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Politisation, Autonomy and Centralisation: Explaining 2018 Reforms in Polish Higher Education and Science

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Governance
Higher Education
Lobbying
Policy Change
Rafał Riedel
Uniwersytet Opolski
Rafał Riedel
Uniwersytet Opolski

Abstract

The objective of the authors’ contribution is to examine the new legislative act on higher education known as the “Constitution for Science”. Despite of lengthy and wide-spread consultations before and during the legislative process, still large parts of the Polish academia are dissatisfied and dissapointed with the anticipated changes. This remains in contrast to the official ministerial position which claims that the reform is awaited and welcomed in the proposed form by the whole academic community. This paper will contribute to this discourse by examining the impact of organised interests on the final outcome of the “Constitution for Science” and its transformative potential. The starting assumption is that it was the political will (framed as exchange of elites, lustration, or simply more control over a traditionally autonomous sector) as the key driving force behind the undertaken reform and the non-political stakeholders did not manage to defend their interests during the policy formulation process. The working hypothesis is that the undertaken reforms lead towards greater centralisation of the Polish academia in two ways. First by concentrating more power in the hands of politicians (which endangers the autonomy of the universities as an intended political side effect), second by gravitating more resources to the “flag ship” universities at the cost of the smaller and more peripherial ones. The paper makes three broad arguments. First, it shows that in a political regime becoming more and more authoritarian (the Polish case), the political decission making process becomes less and less inclusive and the consultations remain nothing more than a fasade exercise. In the end leading towards a situation in which there are only (mostly?) losers on the academic side and the winners are politicians and politics which gear into the higher education and sientific institutions (centralisation). Second, it highlights the cleavage between the central, stronger universities which represent a conflicting interest with the smaller and more peripherial ones. In a system oriented predominantly on didactic operations, the negative demographic trends and other tendencies strenghten the polarisation between the conflicting interests of the various players competing for the same, limited resources. Last but not list, the paper explores the ways in which the central government plays out the interests of particular (groups) of stake-holders. Under the slogans of the Europeanisation agenda and building up the international reputation of the Polish science, the decission makers managed to neutralise most of the opposing voices before they were effectively articulated. Methodoligacally the paper will use the process tracing method identifying the key stages of the undertaken reforms, from the pre-legislative phase consultations, up to the final shape of the new act and its implementation. Complementairly, informants from various spheres of the widely-understood academia (rectors, deans, professors, representatives of students’ associations, governmental officials, politicians, experts, and others) will be interviewed. Their points of view will be interpretaed in the light of the hypothyses to be tested.