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Q&A with Andrzej Mania: A nation’s university system seeks to transform itself

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Andrzej Mania is vice-rector for educational affairs at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He has served two terms as a member of Poland’s State Accreditation Committee for higher education.

Collegium Novum at Jagiellonian University in Kraków (Photo by Jan Mehlich)

Q: There’s a perception in the United States that we are beginning to slip behind, and that there are some competitors out there. Poland’s achievements in the economic realm especially, and in universities, are prompting people to look at this country as something serious. And yet the OECD reported seven years ago that Poland needed to close the gaps between universities and the workplace, and make learning more active in higher education. What still needs to be done?

A: First, universities are functioning much better in open space, in the sense that when transformation is moving faster and faster in our society in other areas, it is influencing our higher-education institutions to open our ideas to everything that goes on outside. Right now there is no need to protect selfishly our experience as a unique system which has to be preserved and protected. Maybe colleagues at Oxford or Harvard can believe—let them believe they deserve to be treated very seriously—but most institutions all over the world have to look around…

I often repeat to my colleagues, we are not protected against failure. We can destroy the chance of our university if we do not offer something more interesting, more appealing to the younger generation—this generation which has this impressive capability to communicate with themselves, and who can go very quickly [to universities] outside of Poland.

I have spoken with people in the IT field who believe Polish university graduates are very competent in terms of basic skills, but aren’t very prepared for the situations they’ll face in the working world. They say there’s too much lecturing but not enough teamwork and practical projects or challenges. I’m wondering whether you are at the point of being able to reinvent the way undergraduate teaching takes place. Is the classroom experience changing fundamentally?

The biggest transformation took place when we accepted the Bologna system. Five years of studying were transformed into 3+2. And at the beginning it was just strictly mechanical, just cut. This was definitely not the idea of the Bologna Process…

Lessons From Abroad

This story is part of The Hechinger Report’s ongoing series on what the U.S. can learn from higher education in other countries.

Read the rest of the series and keep up with ongoing news on our blog.

After 10 years of experience, we have begun to define a method of teaching that would allow a graduate with three years of study, with a first degree, [to gain] a readiness to be active on the labor market…

[He cites research from Austria suggesting that the labor market in Europe has “not accepted” the three-year bachelor’s degree adopted by many countries, putting pressure on students to continue studying for master’s degrees.]

This is a good moment for defining the first level of education in a completely different way.  That should be [a degree] which gives you enough knowledge and skills and social competence to be active on the labor market…

I do not believe “revolution” is the word that should be used for transformation of the educational system, because a lot of people are involved in this process. We really have to at first convince them that transformation gives them a chance to teach in a different way according to their potential and their chances. In a short [amount of time] I have to ask people, for example, to forget about the traditional lectures. What could you offer instead of traditional lectures?

We found from questionnaires sent to students that not all lecturers are interesting. They would like to have more moot courts for the lawyers. They would like to have more, let’s say, training groups organized for small groups of students… There is a strong pressure from students… They do not want to study some theoretical aspect just for nothing, without understanding what they want to do with their life. I like this new approach…

So what do you do about this? Do you hire young professors to work with the older professors, people who have had recent experience in the marketplace? How quickly can you change?

From the formal point of view, according to new regulations, our new program [began] Oct. 1, 2012. This means that everybody accepted by the admission committee, they have to study in a new way and in new programs, built on the idea of the European Qualifications Framework, with a new form of education. But each faculty gets to determine what form of education is needed…

I’m not telling you it’s easily accepted by all of the scholars. Remember, if you’ve been teaching your course for 20 years and practically changing only a small percentage every year, life was easier. Suddenly, if you have to instead of giving your course, organize project groups, initiate some ideas, leave them for two or three weeks, then meet with them and evaluate the value of the project, it’s a new activity for you. And we are pushing for it. I don’t want everything to be changed dramatically. But in the case of Poland, thanks to the transformation of law in May of 2011, there is pressure… The level of changes depends on the school and partly depends on me and the University Senate. We are evaluating to what degree they are fulfilling the regulations described in the law.

How are you doing that? Are you reading their reports, or are you walking into their classrooms and seeing with your own eyes?

Faculties are [legally] independent. This means they report to me, and all programs before they start are accepted by the University Senate. …If I see that the program is completely the same as it used to be, I might say no… They should [know] that money will come to them from the central budget in a limited amount—some of them might lose their jobs. They should be clever. This is an opportunity for them…

Each chair is responsible for visiting courses, but mostly [those] taught by younger people. I think it would be unreasonable and maybe a little bit inhuman to just visit the courses of people in their last two years of teaching before retirement. This is a stupid idea. Definitely transformation will be done by people in their 30s and 40s, because they teach 80 percent of the courses in our university. And all the courses taught by them have to be visited. But the problem is not only the fact of the visit. I do not have a problem with them. Rather, I have a problem with the hesitation of the older generation [who say,] “There is no need for change.” They would like to live in the old way. I swallow some of these remarks, but I always address my meetings to the younger generation. Because, [I tell them], you are building the university for yourself. If you are not attractive, the name of Jagiellonian University is not enough to believe that you are secure.

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