Poisoned postgraduate market

The postgraduate market in Poland is broken, badly.

The HE Law allows institutions that possess BA rights to develop and sell programmes below Masters level: the post-graduate 180-hour long programme, after which graduates receive a diploma of completion (PgDip). Interestingly for UK readers, there is no division into certificates and diplomas. Schools are expected (and allowed and checked) to develop programmes within their areas of specialisation: those possessing BA in Economics rights cannot run programmes in accounting or management and vice versa. Of course, most go around this rule by creatively naming their programmes, so that abovementioned economics-rights holder would offer a post-grad programme not in “management” but in “economics of company management”. Maybe, one day, the Ministry will get wiser (or less lazy) and check these programmes and ban a few institution – the course structure clearly indicates the modules and desired learning outcomes, even if the name is….different.

Everyone and anyone offers these programmes, keen to access the one remaining cash-rich market segment: mature students who need to gain these diplomas to assure professional advancement, but do not need/want MAs (or, in case of most Poles, already have them), or are trying to shift their career/specialisation away from their original degree(s). These programmes are offered in weekend mode, and thus an institution can expect students to come from further away – however this is true only for the truly well-respected and highly-ranked. Others, including those from the 70-80-90th places lure only locals, and those (probably) too poor or lazy to go elsewhere. The Ministry needs to be notified, but the programmes are created within the institution and approved by the appropriate oversight body (mostly, a Faculty Board). The Ministry steps in only in cases of outright crisis. A leader or idea-generator puts together a set of subjects, and assembles a team of subject “masters”. Sounds grandiose. And is. In many cases, there is no idea “man”, but a victim ordered to bring in more money to the institution, or someone who is lacking in subjects to complete contracted teaching minimums. Often, the author assembles subjects not through their content, but by giving friends teaching hours – then the programme description reads like a drunken snake trying to sound sober, with sentences lifted and pasted in haphazard places, to make a sensible-sounding justification for the offer. Hours vary, from a 2-hour subject to 20+, depending on the need for the topic, power of its teacher to demand high hourly contact or goodwill of the designer.

In many cases the lecturers have little practical knowledge, sometimes the students happily embarrass the instructor, having come in from the real world and meeting a pimple-faced theoretician educated in a surreal public university with lecturers 90-or-older. Only in the top institutions, do students experience a true awakening and epiphany, exposed to top-class instructors with real-life experience and an extensive academic/research background, backed by an ability to convert theory into practice and vice versa, while incorporating the comments, ideas and experiences of the students (rarely BA-holding “virgins” with no industrial experience).

The students themselves are rarely crème-de-la-crème, highly motivated, talented, able to input the required amount of work. In most cases they are overworked, stressed, annoyed (at doing the programme, wasting their weekends, etc), and have bad attitudes infused by previous institutions or programmes. There are two important market segments (and client profiles): those who are required to continuously update their skills and thus have little real interest in the programme, its contents, lecturer skills; those shifting qualifications, but not willing to undergo the standard brutality of BA+MA re-tooling, and who are interested in a fast return-to-investment. The, there are those “unspoken of” – sneaky individuals who pursue any available PgDip – we will return to those in a minute.

A PgDip is reasonably priced, at around 4000PLN for its one year of weekend efforts in listening. Prices vary from 2500 in crappy locations or for truly-dodgy products to 8000 for programmes offering prestige, true knowledge or a recognised qualification. But, 4000 would be the national average for the 180 contact hours. So, it is about twice the average (net) monthly income in Poland – a decent expenditure, to be considered in advance with careful analysis of all pros and cons. In most cases this expenditure is carried by the student, with few companies willing to pay the fees (exceptions: professional/international qualifications or key/specialised knowledge).

