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People start studying for various reasons. They want to develop themselves in the field of their own interest, establish new relations or obtain a proper background in order to get a dream job in the future. Regardless of the motive, all of us expect the university degree to act as a differential on the job market in the future. However, as it will be shown in this article, it is not always the case.

A bit of statistics…

In the 90s in Poland, there were around 400,000 graduates each year. Now this number is approaching toward 1.5 million. The results are quite predictable; there is an excess supply of labor with higher education degrees, which leads to increasing unemployment among youths. As a matter of fact, 20% of all unemployed people are below 25 and the average ‘waiting time’ for a new job after graduation exceeds two years!

What has caused such a situation? One may argue that it is a natural phenomenon due to the demographic factors. It is not true, as both in 1990 and 2010, the total population of Poland was approximately 38 million. Of course, there was a post-war demographic boom, but it shouldn’t justify a fourfold increase in the number of students. Instead, we should look at the number of schools offering higher education in Poland and how this number shaped in the past decades.

Number of unis

As it can be seen from the graph, the number of schools offering higher education was rising rapidly until 2005 (this includes universities, technical universities, engineering colleges and academies). As a result, prospective students were given a wider range of courses that they could study. School authorities were hiring more staff in order to accommodate the needs of students. However, at some point in time, certain courses became less popular among students. In order to be able to sustain those courses, the entry requirements were severely decreased so that getting accepted for those courses was no longer a problem.

Furthermore, the system of funding of Polish universities wasn’t encouraging enough for the development of science. Namely, universities were receiving fixed grants from the Polish government regardless of the performance of their students or the quality of academic research. As stated by Lena Kolarska-Bobińska, Polish ministry of higher education, this system will change in 2015 in order to reward those who perform best. Nonetheless, we still need to wait for this reform, whose results will be visible after at least couple of years and, hopefully, it will lead to the exclusion of the worst-performing schools.

So, what are my choices?

First of all, it shall be mentioned that the future prospects vary depending on the choice of the course. In the past, psychology, management and pedagogics were the most popular choices. As a result, the market became saturated and currently it is very hard to find a job that requires a specialization in those fields. On the other hand, technical and technological courses are the ones that are currently in demand. Hence, computer technology or engineering, due to the current situation on the market, are much more preferred than humanistic courses, as indicated by Monika Styczyńska from Manpower company.

But what if one does not have a thing for exact science? For every young person in Poland, the decision about his future is made at the age of 15-16, after finishing junior high school. At this time one is given a choice; whether to pursue studying at high school and then go to university or go to either vocational school or technical college. In the first case, a student obtains basic knowledge, which is partially what he will obtain in high school, and knowledge about the job he is interested in and would like to pursue after graduation.

After finishing the school (which lasts two to three years, depending on the job specialisation), if a student wants to obtain professional qualifications, he needs to pass the state-organized exam in the job he is interested in. After the vocational school, one can continue doing high school or start working in the field he was trained.

Polish people are even joking that it is harder to make an appointment with a plumber than with a dentist.

On the other hand, technical colleges last longer than vocational schools (four years in total), but at the end a student is already given the title that permits him to work (such as electronic engineer) and the student passes the final exam, which every student in high school passes as well. Hence, at the end of technical college, the student is given a chance to either work or study at university in order to obtain higher education (after passing the final exam he is given only secondary education).

As we know now the options for a student, let’s consider why only 30% of students after junior high school go to technical colleges, 20% to vocational schools and 50% are staying in high schools. In the past, vocational schools were used as a bugbear by parents. Start learning or you will go to vocational school! That was a phrase used quite often by the parents to motivate their unruly offsprings to study more.

The truth is that employers would like to have much more graduates of technical colleges and vocational schools. Due to the massive emigration of Poles to the Western Europe (UK, Netherlands and Germany in particular) there is an excess demand of skilled workers. Polish people are even joking that nowadays it is harder to make an appointment with a plumber than with a dentist.

Why young students still opt for universities?

Although it is so evident that it is worth going to technical colleges or vocational schools, young students still prefer to stay in high schools. That is due to two main reasons. First of all, there is a myth that going to vocational school is a disgrace. According to the popular opinion, one should strive for higher education and not going to university is an act of confession to educational failure. It is, of course, untrue, because even after vocational school or technical college a student can go on studying (with a delay, but it is still an option).

The second reason is the underdevelopment of vocational schools. According to experts of the labor market, vocational schools need thorough reforms that should mostly focus on investing in modern infrastructure, qualified staff and professional workshops. The dialogue between vocational schools and private entrepreneurs is also on an unsatisfying level. However, vocational schools are the subject of massive reforms in recent years. New classification of available jobs or establishing guidance for students in junior high school on what specialization will be most suitable for them. Those are the main concepts, but we will still need to wait a few years for the outcomes.

Although improving the situation of vocational schools and technical colleges should be one of the main aims of the Polish government, the situation of the universities is still a problem. A high number of universities leads to a high number of students, which results in lowering the quality of higher education. The results are staggering. The best Polish university, University of Warsaw, was classified on the 335th place in the QS ranking in 2014. Commonness of higher education is one of the reasons of such situation.

Hence, the model of universities should be changed. The government should either close the least efficient schools or impose tuition fees so that attending universities will become less popular and less available. Talented and bright students from the poorest communities should receive student grants that will cover their fees. But other graduates will think twice before taking a second degree or going to university at all.