Force Friday: Polish universities take action on refugees

Friday does not always count as weekend. This week at least three independent initiatives dealing with the refugees and higher education have taken place – and all of them on Friday, 18th. Accident? Well, I think so… But still worth a snap.

  1. First of all, 40 Polish newspapers have published a material by Refugees Authority (yes, it’s English and Russian version is still under construction). The main aim was to provide some information regarding the current refugee crisis, the extent to which Poland is bound by international law to accept other people – and how to select them.
  2. Hans de Wit and Philip Altbach have published an article calling the universities to take an active stance in the refugee crisis. The article points out that a refugee at the university does not have to be considered a cost, and especially current wave of misplaced people may be apt members of the academic community (English speaking, many of the middle class, some with previous education). As the end of the crisis is nowhere to be seen, it is a moral obligation for the universities to offer scholarships for those who have left everything in Syria (and other countries) as well as cut the red tape and speed up the traditional admission process. In the long run, however, brain drain may become a problem, with good intentions likely to produce an unsustainable higher education sector in the current crisis countries.
  3. University of Warsaw and AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow announced a plan to fund 30 places for refugees at 5-year programs. Let’s look at that in more details.

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In a speakers corner

Last two weeks have been incredibly busy for me with three conferences that I attended in various parts of Europe. I must admit I underestimated the learning experience they can provide. It would be no exaggeration that meeting with other researchers, learning about their work and especially the style in which they attend to pressing issues of proper education is an incredible opportunity. And I had three of them.
If anybody is reading that, I attach some pictures I took during the time. I believe in visual culture as a critical part of thinking. They are big, but it is 2015.
First I attended EAIR conference in Krems, Austria, where my presentation has been focused on Polish liberal education institutions (MISH & MISMAP) and how are their respective applicants pool different from non-liberal programs. In fact, as both are multi- rather than interdisciplinary, one can argue they are not really liberal education, and to some extent I may side with this critique. However, the small size of Kolegium Artes Liberales at the University of Warsaw make similar comparison unlikely, and yet I believe that over two decades of MISH and MISMAP at the University of Warsaw are enough time to start doing proper assessment.
What I figured out from the data for 2012-2015 period, is that during the demographic downturn both programs have experiences less candidates. But their composition has hardly been very different (in gender, & region) from the regular programs in humanities and social sciences and mathematics and natural sciences respectively. In terms of internationalization, those programs are slightly more popular among foreign candidates, and especially with those holding IB, EB, foreign high school diploma etc. And they still attract top performers – their initial ‚target’ – although they constitute smaller portion of candidates. Interdisciplinary studies are not so popular among eligible candidates as they once were. One striking feature was that MISMAP top performers are mostly male, even though general candidate pool is balanced.
What I do not know, is how did exactly the situation look like before 2012, how does it compare to other Polish universities and what is the potential impact of parents education for going interdisciplinary. I hope to be able to answer those questions soon – and to share the results in form of infographics here before they would be published in journals.
And by the way, Wachau is beautiful.
My second stop was Emerging Researchers Conference during the ECER conference in Budapest. It was a much bigger event, which was somehow discouraging, but more people actually have seen my presentation. I elaborated on democratizing the liberal education ideology during last 5 decades, and how does it translate to re-emergence of liberal arts in Europe.
My claim is that it is not just the discourse that has become more egalitarian, but the practice as well. In fact, liberal educators have been repeatedly accused of elitism, and to sustain the popularity of their programs, they have focused on making it more inclusive and connected to the society – at least in lip service. Many European programs that have emerged after 1989 avoid excellence discourse; some on the contrary see the liberal arts as a way of protecting the academia against massification and the revolt of the masses.
The sheer diversity of institutions and programs claiming liberal arts status is a signal that something important happened and possibly we can see more socially aware, yet still demanding academic programs. I personally would welcome such development as a chance to bring liberal arts back to the general public, a move that we desperately need right now.
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And last few days I spend in Amsterdam with folks from all over the world working with core texts – as they would call them. The main topic of the conference was how can we use those core texts in education, and what exactly can we see coming by implementing them on a broader scale within our institutions. The conference was organized by the Association for Core Texts and Courses and Amsterdam University College, and more than 150 people from the U.S., UK, Ireland, Spain, Slovakia, Netherlands, Germany, Russia and few other countries attended.
Even though most participants presented theoretical papers on the role of great books for education, democracy and the market, I focused on my experiences with teaching core texts in non-liberal institution. An important presentation for me personally, it used the two-semester course on Classical Theories of Sociology that I taught at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, as a picture of challenges of „liberal” teaching at a practically non-selective institution. I elaborated on my teaching methods (consciously chosen to match some characteristics of the Millennials), but also presented the results – the good and the bad. I believe admitting what does not work, what is extremely time consuming, and why my group may have  lower exam grades than other groups is even more important than bragging about how great a teacher I am, and how much students loved using dropbox and Facebook. More than 30 listeners, all of them more experienced than me, astonished me by being really interested in those experiences, and some of them nodded throughout my story. I truly believe we need to discuss teaching practice more during such conferences, because it may well be true that our students are not so different from each other. And our challenges are probably not different at all.
I hereby want to thank my students in 2014-2015 course for teaching me so much about teaching. I hope that seen from some time perspective, you think about the course we both created as a true learning experience. I cherish the memory of our discussions, and sometimes quarrels, and I must say that it was the most challenging task I have undertaken. Thank you guys – you were great.
Funny coincidence – famous Polish training tall ship met me in Amsterdam just before I left. It was thought provoking – scroll below.
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Last but not least, it strikes me that my itinerary has taken me through Munchen, Vienna and Budapest, currently the three most visible signs of the refugee crisis. I believe that we in education have a lot to think about right now, because the question about the migrants – how we treat them, what do we have to offer, and how can we learn to live together – is central to liberal education. It is all about the community, after all, and one cannot claim to be educated in 21st century if he or she perceives the world in boundaries, otherness and our own cultural privilege. It is disgusting to see what I see now in Poland, with the growing anger toward the refugees – or rather the prospect of refugees as they are not really there, and I doubt that they would even try. But it is even more troubling to hear no loud voice from our colleges and universities that would be “worthy of a free man”. Some things would never be the same. What is the role do we envision for liberal education in creating a more just, sustainable world, if our borders have already failed? The question of being a bastion of privilege would come to European liberal education much sooner than we all expected.
For me, last two weeks was a transition time, and I really look forward to some new things that are now coming. Stay tuned.