republics.
In conclusion, the East/West differences in higher education systems and in knowledge production may be bigger than expected, and the role of historical legacies may be more long-term than generally assumed. The transformation of universities may take much longer and the gradual convergence of both higher education and research systems in two parts of Europe cannot be taken for granted without thoughtful changes in both university funding (both modes and levels) and governance. Central European universities desperately struggle to remain in the global academic center but their gradual decline to the academic periphery cannot be overlooked.
(These ideas are further developed in my paper in: Paul Temple (ed.), Universities in the Knowledge Economy. Higher Education Organisation and Global Change, Routledge, 2012).