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The Warsaw Voice » Other » August 13, 2008
Polish Science
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Research and Academia in Need of Reform
August 13, 2008   
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The Polish government is determined to go ahead with a reform of the country's research institutions this year and follow up with far-reaching changes to the higher education system next year.

The government is working to prepare a package of reforms to change the way in which research and science institutions are financed, according to Barbara Kudrycka, Poland's minister for science and higher education.

By the end of this year, the government plans to amend laws regulating the operations of research-and-development centers across the country and institutions such as the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) and the National Center for Research and Development (NCBR), Kudrycka said. The government also plans to draft a bill to create a National Science Center (NCN). All these changes are designed to limit the indiscriminate financing of research institutes and assign more money to specific research projects, Kudrycka said. Funds will be allocated by means of competitions for grants organized by the NCBR and NCN.

The reform plan calls for a consistent increase in the government's spending on science. One of the first steps would be to establish a Council for the Development of Science and Innovation that would be headed by the prime minister and include other ministers and experts. The council would prepare short- and medium-term strategies for the science sector.

The government plans to reduce subsidies for the "statutory activities" of research centers, meaning funds designed to cover their day-to-day expenses and maintain their research capacity. Only the best research centers would receive such subsidies, while the least efficient R&D centers would be transformed into companies.

Money for research and jobs at research institutions would be distributed through competitions. The winners would be selected on the basis of their research results rather than academic degrees or titles. Researchers working at R&D centers would be employed on a temporary basis to encourage competition. The government wants to subsidize research projects that offer the best prospects for practical application.

Kudrycka says scientists are in favor of the changes planned by the government. "The scientific community is well aware of the need for changes," she said. "We are in fact concentrating on projects prepared by the scientific community. No one has any doubt that research-and-development centers and scientific institutions should support themselves with funds assigned for specific research projects."

Upgrading academia

Reforms to the higher education system will take longer to prepare. By the end of this year the government will draft general rules for changing the way in which university-level schools are financed and managed. According to Kudrycka, these reforms could be implemented at the beginning of the 2009/2010 academic year.

By the end of the year the government will also define the rules for reforming the system for granting scientific degrees and titles, Kudrycka said. Government experts are working to establish criteria for the assessment of scientific achievement.

The main goal of the government's reform plan for the higher education system is to change the country's traditional academic career models and improve the way in which schools are organized, government experts say.

Under the new system, the most talented students would be able to start their Ph.D. studies directly after obtaining a B.A. degree (licencjat) and would receive special grants for that. Government experts say it is necessary to abolish the degree of senior Ph.D. (doktor habilitowany) and replace it with a certificate granting a Ph.D. degree holder the status of an independent researcher with the right to supervise Ph.D. students.

Government experts have come up with an idea to grant two types of Ph.D. degrees, professional and academic. They say this would make it possible to draw a distinction between people who want to use Ph.D. studies to broaden their knowledge and those who intend to pursue an academic career.

The salary system for academic staff would be reformed, and funds for academic research would be distributed through competitions.

The ministry wants to encourage academic staff to show greater mobility by introducing obligatory doctoral and post-doctoral internships at schools other than their own. These would include internships in companies and institutions abroad. Positions at schools would be filled for specified periods of time, with recruitment taking place through competitions.

The government wants university-level schools to be better managed and financed, and it also wants to encourage them to work with companies and foreign partners. One of the key goals is to select "flagship" schools and departments-the best of the best in their field. These would be granted Leading National Academic Center status and be eligible for a range of privileges. The most efficient school departments-those that carry out the most research and offer top-quality instruction-would receive more money than other departments. Some of the funds would be generated through programs in which colleges would work with companies. Additional funds from European Union coffers would be used to finance selected courses in order to better meet the job market's demand for graduates in specific fields.

Money for schools would be allocated according to new rules depending on the field of study. The government would change the criteria for determining the costs of instruction. For example, training a literature expert is less expensive than teaching a chemist who must carry out laboratory experiments using expensive materials and equipment. The government would take these differences into account while distributing money to schools. Government experts say the current fund allocation system does not reflect the actual instruction costs and should be modified.

The academic community is being encouraged to become more competitive internationally by establishing closer ties with companies and foreign research institutions.

According to a report compiled by the Polish Civil Forum, a reform-oriented initiative launched by the Gdańsk Institute for Market Economics (IBnGR), the main weakness of the Polish science and higher education system is poor management of institutions and schools. Too much of the money given to schools and research centers is allocated on the basis of outdated criteria that do not take into account the quality of scientific research and education, the report says.

"A typical academic will first get a master's degree, then a doctorate followed by a postdoctoral degree, then a professorship and will work until retirement at the same university at which they studied," the report says. "This applies in particular to the most renowned schools with a long academic tradition. Only newer schools, or ones with weak staff, are forced to seek people from the outside. This lack of staff mobility results in the continuation of established research methods on the same subjects and discourages change."

According to the report's editor, Prof. Andrzej Jajszczyk from the telecommunications department of the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow, reforms will require removing some academic staff who fail to meet modern standards. "Unfortunately the case in many Polish schools is that, besides some excellent academics who are renowned around the world, the system includes people who are no longer involved in science and are also poor teachers," says Jajszczyk.

This is one of the main reasons why Poland's best universities perform badly in global league tables of higher-education establishments, Jajszczyk says. "This situation will only change when young scientists begin to compete against one another from the start of their scientific careers," Jajszczyk adds. "Their work must be continuously assessed and they must realize that academia has space only for the best. It is also important that schools become more responsive to local conditions and labor-market requirements."

According to the report, if schools were managed better and learned to respond to market forces, the best universities would focus on educating the best students. They would employ the best professors because they would be able to offer the highest salaries and would charge the highest tuition fees. Other schools would opt for a less intensive approach by offering a lower standard of education, taking on many students and consequently charging lower tuition fees.

Marcin Rybicki
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