Policy Design and Instruments

Designing policy to curb the private sector, to gain control over galloping expansion and low quality of education had been on the agenda since the middle of 1990s. Despite an intensive discussion (both scholarly and in the press) and some political efforts to implement structural reforms the private sector had remained beyond control. At the time, there was growing awareness that the process of expansion and in particular provision of fee-based education slipped out of hand and that the ministry alone might not be strong enough to pursue its goals. Accordingly, the design process included the Ministry of Education (and its special team) but no other ministries at that time, even though parts of the Polish higher education system belonged to such ministries as Health, Agriculture and National Defence. Actors included, however, were the Parliamentary Commission on Education, science and Youth, representatives of such national agencies and bodies as RGsW (which officially represented the academic community) and KRUP and UKA (non-governmental associations which represented the academic community through the rectors of the best Polish universities, even though they were not legally located in the Polish higher education governance architecture). Also, the Ministry of science (termed The Committee for scientific Research, or KBN) was consulted but not heavily involved in the policy design process, following a division of work between the Ministry of Education (including higher education, responsible for teaching in higher education) and the Ministry of Science (responsible for research in both higher education, for the Polish Academy of Sciences and for research institutes). Other representative bodies (including the association of private sector rectors, Conference of Rectors of Private HEIs (KRUN), Students’ Parliament and of industry) were not directly involved in the process, although it would be naive to believe that they did not try to influence it. No single academic institution, either public or private, was involved; nor were municipalities, local communities, associations of cities, associations for local self-governance involved. Rectors of the private sector, either those associated in KRUN or those not associated, were not involved in the design process. Additionally, parliamentary lawyers and other ministries (through inter-ministerial exchange of views) were heavily involved in the final stages of the design process. They exerted major influence on the final form of the legal document (the amendment to the 1990 law on higher education of2001), partly changing the desired form of the document, which led to unexpected directions.

Such a broad scope of actors involved must cause some tensions among them. Indeed, smouldering conflicts between two major representative bodies, RGSW and Rectors’ Conference of Rectors of Academic HEIs in Poland (KRASP) hampered the process in its initial stage (Antonowicz 2015, pp. 265-270). In fact, all actors involved declared similar goals - to introduce state accreditation and to stop the powerlessness of the state vis-a-vis the private sector - but they held slightly divergent beliefs and interests. The policy design work was preceded by, and then also intensely accompanied by, scholarly discussions in numerous public meetings as well as in the academic press. Deliberative processes of policymaking with various scholars airing their views in the public debate is a long-lasting tradition in Poland. It is a form of self-governance conduced on the system level (Dobbins, 2011). The specific pressure on the final shape of the document was exerted in public by KRUP, or rectors of major public universities: the general approach pushed through the public domain was that KRUP (later called KRASP) was the only academic body which fitted the European landscape. Rectors’ influential discourse at the time was that European governance architectures clearly included rectors’ conferences and did not include any ‘main councils’ (like RGSW) often seen as relict of the communist past.

The ministry believed that in the 1995-2001 period the rectors had not done all they could to stop the chaos of multiple employment of their academics. RGSW (or the ‘Main Council’) in legal terms was much better suited to influence the policy design process, although in practice it was defending its past role and past inefficiencies, focusing on its institutional survival. The tensions between KRUP (then KRASP) and RGSW were substantial, and the leaders of both institutions were engaged in emotional polemics in the academic press on a daily basis (Antonowicz, 2015). The conflict between two major stakeholders involved in the policy design work had some influence on the course of work but it was clearly not decisive. The ministry and its team preparing the amendment played a key role. It was determined to finalize the reform design and push the amendment through the Parliament. The ministry as the leader in the policy design process had to manoeuvre between the pressure of rectors of public universities (whose support for the reform was crucial) and their own preference to keep RGSW, in a new variant, responsible for the accreditation processes for both sectors. The new variant eventually became a separate State Accreditation Agency, PKA. In short, political wrestling between various actors, who had different ideas about who and how should deal with the problem of quality of education, took more than two years. KRUP was in a position between the rock and a hard place since it wanted at the same time to stop diminishing quality of education yet also to maintain autonomy of universities it represented. These two goals to a large extent contradicted each other. The rectors wanted to take control or at least a leading role in a new accreditation body but the ministry was not fully convinced that leaving a new body (and new tools) in the hands of rectors of public universities was the best approach. Some doubts were raised by a powerful lobby of the private sector (deans, founders and owners) pointing out that accrediting mechanism could easily be instrumentalized by a single party.

Beside the internal issues elaborated above, there was also an important external dimension legitimizing the structural reforms. Discussions about accreditation referred to the European integration and Polish accession to the European Union (EU). Accreditation in general was viewed as a necessary move towards more ‘Europeanized’ higher education governance. The European context is very important because at approximately the same time (in 2000) the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) was founded, providing legitimacy for establishing similar organizations on national levels. For a country that was just about to close its negotiation deal with the EU and to complete longstanding integration efforts, external legitimacy of political instruments devised did really matter.

Prior to the 2001 amendment to the law on higher education, in 1999-2001, the major stakeholders involved in the construction of the new accreditation agency, PKA, and the formulation of its role in higher education governance were the ministry, KRUN, or public rector’s conference (and its voluntary accreditation arm, UKA) and RGSW. All other stakeholders were involved to a limited degree: students and academics were much more interested in the shape of a possible new comprehensive law on higher education, with its promises of increases in academic salaries, and in the continuation of the option of holding multiple employment in both public and private sectors, than in the seemingly more ‘technical’ issue of accreditation. Political parties were not directly involved and the political voice of the government was represented by the voice of the ministry. Interestingly, the role of two other institutions was highly important: Parliament, through its Commission on Education and Higher Education, and the Supreme Audit Office (NIK), through its large-scale audits of both private (1999, report 2000, parliamentary discussions about the report 2000) and public (2002) sectors.

While the creation of PKA was not linked to a new full-blown law on higher education (which was all but abandoned in the late 1990s though finally passed in 2005), an amendment to the 1990 law led to a major change in higher education landscape. The goal of this structural reform was to increase the quality of the educational offer of private (as well as public) higher education and to put an end to the laisser-faire attitude of the state towards the private sector such typical of the whole period of the 1990s. The policy instruments, although modest in its size and ambitions, were acceptable to all major policy stakeholders and in this sense perfectly fit the purpose.

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