170. New Trends In East European Higher Education

By
Andrzej Tymowski

Structural reform of higher education in Eastern and Central Europe since 1989 has been driven by the conviction that the university and academic research institutions inherited from the Soviet system are both economically inefficient and out of touch with society's needs. Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland's finance minister, expressed this view in a 1994 lecture, proposing the market as both the instrument of change and the standard by which innovation ought to be judged. He advocated an educational and research system in which informed decisions, translated into demand (with actors paying for goods), result in a self-regulating mechanism that sustains consistent growth and development. In education and research, this means that "demand" by students and beneficiaries of research freely seeks optimal sources of "supply" (educational and research institutions, whose continued survival depends on success in attracting and satisfying demand). Balcerowicz excluded fundamental research from his considerations, noting that, because its producers and consumers are the same, it cannot be analyzed in market categories.

A significant new trend in Eastern and Central Europe--the appearance of private institutions of higher education--fits this formula very well. Their nature and number vary country by country, of course, as do their institutional profiles and quality. Because of the advanced development of these institutions in Poland, the Polish example will be used as a case study, anticipating changes in other countries or stimulating comparisons.

In Poland 72 private universities have been approved as degree-granting institutions; 100 more have their approval pending. In Bulgaria there are only isolated cases (of private universities), in Ukraine they are quite widespread, with few in the Czech Republic and Hungary. All award magister degrees (five years) or licencjat (the equivalent to a bachelor's).

In Poland there are three categories of private universities. The greatest in number are institutions that exist by employing faculty from state universities, for whom this a second job`(or third or fourth). These new universities fill a niche, educating people who do not make it into the state universities. They also augment the low incomes of scholars. Some of these schools are quite good; others are in the business of selling diplomas to anyone who pays. Overall, though, they are handicapped because they lack a resident faculty (they do not pay social security and benefits) and do not have libraries, dormitories, or even (in some cases) their own buildings.

A second category, not very numerous in Poland (but quite widespread in other countries), are shady enterprises that exploit the "good connections" of their founders, often former nomenklatura, in order to capitalize on the authorization to confer diplomas.

A third category might best be described as professors' cooperatives, which exist in Poland as private institutions within the Academy of Science. (I am reminded of the "second economy" activities that flourished in Hungarian factories in the waning years of socialist rule. Workers brought work that they did "after hours" on plant machinery. They were supposed to pay for the materials and usage of space, but of course there were many cases in which time, materials, and energy were simply diverted from the plant's stores for use in "private" work, for cash.) These semi-private educational institutions in Poland benefit from access to highly qualified personnel, but their status is ambiguous--neither fully public nor fully private. Academicians sometimes take fictitious vacations in order to devote time to teaching. Unlike the fully private institutions, students and professors in these "cooperatives" have access to university libraries. But it must be stressed that none of this is illegal, although it is a temporary measure at best, without any serious prospects for sustainability into the future. Still, at present such schools educate a significant number of students, at times to a very high standard.

Another phenomenon worth noting is the practice of universities offering evening courses for tuition. Day students, admitted on the basis of entrance exams, pay no tuition (though the amount of support from the budget of the Ministry of Education is calculated based in part on the number of students enrolled). In a time of fiscal restrictions, tuition courses (for people who for one reason or another can not enroll as full-time day students) become attractive to deans and directors of institutes. Often curricular innovations win approval more easily if associated with tuition-paying evening programs.

We can detect in this sketch an evident pressure toward something like a "voucher" system, in which students would each have a certain credit that could be transferred freely to the institution of choice. In his 1994 lecture, Balcerowicz mentioned vouchers as one mechanism for realizing supply/demand mechanisms in education. However, at present this causes an internal conflict in the mission of a given teaching unit (which courses to favor--those that received dwindling credits from the Ministry, or the less "academic" but perhaps more lucrative night classes?). Recently, the minister of education issued a directive to universities that the number of paying students may not exceed 50 percent.

