During the 2017-18 academic year, 37,829 Ukrainian students studied at Polish universities, representing over 50% of the country’s international students. This dominance looks set to last. The next largest group, Belarusians, numbers just over 6,000 students. Meanwhile, in third place is India with fewer than 3000 students.
A Good Fit
Internationalization has become a necessity for Polish universities in recent years as the country faces up to significant demographic challenges. Many in academic circles have long identified students from Ukraine as an ideal solution. They are geographically close by, speak a broadly similar language, have a strong academic tradition, and lack access to sufficient quality universities in their home country.
Some of these assumptions have required subsequent qualification. Many Ukrainian undergraduates have indeed been able to achieve a conversational knowledge of the Polish language in a short space of time, but this is not always sufficient for the rigorous demands of academic study. Month-long language prep courses before the beginning of the academic year do not necessarily solve the problem, with the onus of the students themselves to demonstrate ambition and tenacity in learning the Polish language and acclimatizing to a new environment away from family and friends.
“Looking back, I can say that coming to study in Poland was like jumping in at the deep end,” comments Ukrainian former student Dana, who graduated from Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin. “At the time, I wasn’t very conscious of the stress I was under. I remember not getting much sleep but I refused to give up because it would have meant disappointment for me and my family if I did not make it.” The experience of Ukrainian graduates like Dana is making life easier for the current generation of Ukrainians arriving to study in Poland. Many Polish universities now have Ukrainian staff employed to help with the recruitment and enlistment process, helping to guarantee a soft landing.
Acquiring an EU Education
For Ukrainian undergraduates, studying in Poland has many obvious advantages. The key attraction is the quality of education, controlled by the Polish Accreditation Committee and supervised directly by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. This translates into the prestige of a university diploma from a European Union country, which opens doors to further academic opportunities and helps postgraduates obtain scholarships and grants. Additionally, there are a growing number of courses taught in English at Polish universities, meaning even greater international reach. In Lublin alone, there are already over 50 courses in English. “I graduated from IT studies in Ukraine. Nevertheless, I decided to start from the very beginning again in Opole,” says Wladyslaw Newenczanyj, a computer science student from Kyiv. “My reasoning was simple: it is a chance for me to get a better job. I hope a European university diploma will open the door to my future career.”
Studying in Poland gives Ukrainian undergraduates the opportunity to travel further afield within the EU, while at the same time allowing them to stay relatively close to home. The growth of the Ukrainian community in Poland has led to the emergence of numerous bus, rail and air connections, making travel between the two countries convenient and increasingly economical. Nevertheless, studying in Poland requires significant investment. Ukrainians have to pay for tuition, with fees of up to EUR 2000 annually, although many universities offer discounts. Fortunately, Ukrainian students can now work legally in Poland and so are able to support themselves with part-time jobs.
Feedback from university staff suggests that Ukrainian students find it easiest to integrate into humanities and social studies courses. There are considerably more difficulties when it comes to scientific disciplines and technical subjects where many Ukrainian undergraduates lack the technical vocabulary to engage during lectures and coursework. This is a challenge as technical subjects offer the most attractive career prospects.
The growth of Poland’s Ukrainian student population predates the post-2014 surge in the country’s Ukrainian community and goes back to 2006, when the “Study in Poland” program first recognized Ukraine as a priority country. This program, implemented jointly by the Perspektywy Education Foundation and the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland, has clearly produced results. “From the very beginning we have been operating in many directions,” says Waldemar Siwiński, president of the Perspektywy Education Foundation. “We took part in large educational fairs in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. We also prepared presentations of Polish universities in smaller regional centers. Representatives of Polish higher education institutes regularly travel to Ukraine to meet potential students. This is only part of our activity. It has been equally important to intensify scientific contacts between universities, exchange lecturers, and establish direct relationships.”
Recent research conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs together with CEDOS, SFPA and CEU provides the most comprehensive picture of Poland’s Ukrainian student population. Based on interviews with 1,055 Ukrainians studying in Poland, the survey found that the most frequently chosen subjects were journalism, international relations, administration and law. The popularity of these subjects raises questions regarding future employment opportunities, as they are all out of step with the needs of both the Polish and wider European Union labor markets. Areas with particularly attractive job prospects include engineering studies and the field of care for the elderly.
Relatively few of those surveyed said their choice of Poland was primarily down to cultural closeness. Half of Ukrainian students consider themselves fluent in Polish. However, a growing contingent who tend to communicate primarily among their fellow Ukrainian students reported having poorer Polish language skills. Around 70% of respondents rated the attitudes of Poles towards them as good or very good, while 80% expressed satisfaction with their studies in Poland. Two-thirds of Ukrainian students have part-time work alongside their studies, despite the fact that parents pay tuition fees in most cases.
Geographically speaking, the largest concentrations of Ukrainian students during the 2017/18 academic year were in the Warsaw and Mazovia region (9913 students), Krakow and Lesser Poland (5530), Lublin (4344), Wroclaw and Lower Silesia (3446) and Lodz (3079). In the Lower Silesia and Lodz regions, the number of students from Ukraine increased last year by about 18% and 17% respectively. Meanwhile, Lublin registered a drop of approximately 6%. In the Masovia and Lesser Poland regions, the number of Ukrainian students remained stable.
Economically Attractive Arrivals
The municipal authorities of many Polish cities have taken note of the economic potential created by the recent influx of Ukrainian students. The contributions made by Ukrainian students are diverse and include everything from tuition fees at universities to money spent on accommodation rental, shopping, recreation and travel. In recognition of this positive impact on the local economy, municipal authorities in Lublin, Wroclaw and Warsaw all actively support universities in the recruitment of students from Ukraine. These recruitment efforts include the organization of trips and participation in educational fairs, while the cities themselves try to make it easier for Ukrainian students to acclimatize and settle in.
“I decided to come to Poland to study with my boyfriend,” says Natalia Sopizhenko. “We liked Wroclaw very much. This is a city of opportunities, of multiculturalism and development.” In Wroclaw, many of the city’s vending machines and menus in restaurants now come in Ukrainian. The city’s municipal website is also available in the Ukrainian language. This model is becoming increasingly commonplace in today’s Poland. For example, the Lublin website is currently available in three languages: Polish, English and Ukrainian, as is the Lodz online city portal.
Ukrainian students are making their mark academically in Poland and regularly feature in the country’s annual Interstudent Awards. Organized by the Perspektywy Education Foundation, this event aims to identify the top international students in Poland. It seeks to award those who have made the most of their student experience in Poland and places significant emphasis on social engagement as well as academic excellence. In the eight years of the competition’s history, Ukrainians have featured among the finalists virtually every single year.
Ukrainian Vadym Melnyk was among the Interstudent winners in 2016. A former student at the University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszow, Vadym had subsequently settled in the city and established his own tech company within the framework of the Academic Preincubator at the Aeropolis Podkarpackie Science and Technology Park in 2015. The company has developed dynamically and become a significant local employer.
Vadym’s story is typical of the contributions Ukrainian students are making in Poland, both academically and economically. Many in Polish academia initially viewed the recruitment of students from Ukraine was as a countermeasure to rescue the country’s universities from the challenges of population decline. However, the Ukrainian student community has flourished and become an important element of the Polish academic landscape. These Ukrainian students bring a new dynamic to the life of Poland’s universities while also contributing to everyday life in the cities where they live.