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Does Poland produce too many graduates?

8th October 2012
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WBJ sits down with Juliusz Madej, president of one of Poland's best-known private institutions of higher education, Lazarski University, to talk about how prepared today's graduates are for the labor market, how Poland can develop an innovative economy and what has changed for young Poles over the last two decades

Courtesy of Lazarski University

Remi Adekoya: OECD figures show that Poland has one of the highest numbers of university-educated youth in Europe proportional to its population. But Andrzej Klesyk, head of insurer PZU, said recently that Polish universities are merely “unemployment factories.” Are they?

Juliusz Madej: I have often wondered to myself whether it is a good thing that we have so many graduates or a bad thing. In my opinion, a higher education should be an in-depth, high-quality experience. In reality, can we give half our youth a thorough education? I doubt that.

So you agree that Polish universities produce graduates who are bound to join the ranks of the unemployed?

Mr Klesyk accused us of not preparing students for the labor market. I beg to disagree. Universities are not the only ones to blame. Each particular stage of the education system in Poland requires improvement, from the primary classrooms onwards. Changes in educational policy and regulations would help develop more market-oriented curricula.
At Lazarski University, we regularly conduct surveys among businesses to ask them what they expect from new employees and how happy they are with the graduates they have. The fact is that they generally do not complain about the level of knowledge young people have, but about the quality of their skills.

What kind of skills?

Soft skills in particular. Employers look for graduates with excellent communication skills and the ability to cooperate, which many young people apparently lack. They also expect advanced computer skills and fluency in one or two foreign languages. Some complain about the young people’s attitude to work, their commitment and so on. Many of these skills are, to a large extent, shaped earlier on in life, by the family environment and later in primary and secondary schools.

Why is it that young Poles have trouble working in a group?

Poles are known as being very individualistic …

So are Americans, but they often manage to cooperate effectively.

The current model of education actually discourages cooperation between students. In primary and secondary schools the emphasis is on individual achievement benchmarked against that of others. At Lazarski, we make sure students have opportunities to enhance their skills in this sphere. For instance, students are given group tasks and then asked to conduct peer evaluation. Do they give their colleague who they know cheated during a task an A or an F? No matter what they decide they will give the matter much thought – and that in itself is a good lesson.

What do your professors complain about regarding their students?

There seems to be a Europe-wide problem – the level of general knowledge demonstrated by university candidates is gradually decreasing, year by year. For a time math was not obligatory on A-level exams, which was a big mistake. Also, literature is no longer compulsory, so young people read less and less. Again higher institutions are not to blame for the level students are at when they enter universities!

How has the situation of young Poles on the labor market changed over the last two decades?

In the 1990s the world offered many opportunities to young people. There was a huge demand for educated workers and people’s careers moved fast. In two or three years, you could move up several levels on the ladder.

Today it is very different. There is a global crisis, which is affecting Poland as well. Nowadays it is difficult to get a job even if you are very well-prepared. For young people who made an effort to study hard at university, this can be extremely frustrating. Back then the labor market was benign, today it is cruel.

What are some things the government could do to improve the situation of Polish universities?

Greater autonomy for higher institutions, also a leveling of the playing field between private and public universities.

So you think private universities are discriminated against?

Yes, we are. For example, public universities are subsidized while private universities aren’t. Under the Higher Education Act of 2005, private universities could receive subsidies for full-time students; however the minister of higher education has not yet issued an order that would enforce this regulation.

A lot is made of Poland’s need to transform into a knowledge-based economy, but that doesn’t seem to be happening at a particularly fast pace. What can the government do to help?

Today, Poland has a “copy-cat” economy. Technology is simply transferred here. This is strange because Poles are extremely creative and innovative as a people. There are no major international IT firms where Poles don’t work. So it’s not we universities that are making the mistakes, because we are producing these people. It’s the government and regional authorities who must now do their part. There should be serious tech hubs in Poland. Why isn’t there even one in Warsaw?

So you think private universities should receive money from the government?

Money is not even the biggest problem. There are actually significant EU funds available for that purpose. What we need is someone who will organize things from the logistical point of view. The real money is in innovation. Also, in trying to copy others effectively, we have to compete with serious players like China and India.

Why do you think the Polish government is not doing its part?

I am not sure whether it is the government or external factors. We are not operating on an island. There are powerful players in Europe who have no interest whatsoever in Poland becoming an innovative economy and gaining competitive advantage.

So you need to understand all these things and have the determination to push things forward.

From Warsaw Business Journal by Remi Adekoya

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