Clearly the marketplace has had a strong impact on higher education, stimulating innovation and meeting the needs of students, professors, and institutions, both private and public. But how well have these innovations addressed the problems of education in the time of transformation? Let us take a quick look at the Institute of Sociology (IS) at the University of Warsaw, one of the most respected centers of teaching and research in Poland, and in the region.

It is hard to say whether students at IS are more preoccupied with careers than their peers elsewhere, but in conversation, in focus groups, and in response to surveys, a prime concern is "how will this course help me to get a job?" Moreover, if we grant that a completed university education is a value in itself (for IS students this means five years of study concluded by writing and defending a magister's thesis), then there is a significant drop-out problem. Not of poor students, but of the best and the brightest who can easily find high-paying jobs after three years' study, especially if they know foreign languages. One might also mention the looks of horror and disdain on the faces of students who were asked about the possibility of continuing on to graduate work or aiming for a teaching career. (Staying the course for five years seems the maximum any want to devote to education.)

There is a dropout problem of a different sort in the ranks of professors. Senior professors, whose reputations are "marketable," are in great demand at the new private institutions. This means that they spend less and less time at the university. Students have complained that their courses seem to bunch up Tuesday through Thursday, often with conflicting schedules, lasting late into the evening: an indirect effect of the professor's need to satisfy other obligations.

Unlike the senior professors, who are still present at the university if only part-time, the next generation of university lectures was virtually completely swept away in the first years of transition to the private sector. There is very little tendency for any to return. And it is very, very difficult to find younger people to take their place.

What to do in this situation? Traditionalists argue that preserving the purely academic character (and its hierarchical, centralized structure of quality control) is the only answer to the instability innovations have wrought. Speaking for the "shock therapists," Balcerowicz claimed that the current freewheeling marketplace in education was produced in large measure by the upheavals of social transformation. Once normalcy returns, both students and professors will recover their appreciation of the value of a university education, including fundamental research.

In the meanwhile, efforts in curriculum development are attempting to make the best of the current situation, maintaining high academic standards while offering students professionally-oriented curricula in the last three years of their undergraduate career. Two modules, or major concentrations, at the Institute of Sociology have been quite successful at attracting students to programs that include "academic" course work, opportunities for research, and internships. (They are the Industrial Relations module and the Public Policy Analysis module.) They have also been able to engage as seminar leaders some of the generation that moved to the private sector.

Still, it seems that the university, a changed university to be sure, will have to find a way to articulate its basic commitment to the value of an education for its own sake. This has begun to occur in experimental "liberal arts" curricula, such as the Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities at the University of Warsaw and Smolny College at the State University of St. Petersburg.

These upstarts have been not entirely welcome at their mother institutions, partly because of their critique of the disciplinary-bound organization of the institution, but also because they are regarded by heads of departments as parasitical. (In the Warsaw case, undergraduates enrolled in the program may take courses in a wide variety of departments, without officially enrolling in them. Departments complain: "We have to service them, and often they are good students, but we receive no 'per-head' budgetary support for this.")

Let me conclude with a reflection on the place of the humanities in educational reform in societies undergoing transformation. It is easy to understand the need to support reform efforts in the natural sciences and the social sciences. But why the humanities? Can they do anything more than repeat the Socratic pieties about an unexamined life not being worth living? An interesting response comes in the form of an international graduate school in the humanities (for young scholars, graduate students, and lecturers, from countries in the region) organized under the auspices of the Center for Studies on the Classical Tradition at the University of Warsaw. Thus, it offers Moldavians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and others the opportunity to study Latin and medieval history. Of what benefit can this be to societies in transition? The director of the Center, Professor Jerzy Axer, puts it this way: "We all know the tensions and misunderstandings among people in our region today. By providing a forum in which everyone one can pursue the roots of their own nation's culture in a common Mediterranean tradition, we change the perspective and the depth of discussion. By the time we arrive at the present, things look very different. We find that we have more in common than we thought."

Adnrzej Tymowski spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on November 17, 1998.

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