Dozens of Polish students mill outside the University of Warsaw. Those midway through courses contemplate a second degree or a masters course, aware that the state will pay the bill.
That could change, however. Under plans by science and higher education minister Jaroslaw Gowin, Poland’s top universities could shift from teaching to instead foster innovations that will power future businesses.
“Under the communist regime [until 1989] access to university-level studies was limited. In my generation just 7 per cent of people graduated,” says Mr Gowin, also deputy prime minister.
“Then, when communism collapsed, young people started studying on a massive scale.
“That brought about fantastic effects. But it also had some negative implications . . . Polish universities over the past few decades have focused heavily on education, and overlooked the importance of research,” Mr Gowin tells the FT.
“We need to be able to reverse that phenomenon now, by establishing more elite universities that would . . . educate fewer students, and focus primarily on research that can later be applied in the economy.”
According to data from Eurostat, Poland produced 598,000 graduates in 2013, the third-highest number in Europe after Britain and France.
Training them is not cheap. Poland spent 1.2 per cent of GDP on tertiary education in 2013, according to OECD data, the same as France and just below Germany. That is a source of talent and part of what attracts investors. But politicians fret that too many educated Poles work in process-oriented jobs in factories or in service centres for global companies seeking lower costs, or that they leave Poland.
In the wider economy, the equivalent of just 0.9 per cent of GDP is spent on research and development, under half the EU average and below Poland’s goal of 1.7 per cent by 2020. Mr Gowin hopes his plan will change that, but says: “I know I face a big battle with academics [that] will start as soon as I announce the competition to select the few elite universities.”
Proponents of Mr Gowin’s proposed reforms point to Britain, France and Germany and the support they give to top institutions — such as Oxford, Cambridge, Paris-Sorbonne and Berlin’s Humboldt university — that has helped them become research leaders and business incubators.
“If we fail to establish elite universities, thousands of students, the very best and most brilliant ones, will leave to study in the UK, the US or elsewhere in Europe,” says Mr Gowin.
There are already hopeful signs for Poland. In August, it was listed alongside Australia, China and Turkey in a study by consulting firm Firetail as a country where universities could challenge the dominance of elite institutions in places such as the US and UK over the next two decades.
Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the University of Warsaw were named in the 2016 edition of the global Nature Index, which ranks universities that have increased their level of high-quality research over the past three years.
In 2014 Warsaw university also announced it would start a co-operation initiative with the University of Cambridge in the UK to jointly set up a centre of excellence for research.
“It is a task ahead of each and every state to reinforce and invigorate academic and educational elites. And that is what our government believes in,” Mr Gowin says.