Coventry University’s Wrocław campus, opened in 2020, represents the first British higher education institution established in Poland. John Dishman, pro-vice chancellor at Coventry University, talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about the British approach to university education, and how it is suited to a global economy driven by digital change and constantly improving skills.

Poland’s secondary education – though derided for its emphasis on rote learning – does well in global comparisons; in the OECD’s latest PISA survey, Polish 15-year-olds have done better than their British peers in reading, maths and science. Poland’s one of a handful of European countries that make the PISA global top ten. Yet Polish universities fail to rank in the global top 500, with only two (Jagiellonian and Warsaw) in the top 1000 (Times Higher Education Supplement World University Rankings 2022). My feeling is that Polish universities fail for the same reason that Polish schools succeed – rote learning. By the time they reach university, the student’s mind is ready to turn learned facts into practical knowledge, learning how to think, analyse and question. How do you see the contrast between the two approaches to higher education?

We are very respectful of the universities in Poland and have good links with a number through our research activities and partnerships. The UK and Polish system of higher education is different and has probably diverged, more so in the last 30 years. Poland has a much higher rate of participation in higher education than in the UK, and of course students can undertake their higher education in the public universities in Poland without having to pay tuition fees. Students in England have to pay to study and there are strong levels of competition between universities to recruit students, so we have to provide courses that will attract students and they are looking for a student ‘life’ as well as a qualification. Student satisfaction is measured by the UK government and we are ranked partly on how the students feel about their experience – some say that students are ‘customers’ – and universities which are almost exclusively funded by student fees have to give them the best ‘customer experience’ they can or the institutions will fail.

Many UK universities see their role as equipping graduates with the skills and attributes needed to gain graduate level employment – indeed UK universities are measured on how successful they are in helping their graduates into work. UK universities need to work very closely with industry and commerce to provide graduates who can quickly enter the workforce, so universities in the UK are encouraged to develop courses which both meet the needs of employers and are attractive to students. A good example of this is our Bachelor’s degree in Cloud Computing – which was designed in conjunction with Amazon and contains knowledge and skills required by Amazon Web Services and other organisations who work with the Cloud. We know that this industry will be in the market for our graduates and will be more attractive than a standard computing course.

How attractive is a British university education to Polish students -– and indeed to students across Central and Eastern Europe -– compared to the more familiar courses and teaching methods of their home universities?

Prior to the UK leaving the European Union, the UK was a very popular destination for students from Poland, the CEE and the EU more widely. Almost 20% of our university student population were comprised of EU and EEA students. So the demand for a British degree, taught in English and using our teaching methods, is strong. We came to Wrocław with the intention to provide that British experience for students who now will find going to the UK more difficult and more expensive. We were welcomed to Wrocław because our focus has been on supporting businesses in the city by providing work-ready graduates. We are here primarily for Polish and EU students who would have otherwise come to the UK prior to Brexit – and of course we want to be part of the educational and business eco-system of the city and region.

We know that students like our approach to their education – involving experts from industry to flavour their courses with real-world experiences. They also like the varied range of assessment strategies we use – rather than end-of-year exams, we imitate the work environment so the assessment is very realistic and assesses a variety of student abilities, not simply how well they can perform in an exam.

Coventry University Wrocław offers courses in IT and cybersecurity, business and engineering – the world is digitalising faster than ever before. IT and engineering skills are critical to any modern economy’s success. Looking across the UK and Poland, do you currently see rising demand from students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses at the expense of the humanities? What do you think the optimal balance between STEM and humanities should be, both from the employment perspective and in terms of educating a well-rounded human being, capable of reaching their full potential?

When we came to Poland, we consulted with the city of Wrocław and with local businesses as to what they were looking for in terms of graduates, and what courses they would wish to see more in our campus. Resoundingly, the answer was IT – so this is where we started. Our university has a strong reputation for IT and Engineering. We work with the UK government centres for Cybersecurity, and the University has its Institute of Coding – so we were well equipped to bring these courses to Poland. Also, given the importance of the airline industry to Wroclaw, we introduced our Aviation Management to the campus, and this is our largest course to date. As we grow and mature, we will bring new courses. We are introducing Applied Psychology, Finance Management and Accounting and a brand – new course in Computer Games Development. We do recognise and value the importance of the arts and humanities – we have a large faculty in the Arts in the UK – and we expect to add some of these to our course portfolio in outer years.

As the first foreign university in Poland, opening its campus just as Covid was beginning, did you find the process of setting up difficult in terms of the bureaucracy – or were the Polish authorities helpful in the process? How important to you is the success of the Wrocław campus in the bigger picture of the Coventry University Group?

We began the process of establishing the campus in 2017 and we received approval from the Polish government in 2019. I wouldn’t say the bureaucracy was difficult. As we were the first foreign university in Poland, we worked closely with government officials to find out what they required from us before they would give us ‘licence to practice’. The government quite rightly needed to be assured that we are a fit and proper organisation to provide higher education to citizens in Poland and we are grateful that they granted us permission to undertake anything we do in the UK here in Poland. We are not a Polish university and we are regulated by the UK authorities when we use our powers to award qualifications.

Polish officials were really helpful and patient. The gamechanger came when we employed local lawyers to help – and the city, the academic networks and business have been so welcoming. It is certainly a great country to work in.

Our Wrocław campus is very important to us. It means that we have an enviable presence in an EU country to deliver our courses and undertake research. We have recently established a new research institute as part of the Campus which allows us to bid for EU research funding which may not be available to UK universities post – Brexit.

How do you see the departure of the UK from the Erasmus programme, and prospects for the new Turing Scheme – the British replacement for Erasmus?

We were delighted to receive funding from the Turing Scheme and our students in Poland are eligible to receive support as well as our UK students. We are currently sending students from Wrocław, along with some of their UK counterparts, on a study exchange in Spain. Hopefully we can continue improving the student experience through study mobility programmes using Turing. We still have one round of Erasmus funding left which we can use for our academic staff to undertake international study and development activities.

Are there any other British or American universities in the process of – or considering – setting up campuses in Poland, or offering undergraduate studies here?

Not that we are aware of – and selfishly I hope they don’t! We really like the uniqueness of our position in Poland!