Few thoughts from the train home

Last couple of weeks were incredibly intensive, but also refreshing for my thinking on wider relevance of my research. I have met so many inspiring young minds ready to engage in the debate on the future of higher education in general, and possible place for European liberal education in particular. 1st LESC was obviously first and foremost a spring of those discussions, but what surprised me was the level of personal care many students showed towards this particular form of studies. We are alike in a way: curiosity of a researcher mixed with a sense of gratitude of a student towards their institution and their teachers. Add to that international mix of students, and this sounds like a recipe for a great discussion. I hope the conversation will continue.

EUREDOCS was exceptional in another way. Group of just a dozen students have been joined by first-rate professors to engage in a dialogue that was professional, forward-thinking and intergenerational at the same time. Perfectly organized by Helen Perkins, Francois Smit and the rest of SRHE, I wish this intimate meeting might have taken place even more often than once every two years.

UNIKE rose up to the high expectations I had beforehand. Geographical, but also professional diversity of participants provided a crash course on the current challenges of higher education in (old?) times of knowledge economy. Seeing again all the people that so kindly accepted me to Oslo half a year before was so nice, and the perfectly calm atmosphere of Copenhagen worked great as a backdrop for catching up. It is impossible to name everybody, but I particularly remember lovely talks with Peter Maassen and Chris Newfield, Davydd Greenwood and Sue Wright, Pavel Zgaga and Rebecca Boden, as well as people doing great job at heterodox universities. I hope that the project will have a follow up it deserves.

Other brilliant folks that I met in Groningen and Lisbon, at summer schools of histories of education and sociology, provided useful comments, but maybe more importantly, challenged me to reframe my interests for different audiences. Format of a summer school, which allows for more in-depth discussion of particular research, as well as numerous non-formal interactions is an important element in formation of new researchers, that we should try to sustain and develop even when it is not very much rewarded for any party involved.

Finally, a conference convened by Marek Kwiek and Kristian Szadkowski in Poznań provided a great opportunity to meet higher education researchers in Poland. This seems quite basic, but as this milieu is in statu nascendi, it is a great opportunity in itself. One particular dimension of our discussions was “Ustawa 2.0”, so a coming prospect of new higher education law in Poland, one that might be inspired by a proposal coming out from the Poznań team. I brought with me not only a proposal to treat MISH/MISMaP as liberal education, but also watchdog reports from Fundusz Pomocy Studentom. Creating links and generating data and analyses might be the two most important tasks before researchers interested in higher education in Poland.

Last, but absolutely not least, I have finally started interviews for my PhD with the founding fathers of liberal education in contemporary Europe. Hans Adriaansens was very generous to talk with me at lengths. I am particularly happy that we were able to go in-depth into Dutch university colleges, beyond the obvious and general into more strategic, historical and organizational details that might help me write a better dissertation.

After a change of schedule, it now seems that I will have my upgrade viva in mid-August, which means I have to complete my literature review and methodology by the end of July. Thus I am very grateful for all the feedback that I was able to receive for both my study design and partial results during last weeks, from so different people. As not that many of us know about the idea and practice of liberal education in Europe, I look forward to writing a post for this blog alongside more personal document, expressing my rationale for the study and wider “so what”. I think this might help me structure the whole project that went through numerous iterations and transformations.

But probably before that happens, I need couple days off. This year was extremely strenuous, and the summer looks not less intensive. Reflecting on the discussions, remembering faces of those who generously shared their opinions and time to help me improve the thinking, and feeling grateful for how, after all, everything seem to fit in the final instances – this is the task for the coming days. I consider myself extremely lucky, and I hope that one day I will be able to give back much more than what I am now receiving.

One possible path to do that would be to transform this blog into more of a work-in-progress thought diary and less of a narcissistic exercise. As everything, this would require my most scarce resource – time – yet the benefits would be ever bigger.

Right now, to all of you – especially those not mentioned by name in this post – my deepest thanks.

