Polish Academics in the UK: Keep Calm and Curie On

My essay for the British Council’s collection “Crossing Points: UK-Poland Common interests, shared concerns” |

When I first came to the UK, in 2006, two years after Polish accession to the EU and the opening of the British labour market to Poles, there was a popular joke going round.

A British hotel manager puts out an advert for a cleaner. A man responds. The hotel manager asks where he is from. The man answers – Poland. The hotel manager then says: Aaah, Poland! So – what did you do your PhD in?

The joke is bittersweet in its capture of the phenomenon of the huge post-2004 economic migration. The difference in wages between Poland and the UK was so striking that we heard stories of Polish medical doctors working as cleaners in the UK during the week – for financial reasons – and only flying to Poland for the weekends to practice medicine. One newspaper published a photograph of Polish squatters sleeping in sleeping bags on the ground at Victoria Station, with the caption: “From the left, we see an engineer, a medical doctor, an architect and a lawyer”. Regardless of their experience and education, Poles were happy to cling onto the most menial jobs in the UK, to allow them to make ends meet.

But within a few years the profile of the migrants started to change. First of all, improving their English skills, developing stronger support networks and finding out more about life in the UK and British hiring culture allowed the current migrants to start climbing up the economic ladder. Secondly, a number of Poles (amongst them academics) deliberately moved to the UK to work in line with their qualifications. Thirdly, being part of the EU meant qualifying for domestic rather than international university fees, which lead to a drastic increase in the numbers of Polish university students in the UK. In this essay, I would like to take a closer look at the case of international movement in academia, particularly in science – with a special focus on Poland and the UK.

I arrived in the UK as an example of that third instance – a freshly minted Bachelor of Science, ready to start an MSc at Oxford University’s Zoology Department. At that time I was one of just 81 Polish students at the University of Oxford. A few years earlier, before Polish accession to the EU, the number of Poles enrolled at Oxford was rather constant, oscillating around 20. Since then, there has been a steady increase:  in 2009, the number of Polish students at the University exceeded 150, in 2014 – 200, and in 2017 – 250 (based on Oxford University Student Statistics, https://www1.admin.ox.ac.uk/aad/studentregistry/sdma/statistics/student/). I am very proud to see the growing numbers of Oxford Poles, achieved not only because of the high quality of applicants, but also thanks to numerous mentoring programmes (e.g. Project Access, The Kings Foundation) where current students and alumni assist candidates with their application process.

Such a continuous increase is not reflected in overall numbers of Polish students in the UK. True, after Poland joined the EU, the figure more than doubled (from 965 Poles studying throughout the UK in 2003 to 2185 in 2004), and continued to grow until peaking in 2008 at 9145. But then, presumably due to the global financial crisis followed by the tripling of student fees, the number of Poles at British institutions plummeted, reaching a trough of around 5200 between 2012 and 2014. Since then, the numbers started to slowly rise, and have reached 6585 in 2016 – which could be interpreted as a move to “get in” before the onset of Brexit.

In just a few years, we have witnessed a shift from the purely economic migration, to a “brain drain”, or human capital flight, of Poles who entered the UK not only for the income, but because of the numerous opportunities it offered. And in academic terms, Britain certainly has a lot to offer, with 28 of its universities ranking in the top 200 in the world.

Currently, Poles at British academic institutions are not only more numerous – they are also better organized and more united than they used to be. Polish students formed the Federation of Polish Student Societies in the UK, which represents their interests in a unified front. In 2008, there was one annual student conference – the Congress of Polish Societies; currently there are at least five events, ranging in topics from the sciences (Science: Polish Perspectives), through business and economics (LSE Polish Economic Forum) to innovation and new technologies (Poland 2.0). The choices of the subject matter are not accidental – I have observed (though this is anecdotal evidence rather than anything I can back by hard data) a stronger profiling of students post-2010, with many in the sciences, engineering and business, and fewer in the humanities. This is logical – if you have to take out a huge student loan, will you be able to repay it after a theology degree? (This remark is not meant as a dig at theologians – after all, the author of this essay is a zoologist, hardly a money-making career!).

Surprisingly enough, the tripled university fees have not prompted British students to seek academic experiences abroad, in countries where tuition is either free, or very cheap (and the living costs much more affordable than in Britain). I am not even suggesting a move to the Wild, Wild East – the permafrost-covered land of vodka-drinking polar bears that Poland still is in the eyes of many a Brit – but what about a much more civilized country, such as Germany, Sweden or Denmark, where not only is tuition free for foreigners, but there are numerous programs run entirely in English?

