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. As a result, Poland is above the UK, US and Germany in the OECD's PISA rankings in all three areas - reading, mathematics and science - among 15 year-olds. 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, compare narratives, think at the meta-level; how 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; 3,000 złotys is not enough when the average UK monthly pay is the equivalent of 11,000 złotys.

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


AndrzejK said...

I was asked last year to check the English of a masters degree thesis concerning production control written by an "external" student studying at the prestigious Warsaw Polytechnic (not to be confused with the second rate UK polytechnics which a misguided Margaret Thatcher converted to univeristy status). There was no original thought involved at all, precious little research and no conclusion or summary. When I questioned this the student replied that this was exactly what the review panel wanted to see. Presumably because anything more complex would:

1. Require the poor reviewers to read in depth.
2. Risk failure as anything original would be outside the ability of the reviewers themselves to understand.

I guess on of the problems with having 50% of the young populations studying for a degree means that of necessity teaching staff are spread very thinly on the ground. Even if the better universities attract better academics they are still open to price competition. And of course a large number of academics hold down second and third jobs teaching the external (evening) courses and also part time "appearances" at the lesser seats of learning.

And when a leading academic specialising in family owned businesses has not moved on from teaching TQM then what can we expect.

Michael Dembinski said...

This is too dreadful to be true. Politechnika Warszawska does turn out great coders from its IT department, but what you're saying about the quality of thesis is utterly depressing.

Anonymous said...

Another problem: all this money is spent by the Polish government on these educations, and then the young people flee to the UK and go to work there. Perhaps there should be a requirement to pay back the cost if you decide to leave the country within the first few years of finishing studies.

student SGH said...

Michael, you wrote basically the same stuff over six years ago in the comment to my post. Has nothing moved ahead?

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anon

If the Polish government started rationing tertiary education by introducing tuition fees to state universities, there'd be uproar. And yet you are right - the Polish taxpayer has been subsidising the education of a significant portion of foreign labour markets. This is especially true of medical graduates.

@ Student SGH

I KNEW I'd written this somewhere! Thanks for the reminder. What's changed? Very little. Just last year I heard a Warsaw professor talk about "Tom Petter's book, In Search Of The [sic] Excellence" a book published in 1982as a compendium of case studies of business, er, excellence - companies like Wang Computers, Atari and NCR. And hearing about professors in their 80s and 90s no longer surprises me.

Ask me the question in another six years! :-)

AndrzejK said...

Tom Peters is of course an interesting case as he is one of the few business gurus whose views change as the world changes.

Clearly the Warsaw professor had not heard of his much more recent book produced in cooperation with Dorling and Kinnersley "re imagine" or the series of pocket books. Strange as re imagine is available in Polish as "biznes od nowa".

When I gave a copy to a Polish Professor who is a family owned business guru and a staunch advocate of TQM (another 1980's and earlier idea), who for the sake of argument has the same name as a famous and failing chain of cake shops, the reaction was that since the book contains pictures, bubbles etc it was clearly not something he as an academic could take seriously.

Just goes to show the truth of the old adage - those who can't teach.

Konrad Kubacki said...

Excellent article Michael, this should be in print media once a year as a delicate reminder to policy makers.

I have experience in both Polish (SGH) and US (Georgetown) Universities and I agree with everything you have written.

A similar story can be told about the innovation and R&D system in PL..