1st Liberal Education Student Conference

May 12-15 in Lüneburg there will be a feast of European Liberal Education. After a conference in Amsterdam, when scholars dedicated to the idea of core texts have an opportunity to create an international debate, this time undergraduate researchers from liberal education institutions would have an opportunity to discuss the very premises of this mode of study.

The organizing team, which means students from Leuphana University Studium Individuale and University College Freiburg, attracted applicants from several European countries, as well as Hans Adriaansens, Teun Dekker and Nigel Tubbs from among the leaders of European liberal education. The conference would include both paper presentations – I read all 29 of them, and they are really strong and interesting – as well as more practical workshops on the idea and the future of liberal education in our continent. I was invited to give a keynote speech in which I will share some of my findings on the diversity hidden behind a common name, as well as propose six challenges that almost a hundred participants will work on over next three days.

This is the first instance of a totally grassroots initiative, that fairly quickly attracted a lot of attention not only in Germany and the Netherlands, but also in Russia, Latvia, Denmark and the UK. It builds on the experiences of national events, but both the scale and the potential impact are incomparable. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung publisher, Jürgen Kaube, will join us in this uneasy conversation, as well as Katharina Dermühl from Kiron University. A publication based on the papers seems very likely. But most importantly, we might be at the verge of creating an association that would join liberal educators on continent, both generating much needed support and coordination on a daily basis, and generating a solid basis for research-based reforms.

I am extremely excited about the next four days, which is ample time to have some real discussion and get to know other participants. The generational change in European liberal education is getting real.

Faculty hiring: our paper has just been published

An important report has just been published: watchdog.edu.pl #5 on faculty hiring policies (vs. realities) in Poland. Numerous dedicated young researchers have contributed to a volume that might stir up the debate regarding non-transparent, non-open, non-merit-based faculty hiring that haunts too many Polish higher education, to the detriment of their scientific productivity, student learning and international reputation.

I was delighted to be invited to prepare an important part on good practices from other countries. Three brilliant young researchers – Madelaine Leitsberger, Aleksandra Swatek and David Kretz – agreed to join me in this uneasy pursuit. Together we prepared quite long analysis touching upon Norway, Austria the UK, the US. It is my sincere hope that this would be not only interesting, but also inspiring and useful read for some Polish researchers and practitioners.

This was an important paper both because it touches on important issue – showing possible pathways out of an open and dirty secret of Polish academia – and even more importantly, because it is my first collaboration. Teamwork is different, difficult at times, but it is also much more efficient and it allows for better insights. Working with Madelaine, Aleksandra and David was a pleasure, and I look forward to do more of this in the future.

Sadly, there was no space to do that in print, but I would like to especially thank Philipp Friedrich from University of Oslo and Georgiana Mihut from Boston College, for their help and suggestions during the preparation of the paper.

Kontowski, D., Kretz, D., Leitsberger, M., Swatek Aleksandra M., Dobre praktyki w obsadzaniu stanowiska akademickich na zagranicznych uczelniach [Good practices in faculty hiring: international insights] [in:] R. Pawłowski & D. Rafalska, (eds.) Otwarte i uczciwe konkursy na stanowiska nauczycieli akademickich – reguła czy wyjątek? [“Watchdog.edu.pl” #5]. ISBN 978-83-931991-9-8. Fundusz Pomocy Studentom, Warszawa 2016, pp. 63-97.

The whole report can be accessed here.

 

2016: New beginnings

Submitting my first grant report in March put me in a position of relative comfort. Me from 2011 would never believe the direction my interest in international liberal education movement took over time. The journey from philosophical and opinionated to more data-driven and understanding was not an easy one. Writing up the final report, which I was stupid enough to pledge in three language versions (Polish, English and Russian) – was certainly the biggest challenge I ever experienced. However, now that it is done, it is finally time to clean up the desk, decide what is of worth in that, and move one to new projects.

