Professor Tomasz Szapiro, rector of the Warsaw School of Economics in 2012-2016: In an educational crucible
Digital technologies have turned out to be the only panacea for keeping schools operating despite the epidemic. Has the Polish education system coped with distance learning?
First of all, the system is changing. Today it is necessarily a mixture of home, pre-school, school and university education with completely different proportions than before. The influence of parents and the Internet has necessarily increased, and the role and effectiveness of educational institutions have decreased. Not only the problems of IT infrastructure and competency problems emerged, but also the resourcefulness of all the actors of the thriller in which we participate. Substantive analyzes are carried out – from psychologists to IT specialists, in my opinion, there is a dynamic debate between academia, the common denominator of which is the question of the future after the pandemic. The system hasn’t dealt with it yet, but it is starting to do better and better.
What do you have to deal with?
Psychologists’ research indicates that a significant proportion of students function under stress and anxiety, children are prone to aggression, uncontrolled and growing scale of the transmission of violent content, problems with ensuring the quality of education in conditions of maladjustment to the virtualization of traditional forms and instruments of teaching – examinations, lectures, practice and laboratories, new purchases of hygiene products, laptops, licenses for computer programs, urgent staff development in the field of applied IT. Enough? In fact, it applies to all of us. These strong and unpleasant stimuli activated at least some of the community and also launched new mechanisms of inter-university and, more broadly, inter-institutional cooperation. An example is the appointment of provincial academic coordinators to coordinate activities related to the pandemic.
Little is known about the severity scale and its consequences. Why?
The communication space in Poland is dominated by black and white contrasts regarding the current politics and dynamics of the coronavirus, and the reality is both multi-threaded and colorful. That is why we rely on our personal contacts. These are always limited, let alone in a pandemic, and are in some sense random. As a result, we build our opinions on information, in part random and in part – carefully selected. We get to know the passages and perhaps generalize them too often.
The effects of education reforms will be felt in the years to come. How would you rate the recent reforms?
In the context of a pandemic? The scale of education reforms is assessed only after two decades. The reform at universities was prepared two years and then introduced – two years ago. Today it is a reality – it revealed its good and bad sides and launched the modification mechanisms. It is too early to talk about far-reaching consequences. There is a visible rejuvenation of university authorities, an increase in the decision-making power of rectors, university autonomy in the process of creating new institutions – discipline councils, doctoral schools. On the other hand, the pandemic is – only and even – very strong turbulence. And as in the case of an airplane, in turbulent conditions it is possible not only to return to the previous course, but also to change course or a catastrophe. We are correcting for now. In this correction, we discover new threats and new opportunities related to the evaluation of scientific achievements of scientists and universities, relations with students and the environment. The difficult debate continues. I believe in maintaining healthy reform mechanisms and accelerating rational adjustments. Paradoxically, the pandemic creates painful pressure that accelerates this process.
According to the Shanghai ranking of the best universities (ARWU), American and British universities occupy the highest positions. The University of Warsaw was in the 301-400 group, and the Jagiellonian University in 401-500. Why do Polish universities occupy such distant places?
Rankings simplify and must simplify multidimensional phenomena. ARWU rewards large and rich universities. Other rankings have their criticism. Also partly unfair. Nevertheless, more and more often rankings lose their social functions – if only American universities are in the top ten, for many candidates from Europe or Asia they are inaccessible and invisible. That is why domain (discipline) rankings have been introduced. It turns out that Polish mathematics departments are in the first two hundred. The number of Polish universities present in high places doubles and reaches nearly twenty. Some colleges are listed in more than a dozen disciplines. The context is also important – the number of universities in Europe is over three and a half thousand. 11 of Polish universities have entered the elite group of 165 higher education institutions, which will create 41 of European universities. And we are one of the 26 countries that could apply to participate in this program. Meanwhile, the positions of Polish universities are treated as unsatisfactory, while the really distant positions of Poland in the democracy rankings do not spoil the excellent well-being of our arrogant politicians.
Educational systems at Polish universities and British and American universities – where are the main differences?
Where are they not? Other mechanisms and level of funding. Another tradition. Different potential for cooperation. A different tradition of cooperation with the economic environment. This is probably a topic for another conversation. It is only worth remembering that the Polish system of higher education tends to converge to the world system in many areas of operation. This has been the case for a long time in physics, mathematics and life sciences, and for several decades in social sciences. It is more visible in the field of evaluation of scientific achievements, but also in education. For example, the structure of economic and management studies is most often the core-concentration-electives model, ranging from basic through specialization to free choice. In this field, case-based teaching, i.e. teaching with the support of academic staff by practitioners and the use of case studies, is not the rule, but not only exceptions. In turn, the specificity of the humanities requires great attention so as not to get bogged down in contributions or phantasmagoria. Nonetheless, it is humanists who have won more Nobel prizes than others in recent decades.
