Poland: Dr Małgorzata Bonikowska

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Dr Małgorzata Bonikowska Advisor, Centre for Human Resources Development (CRZL)

Dr Bonikowska juggles a busy career as Advisor to the Centre for Human Resources Development, running a publishing and consulting company and continuing her academic career as a researcher, lecturer, tutor and education project manager. She has also worked for, among others, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Regional Development, the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister's Office. She has a wealth of international experience, having been a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Political Science Department in New York, studying in France and Italy, and completing EU projects abroad, among others, in Bulgaria, India and the Balkans.


Effect of the European Social Fund

Dr Bonikowska begins by explaining that Poland is currently the biggest recipient of the European Social Fund (ESF), with a considerable part of the budget for subsidising training and post-graduate studies. Whilst positive for the country in many ways, Dr Bonikowska points out that European subsidies for education have created a distortion of the educational services market in Poland.

Prior to this huge injection of funding, competition within Poland's education sector was driven by quality rather than price. Today, thesituation is reversed. Due to the large price differential between funded and unfunded providers, learners are no longer interested inunsubsidised courses.

Dr Bonikowska argues that there has been a concurrent commercialisation of higher education institutions that, stimulated
by the possibility of EU subsidies, have started to operate more like training companies. Nowadays universities in Poland (including state institutions) are also businesses. They offer classical bachelors andmasters programmes, free of charge or otherwise, as well as trainingand post-graduate diplomas which are charged for at commercial rates.


The Problems with a ‘Classical’ Education

According to Dr Bonikowska, another problem is the disconnect between the training and education offer within the system of 'classical' school education. This is clearly noticeable in training offers for businesses: "In business, a special role is played by entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs - those who take risks and start a business. There is a substantial set of EU funded training packages exclusively for them. This is fine, but it would be better if such initiatives were additional to the basic knowledge package obtainable in the classical education system - the foundations of our knowledge about the surrounding world."

Dr Bonikowska is conscious of this distance between the needs of the market and current education provision. In common with many other participants in the Effective Education for Employment interview series, she feels that there is too much focus on the acquisition of knowledge and serious lack of focus given to obtaining skills and competencies required by employers.

Secondly, too much attention is paid to completing higher education (obtaining a master's diploma) at all costs, regardless of prospective jobs or individual predispositions. This is because bachelor's degrees did not exist until 1998 and are consequently held in low esteem.

Dr Bonikowska explains that for many Polish families, it is natural for their children to continue their education onto the higher education level; in fact the percentage of Poles who obtain a masters degree is among the highest in Europe. However, because the offer of higher education institutions is ajar with market needs, sometimes a Master's degree requires extra years to learn knowledge which is not necessarily of much use in a work environment.


Education vs. Social Policy and Employment

Dr Bonikowska admits that educational activities subsidised by ESF help socially weaker groups to retain or find work. She also adds that it is particularly important for the Polish Government to develop a uniform vision in respect of unemployment or labour market 'exclusion' resulting from motherhood, diseases, age or the lack of relevant competencies.

Dr Bonikowska points to an insufficient dialogue between ministries that plan how to use ESF funds for the education of Polish citizens with a clear focus on employment opportunities. However, better understanding of employment problems (addressed by the Ministry of Labour) and business issues (handled by the Ministry of Economy) by the Ministry of National Education (responsible for education of the primary and secondary level) can help adapt the education system of young adults to
the changing labour market and requirements of employers.

Dr Bonikowska believes that there is a great need to change the traditional 'sectoral' way of government, where ministries plan and execute their actions in isolation, into the mindset enabling exchange of knowledge and experience between individual sectors: "Ministries are their own kingdoms. There are no structures to facilitate planning and implementation of projects shared by numerous ministries. There is an exchange of information, but nothing more."