Actually, I did not really feel relieved after those 500 pages. There are new things coming up soon, and I want to put them here in case somebody would like to bump into me (or as a trigger warning where I should be avoided). So here are the things I was up to over the last quarter, hoping to secure opportunities to listen, speak and discuss the issues of higher education – and learn in the most effective way: from other people.

So here is the plan:

  • 26.04.2016, Winchester (UK), Postgraduate Student Spring Symposium, organized by University of Winchester, paper presented: European Liberal Education: the basic questions

I just made a fancy Prezi and a Google map for that – they may be updated).

taking our research for Inside Higher Ed articles to a new level by getting a close up on institutions half a year later and assessing the support offered

– I am honoured to be part of the movement that hopes to revive European Liberal Education; in this speech I will suggest why we need serious research to start doing it.

First rate scholars and intensive discussion; this should be really helpful.

  • 7-8.06.2016, Poznań (Poland), III Ogólnopolska Konferencja Badaczy Szkolnictwa Wyższego [3rd conference of Polish Higher Education Researchers], organized by Center for Public Policy, Adam Mickiewicz University, paper presented: Edukacja liberalna w Europie: naiwne pytania [Naive look at European Liberal Education].

as this is a group by invitation only, I am very happy to count among its ranks and I hope to build stronger ties with the group of researchers led by prof. Marek Kwiek.

–  long history of this summer school and excellent teachers would allow me to learn about a subfield I do not know much yet.

a brilliant, global community of higher education researchers will meet up for the last time under the UNIKE banner; this time at its home in Copenhagen

After a short break (I will probably recharge in Rome), traditional summer conference marathon looks like that:

Two more presentations are still in consideration; as are two articles (in English finally) that I submit to journals and one grant proposal that should be decided on in June. After some reshuffling, two more articles should leave the press anytime soon. I finally managed to keep my academia.edu | ResearchGate a up to date so that you can read it there.

I hope that I can afford to travel to all those conferences, especially that I will pause for the most part of next academic year.

Since October 2016 I will be a visiting researcher at Wagner College in New York – as a Junior Advanced Research Award holder selected by the Fulbright Commission. So hopefully I will have nine months of relatively quiet time to transcribe and analyze my interviews from the summer, and learn more about the „practical liberal arts” philosophy elaborated by prof. Richard Guarasci and his team at Wagner. Next year will be devoted to tying up the loose ends and working hard towards a better publication track. I think I now badly need some conclusions from my previous work on liberal education.

But who knows what would happen. Just half a year ago I would never imagine that apart from my daily research and grant report writing I would find time to work on refugees with Madelaine and on private liberal arts in Germany with David; that I will publish opinion pieces on Inside Higher Ed and in Polish newspapers; and that I will be kindly asked to review some articles for Learning and Teaching The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences. It was a busy, productive, sometimes dramatic, but also incredibly rewarding time; I hope to continue on this track for another half a year.

Coming back to the Netherlands

It is now official that I will be a part of 7th History of Education Summer School in Groningen 9-12.06. The school is organized by European Educational Research Association and would surely help me get my head around dealing with history in describing liberal education institutions. Read more about it here.

I hope that I manage to bind early Summer in the Netherlands with some interviews in new University College Tilburg, meeting the team behind two planned University Colleges (shhh!) and a friendly visit to Middelburg.

Meanwhile in Poland

The beginning of this new year was quite productive. Couple of things have finally been published, mostly in Polish, and mostly on Poland.

 

The first two pieces are currently offline-only:

  • Altbach, P.G. & Kontowski, D., 2015. Pospolitość akademii. Z Philipem G. Altbachem rozmawia Daniel Kontowski. ResPublica Nowa, 4, pp.88–96.

This is the Polish version of the interview that has been published on Inside Higher Ed (see: publications). The interview has been conducted during my stay in Boston in June 2015. By the way, this is the first Altbach’s publication in Polish – I hope more will follow.