How are universities adjusting to the current needs of the labor market? How much does it cost to the economy if education is not adapted to the market?
We are talking here about universities, not about secondary vocational education – this is a separate difficult topic. The basic question is whether the labor market is an absolute? Well, it is universities through scientific discoveries, inventions and innovations that shape this market. It is a time-consuming process, as is education. We need to remember those who enter the labor market, those who are in it, and their children who will be there in two or three decades in a world where current professions will disappear and robots will intercept most routine activities. As long as the education system is open, reasonably autonomous and subsidized, as long as it can absorb new content, methods of shaping skills and attitudes, as long as it can take part in global research collaboration, as long as it is possible to rest assured of a study program for current candidates and the supply of interesting postgraduate studies for candidates , and about the proverbial grandchildren. Each deviation from these three principles costs money – the economy calls it the cost of a lost opportunity. The valuation of this cost includes the scale of emigration and social anxiety.
Science and business are two different worlds. How do you evaluate the cooperation between universities and entrepreneurs and companies?
Science and business are not two worlds by definition. EU documents clearly indicate and prove that one should look at scientific research, education, impact on the social environment and culture. It’s like a square – by connecting its vertices, we have a relationship model. In the square on the university-business line, there are interesting initiatives, such as an implementation doctorate and interesting announcements supporting cooperation. You have to wait for the implementation of ideas and effects, but it is a bit like brushing your teeth – those who do not brush them usually have problems. After painful therapy, we become wiser and correct our habits and views. We are also slowly including students in research and practitioners in classes. Other hotlines, e.g. the culture-university line, i.e. the problems of student culture, arouse greater concern.
But how do you evaluate the cooperation of universities with entrepreneurs and companies?
A hard measure of business involvement in cooperation is the participation of companies in financing research and development expenditure and the share of these expenditure in the entire financing in the country. We are observing a constant increase in the level of these measures, but at an unsatisfactory pace – Poland still lags behind the EU average. The number of patents, including European patents, are a measure of the effectiveness of university involvement in this cooperation, and in terms of education – incentives for practitioners to participate in classes, appreciating internships. Our practice mainly proves projects supporting the employment of juveniles, such as job fairs, and efforts to obtain direct sponsorship, e.g. for conferences, etc.
How can individual activities of science and business cooperation be transformed into systemic ones in order to achieve joint success?
It seems that everything has been said over and over again on systemic topics. In an avalanche of words and declarations, reports of progress in this area disappear. There are always two strategies in Poland. Ordinary and wonderful. Ordinary is realized as an unexpected event that becomes our success. The latter is that a miracle happens and we move from promises to inputs, from inputs to actions and monitoring their effectiveness, and personnel decisions are subordinated to the effects of this process.
Innovation starts with education. How to change the education system to support innovative ideas?
Today, innovations depend on the strength of the coronavirus, and more precisely – on the depth of the so-called a budget hole that leads to a decline in the real purchasing power of funds. The budget may be increased by taxes and cuts in budget costs, i.e. reducing expenditure on sectors of the economy. If taxes hit producers and weaken the propensity to invest, and the cuts affect the education and science sector and reduce its innovative potential, all other support will turn out to be illusory and innovative ideas will be fake. As well as demanding a sudden acceleration of a car without gasoline in its tank.
The Polish education system requires work on the effectiveness of funding. How deep is the problem with financing education and what could be improved?
Oh, deep, but there is room for improvement. But cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth … As I mentioned, we have one of the lowest GDP expenditure on science in Europe, and if it is not enough, no matter who divides and gives opinions, dust cannot be invented. There are few funds at all, then after the division resulting from the so-called algorithm, they go fragmented to units and then – each at their discretion – some overeat, others further fragment, still others rationally do what they can … Only recently a large pool has been allocated only to research universities – we will see the results in a few years. In the higher education system, diagnosis and recommendations are formulated, inter alia, by the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, the General Council of Science and Higher Education and the Polish Academy of Sciences. The postulates concern, for example, statutory guarantees for the financing growth path, inclusion of pre-implementation research into the financing system, overcoming the stagnation in financing of the National Science Center and many other elements.
Prof. Tomasz Szapiro
Economics professor. He deals with the methods of analyzing decisions in economics, negotiations, and educational processes. Member of the governing bodies of science and higher education representative bodies (the Central Council of Science and Higher Schools), KRASP, NCN, OPI-PIB, heads of committees for international affairs. Rector of the Warsaw School of Economics (2012-2016). EC expert in the competition for European Universities. Previously, a member of the Chapter of the Economic Award of the President of the Republic of Poland, the Economic Thought Strategic Committee at the Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland. Cooperation with the private (Aviva, Commerzbank, E&Y, McKinsey, BCG, ERA) and public sectors (MEIN ex. Ministry of Finance and Economy). Since 2000, he has been the chairman of the Chapter of the Polityka Science Award.
Last Updated on April 13, 2021 by Karolina Ampulska