Polish universities have consistently remained in the middle ranks in international rankings for years. Year after year, several Polish universities are present in the lower hundreds of prestigious global rankings. Although an increasing number of Polish universities are considered in the rankings, and their positions are stable with gradual improvement, the situation is not a source of pride. In the so-called Shanghai Ranking in 2022, Poland was represented by 11 universities, with the best ones, Jagiellonian University and the University of Warsaw, placing in the 401-500 range. In comparison, the Czech Republic was represented by 8 universities, with the best, Charles University in Prague, ranking in the 301-400 range. In the World University Rankings 2023 conducted by Times Higher Education, Poland is represented by 34 universities, with the best, Wrocław Medical University, classified in the 351-400 position. Universities from Poland outperform those from Hungary and Estonia in our region, but they still lag far behind Western and Southern European universities, many of which occupy positions in the top two hundred.
The ranking position of Polish universities is not the most important determinant of evaluating the functioning of universities. Rankings differ, and they favor specific university profiles. Nevertheless, in the global competition for talent and human resources for the economy, the reputation of universities plays a role in the life choices of active, ambitious, mobile individuals ready to make an effort to shape their reality. Elevating the reputation of Polish universities is a national interest.
Active participation in the international competition for talent for the Polish economy, as well as efforts to attract them to Poland, is one of the factors needed to provide new development opportunities for Polish entrepreneurs based on innovation and know-how and to escape the trap of average growth. Foreign students who come to study in Poland today are an underestimated and not entirely consciously utilized treasure. Firstly, they pay tuition fees, cover living expenses, engage in cultural activities, and shop in Polish stores, thereby directly strengthening the economy of academic cities. In the long term, the studies of foreigners in Poland can significantly strengthen the potential of the Polish economy. Several years spent in Poland allow them to understand our culture, language, and build friendships. Foreigners – graduates of Polish universities, upon returning to their countries, share their experiences about Poland in their communities, significantly influencing the perception of our country. Knowing our country might make it easier for them to establish business cooperation with Polish entrepreneurs, developing international trade between their home country and Poland. Some foreigners – graduates of Polish universities decide to stay in our country and take up employment or start a business here. Such decisions are also positive for the Polish economy, providing it with additional human, competency, and service resources. In this context, the reputation of Polish universities, reflected in ranking positions among other indicators, gains significance.
In the international talent race, creating a good offer for postdocs is particularly important. People who have defended their doctoral theses search worldwide for a place to start independent scientific work. Postdocs create interesting and innovative research ideas, commitment, ambition to build a scientific team and make breakthrough discoveries. They seek renowned institutions that provide opportunities for further development or chances for commercialization of their findings. The work of postdocs drives the scientific achievements of elite Western universities and aligns research institutions to generate innovations.
Working for several years in a university, research institute, and operating in an academic environment as a “Bologna Expert,” I had the opportunity to experience the nature of internationalization of Polish science and higher education daily. I currently also serve as a Member of the University Council at the renowned University of Latvia – Stradiņš University, allowing me to compare the experiences of Poland and Latvia in terms of internationalization and its significance. My observations lead to several insights and reflections related to the condition of Polish universities.
Insufficient awareness of the role of universities in the development of the region. In Poland, I had the opportunity to participate in meetings of the Main Council of Higher Education, university senates, institute councils, and faculty councils many times. I do not recall ever discussing the contribution of universities to the development of the city, region, or country. At Stradiņš University, many conversations with decision-makers, as well as during university council meetings, involve data on the financial contribution of the university community to the city’s, region’s, and country’s economy. The university’s activities directly impact regional development by generating new jobs, paying taxes, and bringing financial revenues to the economy, which is an important argument for decision-makers, making the community take the university’s position into account.
Reliance on the development of Polish universities on public funds. Discussions in the Polish scientific community focus on technical challenges such as scientific categorization (which translates into public funding) and obtaining funds for scientific research in the form of grants (also from public funds). It seems that Polish universities attribute the blame for their economic situation to the public funding system. Stradiņš University in Riga builds its strength to a significant extent on internationalization and tuition fees, which constitute a substantial part of the university’s revenues independent of public funding.
Concentration on the domestic education market, insufficient thinking in a regional perspective. Stradiņš University is one of the two medical universities in Latvia, and the university’s ambition is to be a regionally renowned institution, recognizable internationally and a point of reference for the best universities in other countries such as Germany, Finland, and Estonia. The main group of international students at the university is Germans. To meet their needs, the university opens branches in Germany where part of the clinical classes for 5th and 6th-year medical students will be conducted. Today, some clinical classes already take place in hospitals in Israel, Italy, and Germany, providing students with an international perspective.
Lack of openness to the international academic staff community. The University of Stradiņš Council has elected individuals from Poland, Germany, and the USA; in areas identified as crucial for scientific development, the university conducts international recruitment for professor positions aiming to internationalize the scientific and teaching staff. During my scientific and academic career in Poland, I observed that positions created in Polish institutions are not accessible to foreigners due to the requirement of knowledge of the Polish language and non-competitive salaries.
The perspective mentioned above and my personal experiences indicate that a real challenge for Polish universities in terms of internationalization is perceiving themselves only in the context of the Polish education market rather than setting goals on an international scale. Internationalization is often perceived only through the prism of the participation of foreign students in classes. The Polish education market is large enough that local competition requires significant attention, resources, and focus, causing universities to concentrate on the fight for a position in the domestic market. There is a lack of ambition and planning for activities in the international environment. In my opinion, it is high time for Polish universities to start taking actions leading to building an international brand as a leader in Central and Eastern Europe.
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