 

  • Bucholc, M. & Kontowski, D., 2016. Wyzwolić czy zliberalizować? Dylematy kształcenia inteligencji. Kultura Współczesna, 88(4), pp.37–50.

The article comparing the liberal education with (neo)liberalization of higher education, using Michael D. Kennedy’s concept of design intellectualism to discuss contemporary reforms in Polish universities. Written with brilliant (as always) Marta Bucholc, currently professor at the University of Bonn.

 

Smaller pieces can already be found online:

  • Kontowski, D., 2015. Tocqueville o roli literatury antycznej w demokracji. In K. Ratajczak (ed.), Dziedzictwo kulturowe. Edukacja. Historia. Dziedzictwo regionalne. Muzyka, literatura, sztuka i media. Poznań: Repozytorium Uniwersytetu im. Adama Mickiewicza (AMUR), pp. 21–37.

Article based on my presentation at 2014 conference in Poznan, discussing Tocqueville stance on liberal education in a democratic society: why do we need it, and why we don’t need too much of it.

 

Opinion piece on improvements I consider much needed in the Diamond Grant program of funding research projects for Master level students in Poland, appeared alongside other reactionS.

 

My controversial response to suspending the “Studies for the excellent ones” program in Poland. I believe that suspension after potential candidates applied to top ARWU universities is scandalous, and at the same time giving voice to the academia was a brilliant move by an ambitious new minister, seeking broad support by taking down an easy target: internationalization initiative that was supposed to send 100 brightest Polish students abroad.

 

Two versions of my article describing the support declared in Autumn 2015 by the Polish universities towards the refugees from ongoing Syrian crisis. The first account of largely uncoordinated initiatives, discussing the reasons for support and the prospects for the future in changed political climate.

I am currently quite busy working on the report from my research grant, applying to some conferences and working on the database for my PhD project. I hope to get back here soon with some good news and finally some analyses and opinion pieces drawing from what I do these days.

No Harvard under the Christmas tree.

It seems that Polish graduates have been naughty last year. In an unexpected turn, the Polish government yesterday suspended the program of financing graduate studies at world’s best universities.

“Studia dla wybitnych” (Studies for the excellent”) is a much discussed multi-year government internationalization initiative, budgeted for over 330 m PLN for the years 2016-2015. According to the former government, more than 750 graduate students from Poland would benefit from the program, taking off the costs of tuition, accommodation and daily allowance for the selected candidates undertaking studies in top universities according to ARWU general and field rankings. The call opened in November, with the first deadline set for the end of March.

The program was the first example of generous government support for the top students who wanted to study at the top universities. Poland joined numerous developing countries who made such a move, with various effects. Students would be pardoned repaying the support if they pay social security in Poland for 5 years after graduation, or complete PhD studies at a Polish university. I have discussed the issue with Philip Altbach in our summer interview.

Critics pointed out extremely low levels of government support for Polish higher education and questioned the need of financing academic big leagues abroad. Marcin Zaród, on behalf of Citizens of Science (grassroots organization of young Polish faculty) pointed out lack of serious analyses of how the program in the proposed form would benefit Polish economy or Polish science. It finally limits itself to uncoordinated, individual development of limited number of individuals at the most expensive degree granting programs in the world, rather than more cost-wise studies or fellowships at equally good European institutions.

But even if the program was an example of Polish prestige-seeking, PR-driven public policy mimicking questionable ideas of how the world class science is created, it was also a chance for raising consciousness of internationalization before the PhD. Stable, multi-year funding allowed for planning on the part of students, and tweaking on the part of the government. Surely the money may have been spent better – but at least there was money.

Now, in the middle of a Christmas break, everything broke apart.

Yesterday’s decision to suspend the program indefinitely was allegedly based on two reasons: lack of applicants and concern of the academics.

As for the lack of interest, it should be pointed out that with a 31st March deadline and letters of acceptance coming no sooner than February, only very few students may be ready to apply now (mostly enrolled and postponed to the next academic year). But even them were not able to officially apply, as there was no application system yet running. The board of the program, consisted of professors, business and cultural leaders, were not yet appointed. No funding was secured for the 2015 budget year.

