Poland’s sweeping science reform gets mixed reviews

30 Nov 2022 | News

Four years after the government passed the ‘Constitution for Science’, academics continue to debate whether the reforms are having the intended impact

Polish science

When Poland adopted Constitution for Science in 2018 the aim was to bring the country’s higher education system more in line with EU standards and position universities to be more successful in EU R&D funding programmes. Apart from changing how the research budget is distributed, the reform brought in new criteria for research evaluation, putting a greater emphasis on publication in international journals.

The evaluation system uses three major criteria for research assessment: the quality of the research output as measured by government-calculated scoring based on the prestige of the journals in which it is published; securing external research funding; and the impact of research on society.

For critics, these assessment criteria lack the flexibility needed to allow universities to choose their own path, instead of mimicking science systems in western Europe. They say the reform in Poland is fixated on moving up league tables and getting more visibility on the international stage, but it could have the opposite effect, pushing academics to fulfill formal requirements instead of focusing on research excellence.

At the same time as changing evaluation criteria, the law amended how salaries of researchers are calculated. Before the reform, universities could refer to their own journal publication scores. Constitution for Science, however, introduced a unified scoring system, in which academics receive points based on four selected publications they present for evaluation.

Jarosław Gowin, minister for science and higher education at the time the law was introduced, said it would raise the quality of education and  give universities more autonomy. He estimated that “a breakthrough in scientific research” would occur within five years of the law coming into force. 

The five-year deadline set by Gowin for the law’s effects to become visible is approaching. But academics still have diverse views on the success of the legislation.

More autonomy and focus on quality

Marcin Pałys, a former rector of the University of Warsaw, says the law on higher education gave universities greater autonomy in terms of defining their structure and scope of work. “There is much more freedom in defining own study programmes,” he said. The degree of autonomy depends on the research quality in a specific university: the higher the research is ranked, the more freedom the university has.

Pałys is also positive about the change in the distribution of funding. The law combined separate streams of funding for teaching and for research into a single fund that is disbursed internally by universities themselves. As Pałys noted, in the past, when faculties received funds directly from the government it was hard to run a university-wide scientific policy and to coordinate research.  

“Interdisciplinary research was also difficult to coordinate because every unit received its own funding. I was the rector, and I recognise this problem,” he said. “Now, universities can make decisions that are good for the entire institution, rather than thinking in terms of the interests of separate faculties,” said Pałys.

The reform has boosted “the spirit of quality” in the universities, pushing institutions to think beyond fulfilling the formal criteria and focusing on the quality of the outcomes. The law also stimulated academics’ interest in publishing in international journals, according to Pałys.

But there is room for improvement, with Pałys saying the requirement for extensive use of a Code for Administrative Procedures to regulate the processes inside universities has shifted the focus from scientific soundness and excellence to adherence to legal requirements. The rationale was understandable, but the implementation failed, he said.

Another shortcoming is the lack of legal incentives to cooperate. If two academics work on related topics and the outcome assessment is not influenced by whether they work alone or together, there is not much incentive to combine effort, Pałys said. However, he notes that incentives for cooperation should also come from rectors, because there is no general rule that would work for every institution. “University management could think of the ways to incentivise cooperation, and there are enough tools to do that on the scale that fits the institution's profile,” Pałys said.

The push to move up league tables and get international visibility leaves smaller institutions in an awkward situation. “There is no clear idea yet how to [apply] the criteria in a way that smaller, specialised institutions will be held to account, but not at the expense of the flexibility of big institutions,” Pałys said. The assessment criteria are designed for comprehensive higher education institutions and smaller institutions with a focus on selected disciplines may struggle to fulfil them. 

As one measure of the success of the reform, Pałys noted the number of EU research grants Poland has won, and their overall value, has increased in recent years, although there is further to go.

Plotting a route

Piotr Stec, professor in the faculty of Law and Administration at Opole University and principal investigator in the government-funded project ‘Quality-Focused Evaluation of Academic Legal Research’ is less optimistic. 

In his view, Constitution for Science has changed the education system structure rather than the underlying tenets. “It’s just putting blocks in a different sequence. What was wrong remains wrong, what was good remains good,” Stec said.

Although the system gives universities greater autonomy in terms of managing the streams of funds, it still lacks the flexibility to allow universities to choose their own path, rather than focusing solely on rankings and modelling themselves on world academic leaders. “The universities have to find their own DNA – their own way, their own strategy. And this is what is missing in the reform,” Stec said.

Another issue, according to Stec, is the way old and new institutions are assessed according to the same metrics. Opole University, which is less than 30 years old is in direct competition with Jagiellonian University, which is more than 600 years old. “My university is like a start-up. We are doing great things, but we do not have results like a Jagiellonian right now, just like a start-up would not have Elon Musk’s money,” he said.

Stec noted that the system would be more effective at the international level if it encouraged universities to switch from pure competition to a combination of competition and cooperation. “If top players are assessed [against a] portfolio of the European universities, not compared to each other, then they all will strive to be the winners,” he said.

A further problem is that the system is too focused on promoting research-intensive universities and overlooks teaching quality. “There is no incentive to do good teaching. We are all forgetting that universities are schools. If we neglect this teaching aspect, this means, students will not come to us,” Stec said. A change in mentality is needed to accept the idea of a university that does not grant higher degrees and is an excellent university.

More positively, the reform is evolutionary not revolutionary, and the Polish government is open to adjusting the system. “It’s major legislation, and you cannot make a perfect act with no flaws in it,” said Stec. “The fact that the government tries to understand what went wrong and change it is a good sign for the future.”

Stable and constant

But for some researchers, regulations are too frequently altered in Poland. Wawrzyniec Konarski, professor of political science and rector of Vistula University, underscored the need for stable and constant criteria. The reform was useful in bringing structure to the evaluation system for higher education institutions, however, the criteria are, “too dependent on the wish of the willing.”

Researchers are under pressure to publish in journals that will score them the most points and this has become “a sort of academic obsession,” Konarski said, noting the reform does not encourage involvement in other forms of communication. Constitution for Science should take into account not only journal papers, but also the delivery of expertise through, for example, online lectures or debates, he said.

Funding is another problem and Konarski said that sources of funding should be more diversified. “My hope is that there will be a much larger group […] including the private enterprises offering specific grants for financing research and academic ideas,” he said. The government could incentivise private investment in research through tax relief.  “There is a need for synergy between the state regulations and activities of different foundations and private companies,” said Konarski.

On the bright side, Konarski noted that Constitution for Science encourages Polish academics to be more internationally oriented. However, it is too soon to conclude the reform is overall positive. “We are still in the middle of the road,” he said.

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