Poland’s higher education reform – new voices in the debate

I recently discussed some of the ideas presented by the Polish Science Minister Jarosław Gowin as foundations for the reform of research and higher education law in Poland. A couple of days ago, an article came out in “Polityka” (paywalled), a popular weekly journal, discussing the specific projects for the reform developed by three independent teams. The authors, Dariusz Jemielniak and Piotr Stec mostly talk about the weaknesses of these projects and the pitfalls that the lawmakers should avoid when implementing changes. I think that the most important take home message from the article is that whatever the final reform will be, it will have to be followed by a cultural change if it is to be effective. Otherwise, academics will just find ways to work around the reform and everything will remain the same.That’s an important point, but I believe that a well-implemented reform can push culture in the right direction.

The authors also discuss the idea of research universities as distinguished from institutions focused on both research and primarily education. They say that funneling money away from smaller, less prestigious institutions will only contribute to the deepening divide between the haves and have-nots of the Polish research landscape and will further disenfranchise the people from small towns who cannot afford to move to study at a large university. While this is true, it is also going to be difficult to lure excellent researchers away from prestigious institutes, even with the promise of more money. I think that the teaching-focused institutions are going to have a hard time competing on research quality with the research-focused ones, and throwing money at the less competitive places will not solve the problem.

On a similar note, the authors discuss the idea of “forced” mobility, where one couldn’t get a job at the same institution where one got their PhD. The problem nowadays is that at second-tier universities in Poland most people just stay forever in the same labs and do the same work using the same methods, which results in the same boring science. The only reason some people are kept in the lab is that they do useful admin work for the boss and take on a heavy teaching load. If PhD graduates had to leave their parent lab, they would be more motivated to do good work that would boost their CVs. This is a good idea in principle, and would “shake things up” a bit at the less competitive institutions. The devil, as always, is in the details. For some fields there is only one or two institutions in the country that do groundbreaking work, and so the best students would really find it hard to find a good place in Poland to do their postdoc. Sure, they can and should look abroad, but it’s not always an option, especially for young parents or people who bought a home here. The other problem with looking abroad is that they may likely stay there, which is not good for Polish science as a whole, even if it might be good for individual students. I am personally a bit on the fence with this one. I think pushing for greater mobility is a good thing, but perhaps expanding pro-mobility grant mechanisms, such as the old FUGA and the new SONATINA might do the trick here with fewer side-effects.

The next problem the authors tackle is the thorny issue of habilitation. As of now, in Poland, habilitation is the next academic degree after PhD. The criteria for habilitation are, in theory at least, objective and nationwide, which should, as the authors argue, enable easy mobility of highly qualified personnel between institutions. In practice, however, people being awarded habilitations have vastly different accomplishments, as even a cursory look through a public database of habilitation proceedings will show. In Germany and the US there are similar career stages, but the award of habilitation in Germany and tenure in the US is meant to be local in scope. It simply means that the person in question matches the performance expectations of the institution that hired them. Being denied tenure at Harvard does not disqualify from being competitive at a less prestigious institution. This model is especially suitable if we are to have prestigious research-focused universities and more teaching-focused places. Requirements for career advancement should not be the same for both, as currently dictated by the current Polish habilitation model. Finally, habilitation should not be a requirement for supervision of PhD students. I found myself in a ridiculous situation of having to ask a senior colleague to formally act as supervisor for my student before the paperwork for my habilitation came through. This purely fictional arrangement is common for early career PIs, since it can take over a year to get through the ordeal of habilitation even for the most obviously qualified candidates. I’ve recently heard from a colleague that in France, supervision of students is actually a requirement for habilitation rather than the other way around. It sounds like a much saner arrangement.

There is also the issue of a “practical” doctorate that would be one step below the PhD and one step above a master’s degree. I agree with the authors of the article that this idea seems a bit silly. If you are going to work in the industry then either get a regular PhD, or just stick to a pure applied science that doesn’t really require that level of effort.

All in all, this is a very thoughtful analysis and should definitely be heeded by the powers-that-be. As I said in my previous post, I really think that Minister Gowin is doing his best to fix some of the perrenial problems of Polish science. Hopefully, he will not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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