Sunday, 29 March 2015

We don't need no (tertiary) education. No?

This week's Economist cover story (The whole world is going to university - is it worth it?) has prompted me to write about university education, from the perspective of Poland.

In general, my take on this is - when 50% of all jobs in an economy are graduate-level, then, and only then should 50% of young people go on to university when leaving school. Otherwise, there will be masses of disappointed, disaffected, overqualified, frustrated and under-effective people working in jobs below their potential. While parents the world over are keen to see their children studying in prestigious universities, the truth is that vocational education is also essential to ensure that an economy has enough technical and craft skills for the labour market.

Now, to Poland. While Poland has been praised for the performance of its schools, its universities underperform woefully in the global league tables.

Polish schools could still do with improvements around areas such as teamwork and life skills, but generally, there is still rote-learning that's essential to drumming in facts into young minds with good memories. There's none of the wishy-washyism that has taken root in British schools, "like, hey man, if a kid spells things, like, unusually, then that's just him being creative, man. Seven times eight is 37? Well, that's not, er, wrong, it's just differently right." This cuts no ice in Polish schools, where facts are the be-all and end-all. The trouble is that this rote-learning approach continues pretty much into university.

I remember many, many years ago talking to a bright Polish student who'd managed to get a place at Oxford - a young Radek Sikorski. I asked him what he saw as the biggest difference between a British and Polish university. He replied that he was shocked when on his first day at Oxford his professor told his students to question everything he says.

It only occurred to me many years later, after moving to Poland, just what Radek Sikorski meant. Polish professors are not to be questioned. They are the alpha and omega. They represent autorytet. But the British professor is challenging students to learn how to think independently.

Then there's the British tutorial system, whereby four or five students gather in their professor's room to discuss the book they've read, in the context of that week's lectures. This is largely missing in Polish universities.

What a good university degree should be is proof that a young person has been taught how to think. How to question, how to challenge, how to generate ideas, how to think at the meta-level; to identify the big picture, yet be able to drill down into the detail.

Now Polish university courses - and here I exaggerate for the sake of simplicity - still tend to be pan profesor reading from the textbook he'd written in 1986 to a lecture hall full of students scribbling down notes; their end of term assessment based on an exam passed by faithfully regurgitating from those notes.

A Polish professor's tenure is pretty much job for life (quite literally - no set retirement age). A British professor is regularly assessed on the basis of feedback from students, number of published works, and, often, on commercial sponsorship brought into the university.

The Polish universities will change when the old guard finally shuffle off this mortal coil and the younger generation of lecturers, who speak (and publish) in English, who travel abroad, who are up-to-date with commercial developments, get to run the place. Polish universities are described (by those who work within them) as feudal fiefdoms, the last bastions of the communist era.

While the two best Polish universities languish in position 335 (UJ) and 371 (UW) in one of the leading global rankings (with British universities occupying four of the six top places), I cannot blame either Polish students or Polish lecturers for wishing to carry out their studies or research abroad.

Poland needs to kick out the jams - get rid of the silly, anachronistic and time-wasting requirement for doctors to 'habilitate' their qualification before moving on to full professorship, and to start insisting that academic works be written in English, the global language of research. And pay needs to be attractive to retain the brightest and best minds.

I'm sure that before long, Polish universities will start to rise up the international rankings, like Polish secondary schools have. What a shame the universities were not reformed along with the schools, back in the late-1990s. Time now for higher education minister, Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, to get radical.

Why's this so important now? Poland's economic transformation has occurred largely off the back of strong manufacturing performance, meshed into the supply chain of German's Mittelstand. The Germans quickly spotted the opportunity to export the handsarbeit to low-cost Poland. As Poland's wages continue to converge with those across the old EU 15, Poland needs desperately to innovate for its economy to rise up the value-added ladder. That innovation should come out of universities - pure research commercialised, patented, and sold around the world.

Sadly, it's not. When it comes to proportion of GDP spent on research and development, Poland's near the bottom of EU rankings. Much of this is down the the poor quality of professors.

