• October 19, 2019
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Problems of the Vilnius branch of the University of Bialystok

The Faculty of Economics and Computer Science in Vilnius, a branch of the University of Bialystok [UwB], did not gather a group of students for the first year of master’s degree studies for the first time in years. After the decision of the UwB authorities, Poles in Lithuania no longer have the opportunity to start postgraduate studies in Polish.

One of the most important issues for Poles living in Lithuania is undoubtedly education in their mother tongue. At the moment, Lithuania is the only country in the world where Poles can study in their own language within the state education system, from kindergarten to master’s degree.

It was not easy to launch a Polish-language university. The Lithuanian authorities posed many difficulties. Finally, thanks to the support of the then Prime Minister of Poland Jarosław Kaczyński and the Prime Minister of Lithuania Gediminas Kirkilas, the problems were solved in the years 2006–2007. The Polish scientists from Lithuania chose the University of Bialystok as their partner – and that’s how the Faculty of Economics and Computer Science of UwB, that is the Vilnius branch, was created.

Lithuanian legal realities were disregarded

Unfortunately, the university has had a rough time lately, and its most visible symptom is the unsuccessful recruitment for the first year of master’s degree studies. The decision not to form a class this year is sad news because it is the only possibility to obtain a master’s degree in Polish in Lithuania. There are two Polish majors in Vilnius, but they only educate students at a bachelor’s level.

As the branch lecturer and its former dean Prof. Jarosław Wołkonowski emphasises, the studies are of great importance for the future of the Polish community in Lithuania. Efforts were made to launch them because, in terms of education, Poles are at the losing end of Lithuanian society. This is one of the factors that make it easier for the Kremlin propaganda to manipulate them.

– This year, master’s degree studies have not been launched, because only seven candidates have registered. However, the university requires at least 12. Perhaps such requirements are justified in Poland, but not in Lithuania, where there are simply fewer students. Suffice it to say that the Polish studies at a Lithuanian university were launched with only four candidates – the former dean of the faculty explains to “Kurier Wileński”.

The lecturer believes that such a small number of candidates for studies is a result of activities undertaken in the last three years when Prof. Mieczysława Zdanowicz held the function of the dean.

– Errors have been made at many levels, starting with an incorrect promotion of the university in the Lithuanian conditions, ending with a change of the institution’s educational profile to practical, which the Lithuanian side recognises as ‘profesinis bakalauras’ and which in Lithuania does not allow graduates to continue education directly at the master’s degree level. Many problems arose due to the ignorance of legal realities and requirements, the best proof of which is that this year, diplomas were issued incorrectly. So at almost every step, we are dealing with issues that undermine the sense of studying at our university – emphasises Prof. Wołkonowski.

Training in Kaliningrad

According to our interlocutor, the biggest reservations are raised by the university’s commencement of cooperation with the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad last year.

– I think that this is completely unacceptable. I wrote a letter to the dean, pointing out that in our cooperation we should focus on the West, primarily on Poland and other Western European countries, and not on contacts with Russia. However, it did not work – says the lecturer at the Vilnius branch.

As part of the university’s cooperation efforts, lectures for the European studies in Vilnius were given by lecturers from Kaliningrad, and students from Lithuania had the opportunity to do an internship in Russia.

– I went to one of these lectures, which was held in Russian, with slides in English. I found it to be very sad. We did not strive to get a Polish university in Vilnius to Russify our young people and to teach them examples of solutions developed by the Kremlin. This is poisoning our youth – emphasizes Wołkonowski.

Students also evaluate cooperation with the Russian university negatively. – At the beginning of April, I received a proposal from the dean to go to Kaliningrad for a two-week training, which was to be held in English. I was requested to pass the announcement to other students. I have to admit that it was a huge surprise for me that a Polish university was offering me a training course in Russia. I did not take advantage of it – Jarosław Antoniewicz, a third-year European studies student, tells “Kurier Wileński”.

