After growing rapidly for two decades, higher education enrollments peaked in 2009, having risen fivefold to almost 2 million. This year, the numbers have tailed off and are set to fall farther, even though Poland’s university enrollment rate is the fourth highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations.
By 2020, the number of 19-year-olds in Poland will be about 361,500 – almost half the level of 2002’s high-water mark, when those born at the height of the baby boom of the early to mid-1980s reached university age, according to a report published by the Perspektywy Education Foundation.
"By 2016, the number of places on offer in state universities will be equal to the number of teenagers graduating from high school," explains Witold Bielecki, rector of Kozminski University in Warsaw, one of Poland’s most highly regarded private universities.
Remarking on the population figures, Bielecki says that many universities – from the state and the private sector alike – are under threat because in the years of plenty they failed to prepare for the coming downturn in student numbers.
“In the 1990s, universities were working without strategies [on how to adapt] because everything was fine,” he says.
Bielecki is proud that Kozminski was quick to spot the demographic dip and to diversify its student body to make it less reliant on traditional young undergraduates. "About 30 percent of our income comes from postgraduate students on our M.B.A. and executive study programs,” says Bielecki, who has also sought to internationalize the institution’s student body by providing courses taught in English.
International students now make up about 30 percent of Kozminski’s main undergraduate student body, and the university uses agents to recruit in Ukraine, Russia and China.
“We have some students from Peru who used the Internet to find somewhere that had prestigious accreditation and where the tuition costs and accommodation were relatively low,” he says.
An Insular Academy
But very few Polish universities will be able to follow Kozminski’s blueprint for financial success and supplement falling domestic student numbers with entrants from abroad.
According to the Perspektywy Education Foundation’s report, there were just 24,253 international students in Poland in 2011-12, accounting for 1.4 percent of all students. Although that figure is double the 0.6 percent it was just five years before, it is still one of the lowest rates of internationalization among developed countries.
Indeed, 40 percent of Poland’s higher education institutions had no international students at all, the report notes.
Universities that are unable to attract international students have been forced to draw more from the shrinking pool of domestic students to maintain enrollments. And this has led to complaints that today’s students are less prepared for higher study than their predecessors were.
“My colleagues used to say that the average student in the 1990s was much better than the current ones,” says Benjamin Stanley, who taught at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw from 2011 to 2013. “Year after year, the statistics for recruitment [declined], and it was clear that universities would have to cut their cloth to match their finances,” adds Stanley, who studies contemporary Polish politics as a Marie Curie Intra-European Research Fellow in politics at the University of Sussex.
With institutions’ resources now concentrated on science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, he continues, social science and humanities faculties are particularly feeling the pinch. “Universities have said they will not continue to pump money into loss-making faculties, which should be made to pay their own way,” Stanley says. This has led to cutbacks, “certainly at postgraduate level.”
The slump in student numbers has coincided with a renewed focus on the suitability and preparedness of graduates for the jobs market in Poland, where unemployment stands at 14 percent despite five consecutive years of economic growth. “Poland perceives that it has too many students of doubtful academic quality entering the university system and [too many] leaving with degrees that cannot get them a well-paid job,” Stanley says.
“This is exactly what the prime minister [Donald Tusk] has said recently, [that] it is better to be a well-remunerated welder than an unemployed social science graduate,” he adds.
No Model for Reform
Poland, however, is no model for reform, Stanley says, and it has only recently begun to get to grips with the problems it faces in higher education.
“All the political discussion has centered around whether the government has done enough to encourage the birth rate through its family-friendly policies, and the issue of universities hasn’t really played out in the media,” he says.
“There is a recognition, however, that the expansion of private universities is not sustainable,” he adds. The country’s private sector has boomed in the past two decades, with 350 or so private higher education institutions set up since 1991.
Poland has started to reform its higher education sector to reflect the needs of the country’s businesses, with a stronger focus on the STEM subjects that support its growing high-tech manufacturing and engineering industries.
Last year, Barbara Kudrycka, who was then the minister for higher education and science, put forward plans to improve quality at public universities by restricting student numbers.
She and her successor, Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, argue that the proposed regulation will not limit access to education, according to Justyna Giezynska, who runs the higher education consultancy Studybility, and who has previously worked at the World Bank.
“The ministry believes that it will help public universities [to address] overcrowded classrooms, the weak relation of subjects taught to the labor market’s needs and [students’] diminishing access to professors and lecturers,” Giezynska says.
But reducing the number of places could harm the academic prospects of poor students, who cannot afford coaching to prepare for the national matura exams used to allocate places at public universities, which do not charge tuition fees but receive state funding on a per-student basis.
“Success at matura does not reflect just the student’s individual capacities and approach to studying, but also their parents’ ability to financially support the child,” Giezynska says.
She believes more fundamental change is needed. “Curbing the number of students admitted, although a simple and logical managerial move, will not translate directly into higher quality in Polish universities. The only way [to raise quality] is to look seriously at governance and management issues and the financing of higher education.”
Fear of Change
As a whole, Giezynska believes, Poland’s universities have been too slow to adapt to the internationalization of higher education, have failed to attract staff and students from abroad and have fallen behind on the world stage.
“Public higher education institutions are immune to administrative progress and are panic-stricken when change management is mentioned,” she claims. “They [seek to] maintain the status quo established by the existing administration – rectors who have been holding their posts for decades and academic staff too aloof to wallow in the mud of mundane operational management.”
It is time for the country to rethink its academic model and to reassess whether having high numbers of students is inherently good, she argues. “I know of a university that admits fewer students while raising admission requirements, which is precisely the thing to do,” she says.
For universities, that approach will mean less income and more demanding students.
However, Giezynska is not sure that Poland’s public universities are ready to make the reforms needed to tackle the major challenges presented by the demographic shifts.
“Proper management could start changes towards improvements in quality, but we make a circle here: someone has to want to change,” she says.