The 2014-2020 EU financial perspective is holding out to Poland the prospect of billions of euros to be spent on R&D. This will only happen if Polish universities are staffed with people who have the vision, the talent and the drive to make this happen. Sleepy-time down at the faculty staff-room, internecine plotting against uppity young lecturers etc will have to end if Poland is to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to raise its game in innovation.

The talent is there. Whenever I'm reading about science in the English-language media, I frequently come across inventions, discoveries or innovations in the context of scientists with Polish-sounding surnames. The tragedy is - they are invariably working for Western universities.

This time last year:
Arthur's Seat - Edinburgh's urban mountain

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
A wee taste of Edinburgh

This time five years ago:
First long bike ride of the season

This time six years ago:
Life returns to Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Early spring dusk

Friday, 27 March 2015

London's Docklands: a case study in post-industrial revitalisation

On Monday I was in London for the International Food Exhibition at the ExCel centre, in the heart of London Docklands. I took the Tube to North Greenwich, on the Jubilee Line, and then crossed the river on the Emirates cable car service, which was launched ahead of the 2012 Olympics. Though lightly used by commuters, the cable car - which rises 90m over the Thames at its highest point - is a useful link between the O2 Arena south of the river and the the ExCel centre to the north. Below: the view looking north from the cable car. You can see a Docklands Light Railway train, beyond it the new Siemens Crystal exhibition centre - a extremely sustainable 'green' building.

Thirty years ago, Docklands was dead - killed by the containerisation of maritime freight. Tilbury docks downstream took over the role of London's commercial port. Eight square miles around the redundant Royal Victoria, Royal Albert, King George V Docks and the Isle of Dogs were redeveloped, and as it turned out, the entire scheme proved to be a splendid success. Today, London Docklands is a valuable extension to the City of London in terms of office space for the financial services sector; modern transport infrastructure - the Tube, light railway, new roads, river crossings and an airport have brought vibrant new life to the place. And there are thousands of new dwellings - some re-adapted from old warehouses, but mostly new-build. And restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues and exhibition space.

Below: from the north bank, looking south, a view more usually associated with the Alps than with East London. A casual glance at any map will show you how the Thames snakes around this part of the city; the more crossings - tunnels, bridges, cable cars - the better.

Below: the O2 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome, built to see in the year 2000, now a permanent fixture on the Greenwich Peninsula. A popular music venue, currently hosting fading acts from the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s - and yes, the 1960s.

Below: the heart of the docklands. I used to come here often in the early-mid 1980s, before the redevelopment of the docks got under way. The old docks were a perfect film set. As well as being the location for Full Metal Jacket, 1984, and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, it was also the backdrop for dozens of pop videos. Today the cranes are still here, dressing a set rather than earning a living. Overhead, planes take off from London City Airport, redeveloped from what used to be King George V Dock.

Docklands still attracts the film makers. I chanced upon the rehearsal for the filming of the advertisement for the new Jaguar XF, which will be driven across the Thames. And all the while, planes are taking off from London City Airport.

With the silk covers removed, the car is still wearing its overcoat, to be taken off just ahead of its drive. (Click here to see the actual high-wire drive across the Thames.)

Below: homeward bound on the Docklands Light Railway, approaching Blackwall Station. To the left, the HSBC building. As the train is driverless, you can sit in the front seat, which offers a splendid view of the City's skyline as the train heads west.

Below: approaching Poplar station. The DLR is a light railway, characterised by sharp-radius curves, steep inclines and short platforms. In places, it feels a bit like a roller-coaster! Much of it was built along old abandoned track beds or on derelict land,

Below: nearing the City end of the DLR (termini at Tower Gateway and Bank). On the horizon three recent additions to the skyline - the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin (the Shard is across the river by London Bridge).

The history of the regeneration of London's Docklands is worth learning from. Today, it's a given that the scheme was a success; back in the 1980s, there were plenty of doubts. Lessons for Poland: public investment spurs private investment, infrastructure kick-starts economic recovery.

This time last year:
Scotland and its language

This time two years ago:
Death, our sister

This time three years ago:
First bike ride to work of the year

This time four years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time five years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time six years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Open Skies spy eyes Jeziorki

Soviet-era aircraft over Jeziorki are getting rarer and rarer with the passing years; I've snapped some good ones since I started blogging in 2007. So it was with a good deal of excitement that I reached for my camera, with 55-300mm lens mounted, as I saw this Russian Antonov An-30 coming in to land at Okęcie over our house.

