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Education: The Quality Conundrum
August 1, 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. Under the existing legal regulations in Poland, businesspeople can work at universities as lecturers at additional courses and have an influence on what is taught at specific courses. Of course, prospective employers can and should invite students to take internships in their companies.

But above all, it must be remembered that those who are graduating from universities today will be present on the labor market for another 40 or so years. Under one of the forecasts for the growth of this market, six of the 10 most popular professions of the future do not yet exist. Completely new professions will emerge. So thinking of adapting today’s graduates to tomorrow’s needs is completely pointless. Graduates must simply be open to knowledge and the changes being brought about by development. Actually, businesspeople share this view—they do not want hire someone who will immediately, right from the start, be able to do everything that is expected from them. Instead they need an employee with an open mind, ready to learn things, and follow the changes taking place in the world around them. In short—they need enlightened people.

So what is the 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 their studies in Poland. What we should do is more aggressively and boldly promote Polish universities abroad not only in terms of the education they provide but also as places where young people interested in learning things and acquiring a variety of life experiences can spend a valuable and interesting four or five years of their lives.

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.

There should be at least two categories of institutions of higher education, or actually university faculties: those oriented toward meeting the needs of the labor market in specific regions or industries, and those aspiring to the role of research departments. For example, in the United States, there are now about 150 research universities that are eligible for research grants. In Poland, conducting “scientific research at the highest level” is part of the mission statement of all of the country’s 460 universities. All of them want to get state funds for this. This is an absurd situation. I therefore believe that it is necessary to force universities to have their mission statements better reflect their capabilities.

Why are some of Poland’s universities much worse than others?

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. This is a disastrous situation that undermines their competence. Maybe that’s putting it a bit too sharply, but I think that a teacher who does not conduct research work should be banned from teaching at a university after five years. Of course, I’m talking about empirical sciences where you need to stay on top of things all the time.

After the change of the political system in Poland in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, many academic teachers should have significantly broadened their knowledge, especially when it comes to bringing it in line with modern standards and adapting it to European and world standards. Unfortunately, the authorities did not do anything to make that a standard requirement governing the functioning of the country’s university system.

<>Does the educational boom mean that more funds are now channeled to universities?

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. In today’s world, at least 20 percent of university graduates must have a chance to continue their studies for another two to three years after graduation. Only then will they be able to successfully compete with their counterparts abroad. Meanwhile, Poland is the only developed country I can think of where there is no well-organized system of post-docs, or postdoctoral studies. The post-doc stage is a turning point in a research career. After obtaining a Ph.D. degree, a young researcher does not always yet know what their real market potential is. In Germany, for example, any good doctorate ends with the possibility of spending time at one of the world’s best universities. In Poland, we do not invest in students so effectively for the time being, but, optimistically, there are signs that this changing—various new programs are appearing, such as the Top 500 program, in which young Poles get to spend a few weeks at Stanford University. So we are steadily learning to find talented people and support their careers. 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.

Do politicians sufficiently appreciate the role of science and education as a driving force behind the development and modernization of the country?

Back in 2004, when Poland entered the European Union and I was science minister, there was not enough motivation—on either the Polish side or the EU side—to spend significant amounts of money on modernizing the higher education sector. Today, the situation has changed for the better. But we still have a political problem with this. Everyone knows that the Cohesion Fund and the agricultural development fund offer the greatest short-term benefits when it comes to the funding we obtain from the EU. Meanwhile, we are working to make sure that more money is spent on research and innovation, which will naturally produce great benefits, but not within one or two parliamentary or government terms. For a politician it is thus a difficult decision to increase spending on science and higher education at the expense of the kind of spending that produces quick, visible results and voter satisfaction.

Compared with a decade ago I can see, however, that things are changing for the better in terms of politicians in Poland being aware of the need to finance science and innovation. For a Polish politician it is rather unthinkable today to publicly disregard the problems of science and education—while just 10 years ago I would come across such an approach.

