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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 2, 2009
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Reform Ready to Roll
December 2, 2009   
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Prof. Barbara Kudrycka, minister of science and higher education, talks to Danuta Górecka.

After two years of public debate, the government has approved the guidelines of the higher education reform proposed by your ministry. The main guidelines include increased funding and all-round support for the best schools, researchers and students, greater autonomy for universities, an end to nepotism at schools, no more than two full-time jobs per scholar, and just one course of study per student for free. Does this mean that the Polish higher education system will undergo a revolution?

It's not a revolution because that's something I'm against in education. This plan is the first such comprehensive approach to changes in the higher education sector and a decisive step towards a modern system on a par with Western standards. The main idea behind the proposed changes is to support and promote the best at every level-institutions, scientific entities, researchers, postgraduates and students.

The league tables of the world's best universities include just two Polish institutions of higher education, Cracow's Jagiellonian University and the University of Warsaw, both far down in the fourth hundred. Can the proposed reform help these universities move up the list? What are the prospects of other Polish universities?

Ranking lists shouldn't be overestimated, but neither should they be ignored-they are largely responsible for raising a university's profile at home and abroad; they also translate directly into student interest. And we-especially given the imminent population decline and the decreasing number of students in Poland-want to strengthen the position of Polish universities and make foreign students more interested than they are today in studying in Poland.

Our plan is that the changes will take the best Polish universities into the European top 20 by 2020. I believe that the new rules for financing higher education and the greater flow of funds to universities with the best research and academic results will help the most.

The reform gives more money to the best course providers, which the Ministry of Science and Higher Education has called Leading National Academic Centers (KNOW). This title will only be available through a competition. Who will organize the competition and what will the criteria be for evaluating which courses at which universities are the best?

KNOW status will be available to departments or their federations, research centers and research teams that confirm their highest, world standard of research and teaching. The evaluating teams will include leading foreign scientists-to guarantee transparent procedures independent of any relations within the academic community.

Four units with KNOW status will be selected in the first year of the new law being in force. In the next five years each of them will receive as much as zl.10.2 million on top of the standard subsidy. This money will finance research but also remuneration for scientists-we assume they could earn up to several times more than now.

Financial support will also go to Ph.D. students studying at a KNOW unit; they can expect to receive grants of up to zl.4,000, and graduate students-up to zl.1,500. KNOW status will also mean preference when applying for EU subsidies and grants.

What does it mean that universities will gain greater autonomy as a result of the reform?

Autonomy should be understood in two ways, as financial autonomy and autonomy in terms of the curriculum. Our primary focus is to strengthen curricular autonomy and enable the best universities, those that confer postdoctoral degrees, to develop their teaching programs on an independent basis.

We will introduce a National Qualifications Framework, or a description of the skills that graduates of eight teaching areas should have. Based on these guidelines, universities will design their own curricula and build their own courses, taking into account factors such as the needs of employers and the local economy. To put it simply, we will show what knowledge and skills graduates need to have, but universities will decide specifically what to teach and how.

Closer ties with business are an opportunity for applied sciences. What about fundamental research?

The demand for fundamental research is just as great in business and the economy as demand for applied research. To enable both fundamental and applied research to obtain financial support and to make sure that research results are applied in practice, we precisely defined the responsibilities of the National Center for Research and Development and the National Science Center, which are expected to ensure transparent, competition-based rules for distributing research grants. The National Science Center will finance fundamental research in this way.

The reform provides for easier academic careers and a simplified procedure for obtaining postdoctoral degrees, though these were supposed to be abolished… What new ideas does the ministry have in store?

Today scientists obtain their postdoctoral degree relatively late, at age 46 and later on average. The postdoctoral procedure itself is long, time-consuming and complicated. Along the way, we often lose what is the most valuable-scientific potential. The main thing that will count in the new procedure will be scientific achievements. We have decided to do away with the procedure for defending a postdoctoral thesis and the postdoctoral lecture, and also abolished the obligation to submit the postdoctoral thesis in the traditional form.

Scientists will no longer be allowed to work at several universities at the same time; under the law, they will only be able to work at two. There will also be a ban on smaller institutions "borrowing" scientists from renowned universities. Won't this rule cause protests among academic teachers because it spells substantially reduced earnings for them?

Scientists holding multiple jobs is a plague whose consequences are felt by students and teachers alike. It's not a rare thing for a scholar to receive remuneration from several employers at the same time. This fragmentation results in neglect of research work and increasingly poorer quality of teaching. Scientists themselves are talking about the problem more often and with growing resonance.

Limiting scientists' employment to two jobs will allow them to concentrate on research, on investigating undiscovered fields-after all, this is the mission and vocation of any scientist. At the same time, there will be more job openings for ambitious young scientists many of whom decide to leave Poland today to build their scientific careers abroad. This regulation will also stimulate competition and better work among private universities. After years of "faculty borrowing," these schools might finally make the effort to train their own staff. Our reform plans provide for supplementary funding for Ph.D. studies also at private universities.

Let's consider students. The reform says that only one course at a state-run university will be for free. Students will have to pay for any further course. Does this apply to all students? What about the most gifted ones?

Today half the students from any given year go to university. No country, no matter how rich, could afford to finance university courses for everyone.

Many international organizations, including the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have pointed out that our system is unfair because 60 percent of students-1.2 million young people-pay double for their education, in taxes and in tuition.

Thanks to fees for a second, extra course, in the case of students with a low credit average the system will become more just. First of all, there will be more places at full-time, free courses available from state universities. This will mainly benefit young people from poorer families and rural areas who pay for their education today.

We will put a stop to the abnormal situation in which some students took up to a dozen or so courses for taxpayers' money and graduated from none. The government cannot consent to mediocre students being given the privilege of taking a second or third course at public cost.

Having said that, we are leaving the possibility of free extra courses for the 10 percent most talented students. In fact, many good universities have long applied the criterion of a student's credit average in a first course when allowing them to take a second course.

And, probably the most important thing, we are making it easier for universities to open interdisciplinary, interdepartmental studies that will slowly replace studies at several courses simultaneously-a practice that is already outdated in the West.

When will the higher education reform take effect?

If the lower house of parliament works efficiently on the package, the changes will come into force in the 2010/11 academic year.

Which of the initial guidelines have you not managed to push through?

We decided against including a regulation whereby retired professors would've been given what is known as inactive status. We were told that they would be negatively affected, as having inactive status would mean they wouldn't be allowed to work. In addition, as a guarantee for a narrow social group, this would constitute a breach in the overall retirement pension system. We aren't abandoning the idea altogether, though. Three ministries-of science, labor and finance-are working together to come up with a better idea. I have to admit that in the course of arduous work and broad consultation within the academic community, we have managed to achieve a promising consensus on important system changes. That's a major step in the right direction. It's time for more.
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