Why didn’t he want to accept the offer? – First of all, I don’t think I need this kind of trip. As a student of European studies, who sees his future in some sort of social involvement, maybe political activity in Lithuania, I don’t want to have a training course in Kaliningrad on my resume. I think that’s understandable. In Lithuanian realities, having been trained in Russia is not an asset, it is more of a burden. As a Pole living in Lithuania, I regret very much that during my two years of studies I was not offered an internship in Poland, which would definitely be of a great benefit for me – explains Antoniewicz.

Disagreements on many issues

Professor Jarosław Wołkonowski believes that other decisions taken in recent years are also incomprehensible, which will affect the future of the university – such as the choice of a small plot on Aguonų street in Vilnius for the faculty’s new building. He emphasises that the location of the faculty headquarters is crucial since students have had to bear the cost of the building’s rent for 12 years – they pay tuition fees of 434 EUR a year at full-time studies. What’s more, the lack of infrastructure was indicated as the most important weakness of universities in Lithuania in the accreditation process.

– We have been trying to receive support from Poland for years and only the current government has responded positively to our needs, granting us 19 million PLN for the new headquarters. The university declares that it will add another 4 million PLN. I am afraid, however, that this money will be wasted because it is impossible to build a facility of at least 3,000 sq m. usable area, with an adequate number of parking spaces and a sports hall, on an 11-ares plot in the Old Town, where very strict architectural requirements apply – notes Prof. Wołkonowski.

The lecturer emphasises, however, that the university’s thirteenth year of operation does not have to be unlucky. – A lot depends on the university authorities, the new director of the branch, who is now Prof. Adam Doliwa from UwB. I know that the students who applied for master’s studies this year requested a possibility of additional recruitment and asked us not to give up on launching the course. Some of them decided not to continue their studies at Lithuanian universities because they want to study in Polish. I do not know if this scenario could be implemented, but I have no doubt that this is a particularly important issue for the future of higher education in Polish in Lithuania – says Wołkonowski.

A perspective from Bialystok

How does the University of Bialystok perceive the issues we raise? The UwB spokeswoman Katarzyna Dziedzik answered our questions on the issues raised in the article. She explained that the training of students and employees of the Vilnius branch is not the only form of cooperation with Russia. The University cooperates with two universities in this country, in Kaliningrad and Smolensk, with which it has been carrying out academic exchange of students, academic teachers, administrative staff with non-EU countries as part of the Erasmus + program since 2015, and the decision on the selection of partner countries and universities is taken at the level university authorities, not individual faculties.

“Students and employees apply for the opportunity to take part in an exchange programme individually and indicate the university and the country where the exchange would be carried out. In turn, foreign universities direct their applications to us” – she wrote in response to the questions presented.

She emphasised that UwB has been cooperating with the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University [BFU] for many years. “BFU is a member of the Borderland University Network [Polish: Sieć Uniwersytetów Pogranicza, SUP – TN] established in October 2013 on the initiative of UwB. Both universities also cooperate within the Baltic Sea Region University Network (BSRUN). This was the reason why the University of Kaliningrad was also included in the Erasmus+ program” – claims the university representative.

The spokeswoman explained the choice of a small plot by Aguonų street for the construction of the faculty building with the fact that the plot is owned by the University of Bialystok and there is no need for its purchase. “The investment corresponds to the real needs and financial possibilities of UwB, and it was in this form that the Ministry of Science and Higher Education [of Poland] approved it, allocating for this purpose a grant of almost 19 million PLN” – Dziedzik wrote.

She explained the most important issue for the Polish community in Lithuania, that is the resignation from forming the first year of master’s degree studies, by the demographic decline and high costs. She wrote that as a result of the demographic decline, the number of candidates and undergraduate students at the Vilnius branch has been decreasing in recent years.

