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Polish Plan for Research Excellence

Critics fear system will deepen divides among the country's universities.

December 5, 2019
 

Ten Polish universities have won a sizable boost in funding as part of a controversial plan to create “elite” institutions with research reputations on par with the best in Europe.

Some critics fear that concentrating resources on a select few, most of which are in big cities, will widen divisions within Polish society, echoing similar concerns about the impact of elite universities in countries including the U.S., Britain, France and Germany.

Under the Excellence Initiative -- Research University plan, 10 institutions, including the University of Warsaw, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, will receive a 10 percent funding boost between 2020 and 2026.

“Poland remains, generally speaking, far behind the frontier of science,” said Jarosław Gowin, minister of science and higher education. The aim of the new funding was to “create conditions to reduce the distance between the Polish universities and the best European ones,” he said.

Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, former rector of Aarhus University and chair of the international panel that picked the winning universities from 20 candidates, argued that Poland needed to create universities that could attract scholars from overseas -- and lure Polish researchers back to the country -- and that as such mobility was essential for economic dynamism.

Currently, many Polish academics “don’t move even from one city to another,” he said. “The whole system is sedentary.”

To oppose elite universities “would be a big mistake,” said Holm-Nielsen, a former higher education specialist at the World Bank who has led European Union-backed calls for reform in Polish universities. “Differentiation” between universities was crucial, he said, adding, “There shouldn’t be 400 Harvards in Poland.”

Poland’s push to create “world-class” universities mirrors Germany’s excellence strategy, a policy that since 2005 has channeled money -- albeit relatively small amounts -- and prestige into a select few institutions.

The policy will widen inequalities between different parts of Poland, argued Jaroslaw Pluciennik, professor of the humanities at the University of Łódź. It risks creating a select few universities that educate the bulk of the country’s elite, as in France or the U.S., causing social divisions and political anger, he said. “Will students from low-income families be able to get quality education?” he asked.

“Of course most of the 10 universities are in large cities, and even most of the 20 [candidates] are in large cities,” admitted Holm-Nielsen, but he added, “We have to do what we can do on top of the system as it exists. We are not building a new system.”

He said that his panel “went out of our way” to ignore any “political” considerations in selecting the final 10, including “regional distribution” across the country. Instead, the final 10 were those with the most promising plans for the future -- including, for example, blueprints to attract more foreign staff and students, he explained.

The Ministry of Science and Higher Education emphasized that the extra funding was new, so it will not spell cuts for other universities. The 10 shortlisted universities that failed to make the top 10 will also receive a budget increase of 2 percent. And at the end of the first six-year funding period, two universities will be forced to make way for new candidates for “excellence” status.

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