The EU has dropped a dog turd price bomb into the market, by allowing funding to be allocated to institutions developing and offering PgDips – the Union is keen on improving of qualifications, enhancing employment chances of the unemployed and enhancing the skills of grannies, teenagers, 50+s and anyone else who looks like an oppressed minority. Millions have been given out to schools, which prepare any combinations of subjects with an impressive programme name, just to get the money. Academic knowledge passing, learning outcomes, even professional ethics (don’t offer something you just read about yourself a day earlier) all go out the window, in a climate of reduced intakes, a decade-long demographic low and an inability to raise research revenues.

The Union has destroyed the market: it has funded the creation of countless crappy programmes, increasing competition for the prestigious, high-quality providers; it has allowed weak institutions to continue living in a market favouring their speedy demise (as signalled by the drop in full-time and part-time BA/Ma students); it has funded the creation of many useless programmes (created to be “unique” in a way that makes them useless in real-life work) and providing work to useless staff. But, most importantly, the precondition of these programmes is their provision at ZERO or much reduced fees (the Union frowns on schools taking its money for developing a programme and then charging full/real fees). As a result, there are now hundreds of PgDip’s offered at ZERO or minimum tuition (10% is the norm). And as a result #2, the average client is looking only for EU-funded (understood as “free”) programmes and is unwilling to consider a good, up-market, knowledge-heavy offer that is FULLY-priced. With the upcoming cuts in EU budgets, funding for such things may be cut swiftly, however the client has been poisoned for a long time, and it will take a lot of changes to make people consider fully-priced PgDips en masse.

These free, useless and widely-available programmes bring me back to the sub-class of student: consumer of all. Paying nothing or a few hundred PLNs (zlotys), these individuals have started a collectible frenzy, completing 3, 5, 10 programmes of various titles (and, assuming some rationality, content), picking up little, taking places from the much-more-needy (or more deserving) and, definitely, poisoning the employment market – which HR manager can now take seriously a prospective employee with 3 (tough, expensive and hard-to-study) completed programmes and differentiate that candidate from a post-grad industrial parasite that has “completed” 3 or more post-grad programmes sponsored by the EU (I personally know of someone having done 8 programmes, from accounting to law)?
Thanks Brussels…

2011 Polish HE law: an analysis (1)

October 1st 2011 saw the implementation of a modified Polish HE Law, set to define Polish higher education for the foreseeable future. It underwent a series of public and industry consultations, sparked a few major battles between proponents of various ideologies and solutions. And… it wound up with not that many changes, ignoring the dire state of Polish higher education, students, institutions and the needs of wider society. Many critics claim that the HE Law went far where it could, but when it came up against old and powerful vested interests, little changed. As part of a wider and grander science&research national reform strategy it will do little to improve Polish competitiveness and progress.
The law lacks any attempts at internationalising the Polish system, in terms of providing equivalencies, reference points, even translating key terms so that foreigners can gain an understanding and form analogies with their own HE systems. This fault continues in Polish legislation since 1989, as I have not yet come across any law or act that would provide key terms in English or any other international language. This is important as the key terms relate to the nature of each institution and an observer can judge a HEI’s status, achievements, degree-awarding powers by the term “vocational”, “academic”, “academia”, and others. Conversely, Polish HEIs can mis-advertise their own size&strength by freely using English terms that (in Polish) would describe better institutions. Example: what in Polish would be a “higher vocational institution” (possessing no-higher-than Masters-level degree rights) can freely call itself a “university” in its English materials (and website).
There is no pressure for international transparency. The authors ignored a key opportunity of requiring the creation and dissemination of institutional and systemic documentation in English and of making it accessible to anyone (via the web?). Such a requirement would offer external institutions, considering involvement in Poland or with a Polish HEI, information that would/could not be twisted by creative translations and (hopefully) a larger set of documents than those prepared by the Polish side (with malicious intent of enhancing its own power/status or withholding key, possibly negative, data). The same relates to various governmental oversight bodies, covered by the Law, that are also not required to offer anything internationally, so that lead practitioners around the world could learn about Polish HE or offer their cutting-edge experiences.
So, a safe and secure system, closed-off from external oversight and imput, to limit embarrassments of Polish HE administrators and/or make their lives easier, by not pressuring them to develop and manage a top-class system.