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.

During the current refugee crisis, Poland has took sides with other Visegrad Countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) and works hard to host as few newcomers as possible. Many politicians, government officials and ordinary Poles of all ages express reservation towards accepting refugees, who according to them pose a threat for national security, Polish culture, Catholic religion and already weak economy.

Going into the details of the Polish refugee debate is a dreadful task. Just recently Poland was a major export EU country, that send probably some two million economic migrants to the UK, Germany and other Western and Nordic countries after the accession in 2005. Even earlier, it was heavily supported economically in the years the transformation, and under the communist rule many intellectuals have been living on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Pope John Paul II, now a saint and most famous Pole of all times have seen refugees a challenge to Christian morality, and a chance for propaganda (in Vatican sense of a term). As usual, to no avail in a country so proud of him otherwise. When Pope Francis called for all the parishes to accept one family of refugees, right-wing Polish intellectuals have openly questioned his authority.

A famous young adult novel by Polish Nobel prize laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz, is set in Africa. A slave named Kali has a rather twisted view of morality. If somebody takes Kali’s cow, it’s a bad deed. If Kali takes somebody’s cow, it’s a good deed. Two-centuries old widespread Polish complex is build on the claim that the world owes the Poles – and the Poles should take advantage of it. Reciprocity seem to be required only of the others.

Yet at a joint conference with the Minister for Science and Higher Education, rectors of two universities have underlined that it is a role of the academia to do what is right, even if the government and the society have different priorities. Successful candidates should have an official refugee status (Polish authorities normally award it to some 20% of applicants after 6 months, the main reason being an applicant left to a Western country). Their tuition would be waived completely – foreigners pay quite a sum in Poland – and they will receive a studentship towards costs of living.

My bet is that universities would award studentships of some 1200-1400 PLN per month, somewhat higher than financial aid for Polish students. If so, then the program would costs some 150.000 PLN (40.000 USD) each of next five years at the University of Warsaw, which hosts 10, and twice as much at the AGH University of Science and technology. University of Warsaw total budget is about 1.3 billion PLN (350.000.000 USD), with a third not coming from the government. Factoring in the tuition would blur the image, as this is not the money that both universities invest, and they are going to be reimbursed – to some extent – by the government. So it leaves us with some 0,03%-0,05% of the annual, private budget of those institutions. Doesn’t seem a huge investment for a little bit of decency.

But it is not just the money that raises some questions:

  • Application process: would refugee candidates undergo the regular procedure, or would they be treated with a preference? The second option could raise some objections. During the communist period, there were some years when universities awarded preference to first generation candidates. Intelligentsia generally opposed this, and today any possible affirmative action is taboo in Poland.
  • Timing: why does this program only starts in 13 months? Irregularity of refugee situation, and instability of new environment, do not help prospective beneficiaries hold on for the next academic year. „The refugees are not yet here, and the semester is about to start”, says the rector of UoWarsaw. That might well be true, but it is not going to take next 13 months for them to come – and what then?
  • Government support: government regulation is required to put this program in force, but it is by no means clear why did the Minister joined rectors without announcing any kind of funding for the program. Last year’s „Erasmus for Ukraine” was a government initiative, fully funded from the budget; that this time the government does not participate financially can only have one reason: political position of Ewa Kopacz’s (P.M.) party before the coming elections. But this low-profile activity leads us to another point.
  • Scale: Poland has over 430 active higher education institutions, which provide education to about 1.5 million students. Laudable as they are, 30 scholarships would not solve the problem of higher education for the refugees. Poland has already agreed for 2.000, and shifting the limit to about 10.000 is only a matter of time. As many of those refugees may want to improve their educational portfolio, it seems really odd that other institutions have not joined those two forerunners. Where is Jagiellonian University, established 1364? Where are strong economic schools, medical schools, or – let’s admit it – Catholic universities (funded by the government)? Where are Polytechnics, Pedagogical Universities and so on? Why only those two have moved forward? Are others still on vacation?
  • Language: Although University of Warsaw announced Polish language courses for the refugees (and they seem to accept learners faster), most of the refugees are likely to go for programs in English – Polish is just really hard to learn! There are 17 of them at the University of Warsaw, and 14 at AGH (but only 3 undergraduate). And some of them are potentially selective.
  • Duration: are the studentship going to be covered from the rector’s discretionary funds, or is the decision not yet made? The general budget of the public university in Poland  has to be approved by academic senate, which is a long and complicated process. Even if it is already decided, would the program be a one-time commitment, or an ongoing one?

So before we get deeper into a discussion whether going for the refugees is more a moral obligation, building knowledge society through brain drain (before others would take advantage of the pool) or internationalizing the academia and making it more visible at the European scale, some essential questions have to be answered. As is often the case with public universities, the programs take painfully long to implement, and their impact is hard to predict. The initiative should however be welcomed, especially as it comes from peripheral universities lacking aggressive internationalizing agenda. If they can alleviate the situation of some refugees, how much can do those in top 100?

EDIT: Public figures and intellectual from Central Europe have published an open letter taking a strong, moral stance on accepting refugees on Monday, 09-21. Read the appeal from 100 great guys on the Visegrad Insight website.

Tuesday edit: Jagiellonian University in Cracow have issued a statement, in which it declares tuition-free studies for the refugees, scholarships and Polish classes. No numbers have yet been declared, ‘it is at this stage unnecessary, it depends on the demand’ stated rector of Jagiellonian University.

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