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. Under the existing legal regulations in Poland, businesspeople can work at universities as lecturers at additional courses and have an influence on what is taught at specific courses. Of course, prospective employers can and should invite students to take internships in their companies.

But above all, it must be remembered that those who are graduating from universities today will be present on the labor market for another 40 or so years. Under one of the forecasts for the growth of this market, six of the 10 most popular professions of the future do not yet exist. Completely new professions will emerge. So thinking of adapting today’s graduates to tomorrow’s needs is completely pointless. Graduates must simply be open to knowledge and the changes being brought about by development. Actually, businesspeople share this view—they do not want hire someone who will immediately, right from the start, be able to do everything that is expected from them. Instead they need an employee with an open mind, ready to learn things, and follow the changes taking place in the world around them. In short—they need enlightened people.

So what is the 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 their studies in Poland. What we should do is more aggressively and boldly promote Polish universities abroad not only in terms of the education they provide but also as places where young people interested in learning things and acquiring a variety of life experiences can spend a valuable and interesting four or five years of their lives.

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.

There should be at least two categories of institutions of higher education, or actually university faculties: those oriented toward meeting the needs of the labor market in specific regions or industries, and those aspiring to the role of research departments. For example, in the United States, there are now about 150 research universities that are eligible for research grants. In Poland, conducting “scientific research at the highest level” is part of the mission statement of all of the country’s 460 universities. All of them want to get state funds for this. This is an absurd situation. I therefore believe that it is necessary to force universities to have their mission statements better reflect their capabilities.

Why are some of Poland’s universities much worse than others?

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. This is a disastrous situation that undermines their competence. Maybe that’s putting it a bit too sharply, but I think that a teacher who does not conduct research work should be banned from teaching at a university after five years. Of course, I’m talking about empirical sciences where you need to stay on top of things all the time.

After the change of the political system in Poland in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, many academic teachers should have significantly broadened their knowledge, especially when it comes to bringing it in line with modern standards and adapting it to European and world standards. Unfortunately, the authorities did not do anything to make that a standard requirement governing the functioning of the country’s university system.

Does the educational boom mean that more funds are now channeled to universities?

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. In today’s world, at least 20 percent of university graduates must have a chance to continue their studies for another two to three years after graduation. Only then will they be able to successfully compete with their counterparts abroad. Meanwhile, Poland is the only developed country I can think of where there is no well-organized system of post-docs, or postdoctoral studies. The post-doc stage is a turning point in a research career. After obtaining a Ph.D. degree, a young researcher does not always yet know what their real market potential is. In Germany, for example, any good doctorate ends with the possibility of spending time at one of the world’s best universities. In Poland, we do not invest in students so effectively for the time being, but, optimistically, there are signs that this changing—various new programs are appearing, such as the Top 500 program, in which young Poles get to spend a few weeks at Stanford University. So we are steadily learning to find talented people and support their careers. 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.

<>Do politicians sufficiently appreciate the role of science and education as a driving force behind the development and modernization of the country?

Back in 2004, when Poland entered the European Union and I was science minister, there was not enough motivation—on either the Polish side or the EU side—to spend significant amounts of money on modernizing the higher education sector. Today, the situation has changed for the better. But we still have a political problem with this. Everyone knows that the Cohesion Fund and the agricultural development fund offer the greatest short-term benefits when it comes to the funding we obtain from the EU. Meanwhile, we are working to make sure that more money is spent on research and innovation, which will naturally produce great benefits, but not within one or two parliamentary or government terms. For a politician it is thus a difficult decision to increase spending on science and higher education at the expense of the kind of spending that produces quick, visible results and voter satisfaction.

Compared with a decade ago I can see, however, that things are changing for the better in terms of politicians in Poland being aware of the need to finance science and innovation. For a Polish politician it is rather unthinkable today to publicly disregard the problems of science and education—while just 10 years ago I would come across such an approach.
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