Although private higher education is flourishing in Poland, demographics and the dodgy methods some schools use to attract students may soon put the brakes on the boom.
by Wojciech Kosc 9 September 2010
WARSAW | As the morning crowd pours out of the Centrum metro station, many eyes catch billboards pushing the latest films, soft drinks, or beer. There are also ads typically picturing young people, often wearing robes and mortarboards – a custom that’s crept into Poland from the United States. “Young, talented, attractive,” one slogan reads. Billboards like these, advertising private colleges and universities, are prominent at most stations on Warsaw’s only metro line and can be seen all over the city, luring prospective students with offers of reduced fees for those who enroll early, recruit a friend, or simply sign up to study. A similar advertising landscape dots other Polish towns and cities, peaking in August and September, the two months preceding the start of another academic year.
“When I enrolled, private schools didn’t have a very positive reputation. My first choice was public university but I failed the entry exams. When I learned about my current school I enrolled there. I had nothing to lose. Now I’m happy,” said Ewa Szkudelska, who is just graduating in intercultural psychology at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities.
Fierce competition among private universities is a direct outcome of their proliferation as the student body has grown. In the 1990-1991 academic year, there were 403,000 students of higher education in Poland, virtually all at public universities and technical schools. According to the latest available data from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, there were close to 2 million students in the 2007-2008 academic year. While the number of state universities has remained more or less flat, rising only from slightly more than 100 in the early 1990s to 132 now, the number of their private competitors mushroomed from 18 in 1993 to 326 in 2009, an 18-fold growth.
“The quantity never translated into quality, of course,” Bogusław Sliwerski said. Sliwerski recently gave up his job as a lecturer in pedagogy at a private institution in Wroclaw and is getting ready to go back full time to the public education sector. He’s also a former member of the Polish Accreditation Commission, a government agency that assesses the quality of teaching in higher education institutions. Programs at all higher educations institutions must be accredited.
Sliwerski says that in many cases, owners of private institutions make profits that are hardly attainable elsewhere. “Imagine a private school that has a hundred students in the first year, 400 one year later, and, say, a thousand after another two years. It runs only such studies that require no investment whatsoever in laboratories, libraries, even buildings, as it leases lecture rooms from other universities during weekends. An annual net profit on such an enterprise is close to 1 million zlotys [250,000 euros],” Sliwerski said.
The days may be numbered, though, as the pool of potential students shrinks. According to forecasts from Poland’s state statistical office, in just five years, by the end of 2015, the number of people aged 19 to 24 will have fallen by 800,000, from 3.6 million to 2.8 million. Five years later, in 2020, the university-age population will have fallen by another 500,000.
That is likely to be bad news for many private institutions, especially those already resorting to deep fee cuts or offers of gifts to enroll. Ten private schools have gone bankrupt in the past three years, and according to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, another 100 may follow by 2025.
No wonder, then, that efforts to lure students are becoming ever more sophisticated – and ridiculous at times.
Tempting would-be students takes on a variety of forms. Fees as low as 60 euros for early enrollment. Cheap gifts such as pens or bottle openers. A chance to win a notebook computer. Shopping coupons, discounts on swimming pool admissions, and so on. The Internet is another front: blogs, Facebook, and YouTube are full of more or less concealed “become our student” messages.
Private schools are also thinking in more sophisticated terms. One organization, PROM, or the Association of PR and Promotion of Polish Schools, organized, for example, a two-day paid conference on how to win future students while they’re still in secondary school, build good relationships with education journalists, or take advantage of services like Twitter, Tumblr, or a popular microblogging platform in Poland, Blip. The promotion budget at some private schools could be as much as 1 million zlotys.
The question of survival in an increasingly competitive market isn’t just about the tools that schools use to attract students. Private schools have become skilled at adapting to issues of demand that have little to do with educational quality. “It’s a very small job market here, all based on who knows who,” said one young woman who lives in a town of about 20,000 in the Lodz region and who asked to remain anonymous, apparently uncomfortable when talking about her educational choices. “The formal requirements to get a job in administration, which is the most desired position in a town like mine, is that I have a master’s. So I’m not going to bother to study anywhere else when one school has opened a branch right here.
“All I need is a document confirming I have a master’s. No matter where it comes from,” she added.
According to Sliwerski, such attitudes are all too typical of young Poles. “There’s no market selection of graduates in Poland. What we have is the cult of the diploma. It doesn’t matter what studies you did as long as you did any. On top of that, studying is very much linked to the need to boost one’s self-esteem,” he said.
He says that it’s demand from people like that young woman that has helped private universities flourish. And once such customers become fewer and farther between due to the shrinking cohort of university-aged Poles, the schools that catered to them will be the first to go under.
The schools that manage to stay in business may reap a windfall from this process, Sliwerski suggests. They will happily take in students from failed institutions. “These are paying students that a school will gain at no effort and no money spent for advertising,” he said.
Private colleges aren’t just waiting around to snatch up students from failing competitors. Some are trying to capture the market with branch campuses. In its quest for more students and fees, the University of Humanities and Economics in Lodz went a few strides too far by opening branches that lived up to no standards in terms of staff, location, or course offerings. An investigation by the Accreditation Commission showed that many of those branches were run illegally. “It’s one of the gravest sins that private schools commit,” Sliwerski said.
Other colleges in the area immediately sensed an opportunity to enlarge their student bodies this summer and flooded that school’s students with offers to change schools and pay no fees. The threatened school reacted by calling its competitors “academic hyenas that come out when they see a rival in crisis.”
The gloomy demographic outlook, however, apparently is not scaring off potential investors in the lucrative private-university business. “Despite the ministry’s increasing the minimum amount of money needed to apply for opening a private higher education institution from 150,000 to 500,000 zlotys [38,000 to 127,000 euros], the new applications keep coming,” Sliwerski said.