Until now, Britain has been in a very fortunate position of being able to attract high quality students and academics from around the world. The benefits were great not just for the individuals (British or international), but also for British science as a whole. British academics – and in this context I refer to ones doing research in Britain rather than holding a UK passport! – are incredibly successful at obtaining European grants: for every pound Britain spends on science in the EU, British scientists get two back in grant money. Attracting high quality academics is what made British science stand out. The current plans to make it more difficult for international students to stay in the UK after graduation is shooting oneself in the foot – after all, it is the highly skilled, well-integrated migrants that will really boost the country’s economy.

Research, particularly in the sciences, is by nature, collaborative. International teams have a broader range of perspectives, experiences and ideas. International co-authored papers have a substantially higher impact than domestic only papers. They get read more, and they have more influence on the scientific community and beyond. Yet Brexit is likely to make international collaborations more difficult. With increasing barriers to free movement, and uncertainty regarding science funding, British researchers may choose to move out, leaving Britain to face its own brain drain, particularly when countries such as Germany and France are emerging as scientific or engineering heavyweights. Brits will certainly need to make more of a conscious effort if they would like to continue to cooperate with research groups in Europe and beyond.

Polish scientists working abroad could perhaps set a useful example in this respect. One worthwhile initiative which appeared recently in the UK is the Science: Polish Perspectives conference and movement. The project started in 2012 as a cooperation between Oxford University Polish Society and its equivalent from The Other Place, with the idea of bringing together scientists of Polish descent working outside of Poland.  Science: Polish Perspectives is an annual conference, alternating between Oxford and Cambridge, showcasing research from scientific areas as diverse as astronomy and biochemistry, or quantum computing and ecology. The presentations follow a TED-talk format, and have to not only be of very high scientific quality, but also be comprehensible for a non-specialist (although scientific) audience. Initially, the aims of the conference were threefold: to unite Polish scientific diaspora, to showcase ground-breaking research, and to improve the image of Poles in the UK. However soon it became apparent that the platform can lead to interdisciplinary, international collaborations; it was also a great opportunity for Polish institutions to demonstrate opportunities they offer to academics hoping to return to their homeland.

Six years down the line, Science: Polish Perspectives, and its sister organisation, the Polonium Foundation, organise regional meet-ups in Germany, Italy, Belgium and Sweden. They run research projects investigating the needs and aspirations of Polish academics abroad. They form a bridge between Poland and its scientific diaspora.

While Polish scientists are scattered throughout Europe and beyond, Poland is trying to make the most of them. On one hand, they act as cultural and scientific ambassadors, on the other, they often provide the country with external expertise. At the same time, over the span of just a few years Poland has been able to offer good opportunities for returnees, with increasing availability of high quality grants targeting  both Poles moving back to their homeland, and foreigners interested in working in Poland.

Nevertheless, even as the financial conditions are becoming more attractive, Poland still has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the social aspects of immigration. Being a foreigner in Poland is still not easy – logistically, culturally, linguistically – and this may be a big push factor for both foreigners and a lot of Poles with foreign life partners. Bringing about this type of change takes time – however this is an area in which Poland could take a leaf from Britain’s book. Very much like the fact that, say, making the working conditions in academia more women-friendly results in policies that benefit all employees, making a country more foreigner-friendly will make it more user-friendly for nationals as well. I believe that Poland could use a bit more transparency in everyday life – starting from revealing proposed salary bands on job adverts, through making administrative processes more straight-forward, down to perhaps providing clearer signage in the labyrinthine structures of Warsaw underpasses. While Poland has been very good (in fact, much better than the UK) at making provisions for young parents – for instance through its scheme of parental leaves – Polish kindergartens and schools are not yet ready to embrace diversity, from both the organisational and cultural perspectives. Finally, Poland certainly could take a leaf from Britain’s book when it comes to online presence – be it in the capacity of national branding (such as the “Britain is Great” campaign), strategies for a successful national presence in social media, or building awareness of the opportunities that it offers. Currently Poland relies too heavily on personal connections when it comes to advertising job posts – outsiders without a robust support network are starting at a significant disadvantage, no matter how willing they are to find work.

In summary, Britain can learn from Poland how to create and maintain – and make the most of! – a strong academic diaspora, while Poland can learn how to create a society attractive for foreigners.