A Lack of Global Perspective

Dr Bonikowska points out that the poor link between the university education system and job opportunities is clear in the case of foreign language teaching in modern language departments: "Many people in Poland study non-business related fields, such as languages. Not all of them plan to be translators or literature experts. Most of them hope language skills will help them find it easier to get a job. Many of them join the business sector. All of them are aware of this opportunity; however, the curriculum does not prepare them for this. Often after graduation, they need to complement their knowledge in political science, international relations or management. But language studies could well be extended by courses in these fields. This would save them a lot of time and effort."

Conversely, many students have the opposite problem: students of management, international relations or political science have insufficient knowledge of different cultures and not necessarily the best language skills: "Regardless of the field of studies - business of political science - the need of global mindset in higher education is rarely noticed. Courses focusing on different parts of the world have been introduced to European Studies only recently. Students obtain an MA in international relations seeing the world from the perspective of Warsaw."

According to Dr Bonikowska, EU, Russia and the US are benchmarks for Poland. The rest of the world is non-existent: "We cannot think globally in Poland. We didn't have colonies or an empire. In the 19th century, when others developed strong state administration, we fought for our independence. After World War II we were behind the "iron curtain." We paid a high price for independence, sovereignty and joining the rest of Europe; therefore, local problems are still most important for us."

Dr Bonikowska sees the predominance of this mindset not only in Polish politics, but also in Polish business where very few have sufficient resources and are brave enough to look beyond national borders. Unfortunately, the world has become a global place.

As an EU Member State, Poland has become a part of discussions involving important global issues and has to be able to express its opinion: "Polish politicians have to learn how to see further and wider, and understand other continents, even though they are not well travelled (most of them originate from the former opposition and the "Solidarity" movement). Our current Prime Minister took his first ever trip to China last year and visits India only this year. For this generation, opening to problems of growing Asian powers and changing situations in the international politics and economy are real challenges."

The consequence of joining the EU is not only the need to be more aware of problems present on other continents, but above all bringing these continents physically closer, which brings other factors to the fore such as migration. Dr Bonikowska notes that, over a short period of time after joining the Schengen area, Poland changed from being a country of emigration into a country of immigration: "We don't know yet how to handle the growing number of foreigners. Some of them see Poland as a
transit country for further immigration. We need to develop a strategy for the Polish migration policy."


The Value of Experience in Education

Coming back to the analysis of the Polish education system, Dr Bonikowska focuses on the insufficient involvement of practice in teaching. This situation - again a key theme across this research - has a profound effect on the quality of the educational experience as perceived by learners: "Many of those who run their own businesses today have never studied management. On the other hand, many professors who teach business has never worked in industry or run a business. Yet the best effects are brought about by the combination of theory and practice, knowledge and skills. After the course is over you have to take
what you know and put it into practice... If you don't know how, it is as if you knew a language without the ability to speak it."

Dr Bonikowska argues that today the need to combine theory and practice applies to most fields of classical education. European Studies are an academic field, but she feels that teaching subjects such as mechanisms of European integration and decision-taking in the EU without practical experience in this respect is defective: "I teach students about the EU funding system and, at the same time, deal with management of financial projects involving these funds. Thus, what I teach is supported by experience and a huge amount of examples. And the knowledge of the system helps me better understand what I am involved in."


The Changing role of Teachers

Dr Bonikowska points to another challenge for the Polish education system - contemporary teaching methods. Their change and adaptation to needs and requirements of learners will be a long and difficult process.

Dr Bonikowska sees new technology and the Internet as the principal stimulants of these changes. The Ministry of National Education is actively trying to convince schools and teachers to introduce changes. Computer labs were set up in most of Polish schools to give students the access to computers and the Internet. The Ministry urges teachers to incorporate ICT and multimedia into teaching; however, it cannot force them to do so: "The will to change has to come from teachers because
they are independent in selection of their style and methods. Many of them still teach the old way as it is easier. However, this widens the gap between teachers and students who perfectly know new technologies and Internet resources. Teachers don't have this knowledge and lose authority."

Dr Bonikowska adds that the private sector contributes significantly to information technology programs for schools and teachers. She cites INTEL as an example. INTEL, a world giant in processor production, offers free training for teachers in the use of ICT. About 80 thousand teachers in Poland have participated in such courses. The Scholaris portal created by the Ministry of National Education especially for schools provides teachers with educational content, supporting new ways
of teaching based on multimedia methods.

