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The Warsaw Voice » Society » June 27, 2013
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Rating Poland’s Universities
June 27, 2013   
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Michał Kleiber, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

What criteria should be adopted to make sure the quality of a university is reliably assessed?
All league tables are definitely worth studying, of course, but you need to consider how they are compiled. They often use criteria which I consider irrelevant as far as higher education is concerned. For example, the world’s most important league table, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Rankings, only assesses the academic potential of universities and says nothing about the teaching methods they use. Universities score the highest for alumni who went on to win the Nobel Prize, which could have nothing to do with the quality of education provided by one school or another. For example, the University of Warsaw scored points for the fact that one of its students before World War II was Menachem Begin who later became prime minister of Israel and won the Nobel Peace Prize. There is hardly a connection between Begin’s college years and his international success in politics years later.

There is no ideal league table of universities nor will there ever be one. The main problem in drawing up the Polish league table [compiled for years by the rzeczpospolita newspaper and the Perspektywy magazine] is collecting and standardizing opinions about university graduates from their employers. Some consider such opinions the very essence of good ratings, because at the end of the day, you educate people to make sure somebody gives them a job afterwards. But when you interview a random sample of employers, it is the largest universities that prevail because they are the ones people know best.

Americans, on the other hand, have a simple rating system where the key criterion are salaries which alumni are paid one, three and 10 years after graduation. Back in Poland, there is no way you could narrow the criteria down like that, for example because Polish businesses do not yet aspire to influence educational methods in a major way. They are not approaching universities with suggestions as to how to adjust syllabuses so that alumni’s future careers are taken into account.

So what is the actual standing of Polish universities at present?
I have worked at many universities around the world, including the United States, Japan and Germany. I spent over a decade abroad as a researcher, academic teacher, mathematician and expert in computation science. I am convinced that if you make the right choice, Polish universities can provide you with an education that meets very high international standards. But you need to know exactly what you really want to do and where to focus your efforts and talents. Successful careers of Polish graduates abroad speak volumes about the quality of Polish universities. The same is true about foreign students who are keen to continue studies in Poland.

As far as Polish university students are concerned, I have to say they have colossal potential. The question is what universities in Poland are doing about this potential. It is very hard to generalize because Polish universities and colleges are highly varied and next to excellent schools there are very poor ones. Then there are some good universities with a mediocre department or two and the other way round. Consequently, I believe that league tables should concern individual majors rather than universities as a whole.

Why are there such major differences?
The educational boom of the early 1990s produced a multitude of new private universities and colleges. Poland has been tremendously successful in making high school and university level education popular. The percentage of university students among young people has soared above 50 percent, which is unheard of in other parts of the world. But this undeniable success has come at a cost—educational standards at many private universities and colleges are far too low. In my opinion, we should have moved on from the excitement of free-market transformations a decade or so ago and focused on the quality of education instead. There are more than 460 university-level schools in Poland at present, including 130 state universities. This, I believe, is four times the number people in any developed country really need. For example, there are 18 universities in Finland and 200 in Germany.

The next mistake Poland has made is that while the number of university students has increased fivefold from 400,000 to over 2 million, the number of teachers is only 1.3 times of what was there before. You can clearly see that the average academic teacher needs to oversee four times more students than in the past. It was inevitable that education standards would deteriorate. One of the consequences is that fewer academics are doing any research work and that is an extremely adverse state of affairs. Surveys from several years ago showed that only one in seven academic teachers had been awarded a research grant.

The good news is that Polish universities have been making extensive use of European funds. Over the past several years, Poland has built many new laboratories and research facilities and purchased cutting-edge equipment for them. As a result, in certain fields, research and education meeting the highest international standards are now possible. But we might be at risk that 10 years from now, there will be no one left to work at these facilities, as Poland still lacks a good incentive system to encourage its best students to continue their education and pursue a career in Poland. That, however, is not a task for just those who are in charge of education in Poland, but for all Polish decision and policy makers who set the priorities and shape the future development of the country.
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