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WARSAW, Poland — Foreign companies flock to invest. Its balance sheet is the envy of Europe. Top university programs crank out graduates whom everyone wants to hire.

Such is the current reputation of Poland, which has continued to grow during the global financial crisis as neighboring countries decline, lining itself up for a strong run to become the continent’s next economic powerhouse.

General Electric officials say they haven’t for a moment regretted basing one of their global design centers here, where Polish engineers helped create the new GEnx engine for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.

Poland education
Boeing 787 Dreamliner (Photo by José A. Montes)

“In 2000, we ended the year with 11 engineers,” said G.E.’s human-resources director in Warsaw, Kinga Zalucka. “Today, we have 1,300 engineers. I think it was a good choice.”

How has Poland pulled off this feat of economic magic? Observers say it’s not just about the low labor costs compared to neighboring Germany, or the boon of a currency freed from the struggling Euro. They point to an impressive, decade-long campaign to raise the quality of secondary and university education.

As early as 1999, policymakers were planting the seeds for growth, adding a year of secondary education and extra language instruction for all students before tracking them onto professional or vocational paths. By 2003, Poland had vaulted past the United States and most of Europe on the reading section of the Programme for International Student Assessment exam.

“Students needed more in general education, including subjects like math, in order to help them stay flexible and navigate the labor market later on,” said Nina Arnhold, a senior education specialist at the World Bank, referring to Poland’s strategy. “It made a huge difference.”

University enrollment has quintupled since the 1990s, with private-university enrollment now accounting for around 25 percent of the total. According to Eurostat, the proportion of Polish young people (aged 25 to 34) with college degrees has jumped from 15.0 to 37.4 percent since 2001.

Those reforms have helped Poland gain a clear edge in the global race for engineering talent. In one survey by McKinsey & Company, human-resources directors said the proportion of Polish graduates prepared to work in multinational environments was at least double that of their peers in China and India.

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.

“It’s a modern, dynamic system,” said Arnhold. “They did many things right.”

These days, Polish universities are increasingly exercising their newfound autonomy under the country’s higher education laws, particularly in the fast-growing energy sector. And the central government continues to provide a boost for key industries such as nuclear power.
“Especially in the last two or three years, the state is paying fellowships to students to enter these studies,” said Marek Kwiek, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. “It’s an enormously popular movement.”

The challenge now is to keep the ball rolling, despite a host of potential problems. Birth rates have plummeted since the 1980s. While the Polish economy grew by 4.3 percent in 2011, virtually all of the country’s European trading partners are slipping  into recession. Unemployment stands at nearly 13 percent, and many investors still complain of stiff bureaucratic hurdles.

Kwiek said officials “took very seriously” the criticism in 2007 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that Polish universities weren’t adequately preparing graduates for the labor market or helping to retrain existing workers.

“The relationships, the links with industry are [now] very close,” he said, citing the growth of the information-technology industry in cities like Poznań and Kraków. “But there are also bad examples such as the arts and humanities, where universities are still offering curriculums that are not providing good jobs.”

And even within the IT sector, some say universities must do more. It’s one thing to attract offshore investments, but quite another to develop homegrown industry and brands with global appeal.

“Universities should be closer to business, and there should be much more project- and team-work,” said Piotr Wilam, an Oxford-educated partner with Innovation Nest, a $12 million seed fund for IT startups in Kraków. “They are very stagnant.”

Boom town

In many ways, Kraków is a microcosm of Poland’s promise.

The city has been a hotbed of innovation since medieval times. Copernicus himself walked these cobbled streets, crafting mathematical formulas by candlelight and inspiring countless other scholars to make their livings by wit rather than brawn.

Today, that flickering light comes from laptops, and math skills are often parlayed into software code.

Foreign-based employers say they’ve been delighted with the quality of Polish graduates, who leave university with a strong base in mathematics and basic programming. Google, Motorola and IBM are just the biggest names in the rush of Western companies to open development labs here.

But lately those companies are competing for graduates with a flurry of homegrown startups.

“There is lots of energy, and there is a community,” said Wilam. “What is really happening right now is people are starting to think more globally. Five years ago, the Polish market was big enough.”

Poland education
Piotr Wilam, a partner with Innovation Nest, a seed fund in Krakow for IT startups. (Photo by Tom Marshall)

Sitting in his company’s sleek offices overlooking the Vistula River, it’s easy to imagine Kraków as the sort of place where ideas flow. But Wilam said Polish secondary schools and universities need to reach beyond the outsourcing model for inspiration. That means lecturing less, revamping courses and finding more professors with real-world experience.

Piotr Nedzynski, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur in Kraków, said he learned nothing about “source control”—tracking different versions of software code—while studying at the well-regarded AGH University of Science and Technology. It wasn’t until he started working abroad for a Danish software firm that he picked up that critical knowledge, and saw firsthand how Western European students had been trained to think on their feet.

“In Poland, when a teacher asks a question, everyone is silent,” Nedzynski said.

