Student-craving Polish universities on the prowl in Ukraine

Falling birth rates in Poland over the years have resulted in fewer students for the universities. However, instead of closing, they go hunting for students abroad.

By Maria Danmark and Rikke Mathiassen

Lublin, Poland – “I have two classes with almost only Ukrainian students,” says Piotr Skrzypczak, who is a lecturer at the Wyższa Szkoła Przedsiębiorczości private university in Lublin, a city located about 100 kilometres from the border to Ukraine.

Skrzypczak teaches two classes in International Relations. One class with 20 students, 19 of the 20 students are Ukrainian. The other one has 17 students, all Ukrainians.

Read: Polish universities – a gateway to the EU

The trend with more Ukrainian students in the Polish classrooms is not a rare sight, as the number of Ukrainians studying in Poland has dramatically increased over the last few years. One of the reasons is that Polish universities have started to rebrand themselves as a new education destination in an effort to fill their emptying classrooms.

Demographics: A problem for the universities  

At the end of communism in 1989, there was a sudden demand for higher education in Poland, as many Poles needed new skills to survive in the new market economy. As a result hundreds of private universities were built throughout the country which means that today Poland has one of the biggest private universities sectors in the world.

But even though Poland’s economy has grown for the past 25 years, the country has now, just like many other European countries, begun to suffer from an aging population. Poland’s fertility rate, at 1.3 children per woman, is among the lowest in the world.

According to projections, the population will decrease by four million by 2050 and by that time one third of the population will be over 65; a development which has already hit the universities. Today the universities have 265,000 fewer students than three years ago.

In 2010, Polish economist Krzystof Rybinski foresaw the problem. “Demographic issues will mean big changes for Polish universities,” he said, adding that weaker private schools would likely be forced to close or to consolidate with stronger partners.

Making international campaigns

Instead of shutting down, the universities have looked for students outside the Polish borders. Universities in the US and Germany already started this process with global programmes aimed at attracting foreign students in the 1960s. However, Polish universities only started promoting themselves abroad a decade ago. Ukraine was seen as a top priority, mainly because of its close location.

The driving force behind the internationalisation started from the universities, however, for a couple of years now the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education has also participated at education fairs in Ukraine to promote the Polish education sector.

And their tactics have paid off: during the past year, the number of international students in Poland has increased by 28 per cent. Today the number of international students is 46,101. According to the organisation Study in Poland, Polish universities have never experience such a growth in international students.

Lublin located near the Ukrainian borders has in particularly been welcoming Ukrainian students. In the academic year 2010/2011, the city had 1,401 Ukrainian students. However, last year the number tripled to 4,395, according to numbers from the Lublin City Hall.

However, it may not be enough for filling the spots. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, the rector of Kozminski University in Warsaw, Witold Bielecki, said that “by 2016, the number of places on offer in state universities will be equal to the number of teenagers [Poles] graduating from high school.” If he is right, this will mean that there hardly will be enough Polish students to fill the remaining places at the private universities.

In a city such as Lublin, the number of students has declined by around 7,000 in time from 2005 to 2011. Today, the city has a total student population of 75,000 students, which means that the Ukrainians only account for 5 percent. According to Wiktoria Herun, who is working at the Division for cooperation with business and academic community at Lublin City Hall, the universities are still looking for ways to attract more students – both from other regions in Poland or from abroad. Wiktoria Herun is also a project manager of Study in Lublin which aim is to promote Lublin as a city for studies.

Clashes between students

The trend is similar to the rest of Poland. Looking at the total student population in Poland, the international crowd only make up 3.1. In 2008, the number was 0.6 per cent.

“The foreign students can contributed with a higher education level and they can also make the educations more diverse and multicultural which we are not used to here in Poland,” Bianka Siwinska says, coordinator of Study in Poland, whose aim it is to attract foreign students to Polish. She is also author of the report ‘Foreign students in Poland in 2014’.

She emphasises that the increase is positive, however, she stressed that there could be prospective conflicts if special attention is not paid to integration of the foreign students. “Due to the steady dynamic growth of the number of Ukrainian students there is more and more talk about ‘Ukrainization’ of Polish universities,” she stresses and adds that there have been conflicts between Ukrainian and Polish students.

“In Lublin, there was made surveys, where Ukrainian students said that they meet by some unpleasant words and where Polish students said that they felt that they weren’t in a Polish university anymore,” she says.

Focus on supporting integration

Piotr Skrzypczak agrees that the increase in foreign students is positive, however, he would have liked more preparation in how to teach a foreign audience. “There are too many resources put into attracting them instead of supporting and helping,” he says. When not lecturing at the university, Skrzypczak works in a local NGO Homo Faber, which deals with integration in Lublin as one of its main projects.

Siwinska believes that the universities and the local governments should propose solutions that support proper integration of Ukrainian students into the life of university and local community,” she says. “However, it is difficult process, as we don’t have much experience with foreign students,” she adds.

According to Marta Jaroszewicz, who is a senior fellow at Centre for Eastern Studies, where she focuses on migration from Eastern Europe, the Polish universities are well prepared to welcome the increasing number of Ukrainian students. She stresses that it is rather the Polish society who is not prepared to welcome immigrants from other countries.

“We [Poland] are good at attracting Ukrainian students. Now the issue arises how to create a comprehensive system of integration and placing them at Polish labour market if they wish to stay,” she explains.


Featured image: Polish universities have a good reason for translating road signs, as the number of international students have increased by 28 percent in the last year. Photo: Rikke Mathiassen and Maria Danmark.