As for the concerns, those were voiced by some members of the academia since early Summer, when the program was announced. New higher education minister, Jarosław Gowin, did not mention the program during his first two months in office. Whoever was concerned with the program, there were also young people believing that if they are successful in their application, the costs would probably not hold them off. We do not know how many applied, how many would be successful, and how many would finally receive government scholarships – but there is also this group that has now landed on a thin ice.

Although the program has not been officially cancelled, suspending it now means that it will probably not run in 2016, if ever. With the high spending of the new government, internationally oriented program seems an easy target for budget cuts. However, it was not the cost, but the structure of the program, its criteria and aim that has been questioned yesterday. The communique signals the need of consultations with various stakeholders in the academia, care about potential candidates’ disappointment (?) and the windy road of making amendments in the program run by the whole cabinet rather than a proper minister.

All of this suggest, that very soon the Polish Parliament (that recently works late hours passing questionable bills) may scrap the program altogether, to the joy of some Polish faculty and indifference of most of the others. No Harvard* for you, dear Polish student.

  • or Stanford, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, or many many others.

Busy December

It has been an unusual year thus far: exciting, but also incredibly rewarding. Two last things are making me busy for the rest of the time that is left before the holiday season.

The first one is a Winter School in Oslo. The theme is “Mapping knowledge economies” and it is offered under the UNIKE project. UNIKE, which is Universities in the Knowledge Economy, is run collaboratively by six universities under prof. Susan Wright from Aarhus University, and aims to investigate current challenges for the universities in Europe and on the Asia-Pacific rim. The current winter school has been offered with the support of University of Oslo, to UNIKE fellows, their supervisors, partners and just two external participants (one of which is he who writes it now). The program is really intensive, includes discussion of research projects, debates, workshops on academic mobility and policy briefing as well as discussions on doctoral education. The opportunity to have a talk with extraordinary people, including renowned scholars as Peter Maassen, Chris Newfield, Davydd Greenwood (pictured), Pavel Zgaga and António Magalhães, as well as numerous promising early stage researchers, was an incredible intellectual experience.

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workshop in Oslo – with Davydd Greenwood (left), photo by Chris Newfield

 

In two weeks, I will be in the Netherlands, where I plan to continue my liberal education study by visiting university colleges in Maastricht and Leiden, as well as finally meeting prof. Hans Adriaansens. Then I will attend International Human Rights Education Conference. As the running theme is, quite properly, “Translating Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to Today’s World”, Iw would present a paper on how universities in several European countries are helping the refugees – and why they should care more about taking real action. Returning to Middleburg is a wonderful vision as I truly find this little Zeeland city academically charming in many ways.

After that, I plan to really take some time off – and look back at this wonderful year. Then I can plan some new adventures.

Interviews with prof. Altbach

Last summer I was honoured to work in Boston College Center for International Higher Education. My concern about the condition of Polish higher education, and apparent lack of more global perspective in my home country, initiated a series of interesting discussions with many people there, but especially prof. Philip G. Altbach. He has agreed to talk with me on various aspects of the Polish situation, and he is certainly the right person to ask for international comparisons.

In the interviews, we are discussing the topics that may be interesting also for people without strong sense of urgency to catch up with the situation in Poland. Among them are: global rankings, mergers, attracting international students, faculty compensation, sending home students abroad. It may be especially useful for people interested in other peripherial countries that struggle to improve their situation.

Our interview, in four parts, is now published on Inside Higher Ed, and can be accessed via this links:

  1. Internationalization at the European Periphery
  2. Internationalization for Poland
  3. Hard times for the humanities
  4. Rankings, Mergers, Development

I would like to thank Philip G. Altbach for agreeing to the interviews, and Liz Reisberg for editing. Polish translation in coming soon.

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