Szymon Piwowarski, a group leader at G.E.’s Engineering Design Center in Warsaw, said it would be helpful for universities to add a half-year of practical work to their programs, or to make greater use of case studies.

“For many years, they’ve been teaching the same material—without much connection to the manufacturing process,” he said. “Have they ever talked to the guys on the shop floor?”

Some university officials say they’re working to correct that problem, with prompting from a new higher-education law that forces them to specify learning objectives—an approach also gaining traction in the United States—and make curricula more relevant.

“The university is producing people who don’t know how to cooperate with other colleagues,” said Andrzej Mania, vice-rector for educational affairs at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

Senior professors can be just as resistant, he said. But the university is taking the long view and focusing its reform efforts on professors in their 30s and 40s.

“Something has to be done, and we are doing it,” Mania said. “We are transforming our system to define education in a completely different way.”

Uncertain targets

Some corners of academia are changing at a speed that would have amazed Poland’s old Communist Party bosses.

“We have increased the number of students by 50 percent compared to 10 years ago,” said Stanisław Nagy, head of the gas engineering department at AGH University. “Generally, about 100 students graduate from the department per year. This is a large number. Maybe next year we will open unconventional gas engineering also, and grow to 125.”

Poland education
Stanisław Nagy, head of the gas engineering department at AGH University of Science and Technology. (Photo by Tom Marshall)

That boom is being driven by shale gas—Europe’s largest potential reserves, enough to fuel Poland’s growing economy and free it from a troublesome dependence on Russian natural gas.

Foreign companies like Chevron have jumped at the opportunity, signing training or research deals with AGH and hiring many students in the midst of their studies. The university is also planning new programs to help mid-career workers—the parents of current students—update their skills.

There is reason for caution, though. ExxonMobil abandoned its shale gas hopes in Poland after two exploratory wells failed, and a government survey concluded that much of the country’s reserves will be difficult to exploit.

“There are lots of obstacles,” Nagy said. But even if Poland’s more than 100 exploratory wells don’t pan out over the next few years, the university will gain expertise in areas like coal-based methane gas technology, he said. “We definitely plan to be a big innovation center in this area.”

Poles speak passionately of the need to free themselves of dependence on Russian natural gas imports, which supply 13 percent of the country’s energy needs. In 2009, and briefly again in 2011, those supplies were disrupted in a dispute with Ukraine. Poland also faces pressure under European Union agreements to develop renewable energy sources and wean itself from a dependence on carbon-intensive coal.

Even nuclear power is on the table, despite the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan and neighboring Germany’s decision to close all of its nuclear plants within the next decade. Poland is still moving forward with plans to build its first reactor by 2024.

At the Warsaw University of Technology, about 80 students have graduated over the last two years with degrees in nuclear engineering, said Miroslaw Lewinski, director of the nuclear energy department at the Ministry of Economy. And it’s the central government that is doing the prodding, offering student scholarships and training in France for professors.

“This is the way to push the higher-education system to react to the needs of the market,” Lewinski said.

He predicted a “disaster” if politics or a series of anti-nuclear referenda derail the country’s latest attempts at energy self-sufficiency. (Residents of Gąski, a village on the Baltic Sea coast, voted overwhelmingly against building a nuclear plant in their backyard earlier this year.)

“We have to install nuclear power stations in Poland,” said Tomasz Szmuc, vice rector for science at AGH University. “There is no chance to go back from this way.”

But officials say some students are hesitating to enter the field out of fear the government may change its plans.

“We need a clear declaration from our government,” said Szmuc. “Studying is an investment in the future.”

Tomasz Wisniewski knows all about such investments. As a newly minted graduate in nuclear engineering back in 1983, he thought his career plans were rock-solid. But six years later, with the end of Communist rule, Poland’s partially built nuclear plants were mothballed.

These days, he’s an associate professor in heat engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology, and at the forefront of efforts to develop renewable energy sources. He still supports nuclear power, but thinks more attention—and funding—ought to be devoted to wind, bio-gas and other sources.

Poland education
Martin Bugaj, a nuclear engineering student at the Warsaw University of Technology. (Photo by Tom Marshall)

Wisniewski has sent dozens of students to Iceland in an EU-funded partnership with the School for Renewable Energy Science there, and many have found good jobs back in Poland. Research shows huge potential in Poland to develop local bio-mass boilers to heat buildings, allowing agricultural areas to use refuse efficiently. But so far, policymakers have paid scant attention.

“The system is not so flexible,” Wisniewski said, describing the country’s scattered university offerings.

One of his students, Martin Bugaj, is crossing his fingers. The 25-year-old will soon finish his own degree in nuclear engineering. But in recent months he has begun exploring other options like renewable energy and heat-pump technology, just in case Poland changes course.

“I am nervous, but not about my future,” Bugaj said. “I have two ways to go, nuclear and renewable. Now, yes, I am developing both plans.”

This story also appeared on on December 12, 2012.

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