“It is mainly our undergraduate students who are recruited for the master’s degree programme. Already last year, there were few candidates for the second cycle studies and permission to launch them was given conditionally. For financial reasons (costs of organising education), we cannot afford to conduct classes for such small groups. For the same reasons, in recent years, we have not been able to launch courses in several fields of study at our faculties in Bialystok” – she explains the decision of the University authorities.

The Vilnius Region cannot be measured by the scale of Poland

Demographic decline is a well-known problem for Polish education in Lithuania. Undoubtedly, the institution that has the most experience in educational work is the Association of Polish School Teachers in Lithuania “Macierz Szkolna”. What does its President Józef Kwiatkowski think about the decision of the UwB authorities?

– It is very easy to shut a thing down, sometimes even convenient, but one has to remember that if this year there is no first year class of master’s degree studies, gathering a group next year will be even more difficult. It is so that sometimes we have to work with seven people to have 10 or 12 next year. When it comes to Polish schools, they value every student. We can’t afford to let go on anyone and we don’t look at whether it pays off or not. Groups in Lithuania will always be smaller than in Poland, measuring the conditions in the Vilnius Region with the scale of Poland is a really bad idea – he says to “Kurier Wileński”.

As the president of “Macierz Szkolna” notes, it is worth to wait out the difficult period also because the demographic trends are positive. – It is true, we have observed a drop in the number of high school graduates in recent years, but the worst times are behind us. This year we have over a thousand first-graders, over 100 more than last year – says President Kwiatkowski.

The head of the Polish educational organisation notes a certain inconsistency in the activities of the university authorities. – On one hand, we are talking about building a headquarters, investing 19 million PLN in a real estate, on the other – potential students are being let go very easily. Poland really spends a lot of money supporting education in our country. To be used well, a big dose of determination is often needed – says the activist.

Ilona Lewandowska
Phot. Marian Paluszkiewicz

The UwB branch in Vilnius – what’s in it for us?

It was a great joy when in 2007 the Faculty of Economics and Computer Science of the University of Bialystok began to operate in Vilnius. The establishment of a university branch has become a dream come true for many Poles from Vilnius, who had fought for the creation of a Polish university in Vilnius since the late 1980s.

A university, which was not only to educate young Poles in their mother tongue in Vilnius but also to form a new Polish elite for the Vilnius region. After all, many of the difficulties faced by the Polish community in Lithuania today are due to the fact that in the 1940s and 1950s, as a result of Soviet repression and resettlement to the PRL [Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, English: Polish People’s Republic – TN], we were almost completely deprived of intelligence. Today, in the Vilnius region, there is almost no Polish academic community, which normally plays a leading role in every society. Can we say today, after 12 years after the Vilnius branch of the University of Bialystok was launched, that it has fulfilled its mission? Yes, it has been completed by 716 Poles. Indeed, these young people obtained their education in their mother tongue in Vilnius and slightly increased the percentage of Poles with higher education. But we are still at the losing end when it comes to education in the Lithuanian society. Can we say that the branch has created an influential academic environment that Poles in the Vilnius region need so much? Unfortunately, we cannot. In 2007, it seemed that the professors coming from Bialystok to Vilnius would not only teach their students but also play an important role in the life of the Polish community in Lithuania. However, it turned out that the Bialystok academia has limited itself only to teaching students. Professors and university authorities in Bialystok have demonstrated an absolute indifference towards our community. For 12 years they did not try to understand the specifics of the Vilnius region. Therefore, it is not surprising that this year the branch was unable to start its second-cycle studies. There were no takers? In the Vilnius region, one fights for every student. And every teacher and headmaster of a Polish school in the Vilnius region knows this. But they don’t know about it in Bialystok. A similar ignorance was demonstrated when choosing a small plot of land by Aguonų street. Although the highlight of thoughtlessness was the branch’s cooperation with the university in Kaliningrad. Well, UwB authorities deserve a medal for their contribution to the Russification of Polish youth in the Vilnius region. A medal, of course, from Putin.

Robert Mickiewicz

Translated by Marta Bednarczyk within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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