According to Dr Bonikowska, getting the right balance between the classical approach to teaching and innovation requires a conceptual shift in the way teachers think about their role in relation to students: "Nowadays children are very bright, fast and open. They use computers from the age of 4 and will surely be better at it than their teachers. Therefore, teachers become mentors and guides, rather than the source of absolute knowledge. They are there to support skills and show how to
strive for proficiency in their practical use. Education has to become a complex offer that empowers students to continuously discover and learn by themselves."


Skills, Knowledge and Behaviours for the 21st Century

Summing up reflections on challenges of the Polish education system, Dr Bonikowska sees 4 elements that affect the educational and professional success of contemporary people.

The first element is the need for life-long learning: "We have to understand that life-long education is a permanent thing in our life. We have to be active in this process. The same applies to health care: it's not only about treatment, but also about prevention."

The second element is the ability to select knowledge: "We live in a world in which we are flooded by information and knowledge from numerous sources. This means that if we do not want to acquire unwanted knowledge, we have to be able to tell the right information from wrong. We have to be able to choose wisely. This, on the other hand, requires a critical view of what we read. The thoughtless copying - so popular among students - is a road to nowhere. We need to learn how to select information and evaluate it in an analytical manner. Particularly because we are left alone in the process; the teacher is not

The third challenge is that of multitasking without a loss in quality of performance for individual tasks. This skill is important both for students and teachers: "Contemporary people are quick and impatient. They are bored by linearity and repeatability. They like creativity and dynamics. They need more stimulants. Therefore, they look for nice and interesting forms of learning and like dynamic multitasking. School should be conducive to learning such skills."

Dr Bonikowska's fourth essential for achieving success in the modern world is openness and understating of individuality and diversity. Foreign language skills, awareness of global problems and knowing how to behave in an international environment are essential here.


A Vision for Change

The interview with Dr Bonikowska ends with the vision for how change in the education system can be brought about in Poland.

First of all, individual Ministries tasked with development of their country should start to cooperate more closely together. Teams involving representatives of various Ministries should be strengthened and their work - adequately appreciated: "Changes in the education system should not be decided in the Ministry of National Education, without participation of other ministries, in particular the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry Labour. Only then will the Ministry of National Education bring other viewpoints to teaching - the viewpoint of the employer and the viewpoint of the unemployed."

Dr Bonikowska states that such horizontal cooperation is not customary in Poland at any level; not only in ministries: "Opinion polls show that our real weakness is that people don't want to cooperate in general. We are very focused on developing our own skills (human capital), but we are not interested in building the social capital which would involve transfer of knowledge and information and completing tasks together. We are individualists. This is apparent everywhere: in local governments, in politics and even in business where we prefer to run our own company rather than joining forces and creating something bigger."

Secondly, Dr Bonikowska highlights the importance of introducing thinking on entrepreneurship and inspiring behaviour at primary school level. Greater involvement of business in this process would be of great importance: "This requires more openness of the public sector to the private sector, which the Polish administration is extremely reluctant to do. This has to do with the still prevailing low social esteem for entrepreneurship, with concurrent aspirations for high earnings associated with business."

Thirdly, work around organisational methods and educational processes at school have to be adapted to contemporary conditions; e-school should become a norm: "This means not only computers and accessto the Internet, but above all changing the method of teaching for all courses from traditional to multimedia, interactive ways, positioning the teacher as the mentor and guide, not the source of knowledge. This means new forms of contacts between the teacher and parents as well
as parents and the school."

According to Dr Bonikowska, the vision of e-schools in Poland requires a "systems" approach: "We can compare it to construction of transport corridors in Poland. A country in the middle of Europe cannot have motorways, but Ireland can. So we have a governmental programme for motorway construction, supported by EU funds. This should be the same with education. E-school cannot be an option out of necessity. The school is the place where we start to discover the world with which we are connected through such motorways."