What's this plane doing over Warsaw? It is monitoring Poland, for Russia, as part of the Open Skies Treaty. On the tail fin (obscured in this shot by the left tail plane) is the wording 'Открытое небо'.

Click to enlarge, and look at the round window just below the cockpit. Can you see a face peering down?

I have seen several Open Skies Antonov An-30s above our house; some were Bulgarian, others Ukrainian, others still Russian. It is interesting that despite the ongoing conflict in east Ukraine, the Russians have not pulled out of Open Skies (as they have pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe less than two weeks earlier).

How much longer Russia will continue as a member of Open Skies is unknown (probably until Mr Putin calculates that there is more political capital to be made from withdrawing than from gathering aerial photographs and electronic information this way). But for the time being, his planes are flying over Poland. Are Polish and planes from other NATO members flying over Russia right now, as the treaty envisages? Are Russian planes on Open Skies missions flying with their transponders switched on or off?

The An-30, NATO code-name Clank, is a fairly old aircraft, the newest having been built 35 years ago, the oldest are approaching 45. But then, as I've written here on a number of occasions, old age is no reason why planes shouldn't keep flying. The Russian Air Force still currently has 14 An-30s in service on cartographic duties. (So not an old warhorse; more of an old carthorse.) The An-30 is based on the An-24 and An-26 twin turboprop transports; I saw several of these parked up (presumably no longer serviceable) at Katowice airport yesterday; some were old Polish Air Force planes, the rest in the livery of Ukrainian private airlines.

This time last year:
New road and retail: waiting for Jeziorki's new Biedronka to open

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time five years ago:
What's the Polish for 'commuter'?

This time six years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

This time seven years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mill town Łódź

To Łódź today, for the Grand Business Mixer (over 200 firms present), held in the award-winning Grohman Factory, a beautifully refurbished textile mill converted into modern office and conference space. The project, located in Łódź's Księży Młyn district, won first prize at last year's Expo Real exhibition in Munich, beating 39 other entrants from all over the world. Original brickwork blends with modern materials.

Also part of the refurbishment project, the factory's fire station. Proudly displayed outside it, the original water pumping engine, made by Mather & Platt Ltd of Manchester.

There are still many buildings in the complex that are still in a state of dilapidation; I hope that in time all the original buildings will be restored and brought back to use.

Across the road (ul. Tymienieckiego), here's another refurbishment project, the Scheibler Factory, converted into loft-style dwellings. Around the core building in the old outhouses are arrayed shops that sell lighting, flooring, home entertainment, and some fine restaurants.

The photo below puts the former factory into its setting; surrounded by tenements built for the mill workers. These are still occupied, but have not been refurbished; they're a bit run down and could do with the same quality of work that went into the Grohman and Scheibler factory projects. Note the factory clock, clearly visible for all the workers to see.

Below: a typical tenement ('famuła'), note the doorstep that's been replaced by a wooden pallet. Original cobbles and brickwork, a place of immense historical character.

Łódź has been known as 'Poland's Manchester' - below, you can see why. Though the alleyways are wider. The city authorities are applying to register the entire complex as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bricktorian Poland!

I have been to Łódź many times but have never visited Księży Młyn. Definitely worth seeing.

This time two years ago:
Church and state

This time three years ago:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Swans, dusk, Jeziorki

Walking home along ul. Dumki, I caught this pair of swans flying low over the pond, sunset in the background. Photos like this are the pay-off for having a camera around my neck all the time!

I could hear a lot of honking and flapping and splashing; four swans were making a commotion at the far end of the pond. The swans were in playful mood, chasing one another across the full length of the wetlands; taking a long run-up (literally; running along the water) before managing to get airborne, then staying low, just over the surface.

One coming back the other way...

And all was quiet and still at this end, the swans, exhausted by their high-speed, low-altitude chases, landed in the water and calmly resumed dredging up weeds from the bottom.

This time last year:
Joe Biden in Warsaw for talks after Crimea invasion

This time three years ago:
Motive power for the coal and oil trains that pass Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Sleet, snow, no sign of spring