Executive summary

Study context

Higher education is changing across European Union and OECD countries and there is a growing expectation from governments and society that higher education institutions (HEIs) should evolve into a new type of economic actor. These “entrepreneurial” HEIs are expected to prepare students to be more entrepreneurial and leverage their knowledge generation capabilities to make stronger contributions to economic development in partnership with industry and government.

This review examines the extent to which HEIs in Poland are progressing towards becoming entrepreneurial HEIs. This project is a collaboration between the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the European Commission, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the Polish Accreditation Committee (PKA) and it aims to identify i) good practices in Poland that could be transferred to other institutions inside, and outside, of Poland and ii) areas where the relevant policy frameworks and HEI practices could be improved. Recommendations and good practice models are included in this report. The review methodology applied the HEInnovate framework to the Polish higher education system and included a survey of HEIs, a student survey and two OECD-led study visits with a team of international experts to Warsaw, Gdansk, Elblag and Lublin to meet with representatives from seven HEIs and their key stakeholders.

Key findings

A wide variety of activities related to innovation and entrepreneurship is taking place in many Polish HEIs, supported by a number of dedicated units and centres. Many of these activities are quite new and enjoy support from HEI leaders who appear to have a keen interest in strengthening ties with the business community and preparing students for a changing labour market. The take-up and growth of these activities over a the past decade is encouraging but requires continued commitment and investment from the HEIs and the government so that the units and centres (e.g. knowledge transfer centres, career offices, special purpose vehicles for spin-outs) can fulfil their mandates and meet the needs of researchers, students and businesses. Funding to date has been heavily reliant on operational programmes supported by European Union Structural Funds, which are only available for limited time periods. This presents a challenge when trying to build sustainable initiatives. For example, the successful Top 500 Innovators Programme for young researchers and knowledge transfer officers ended with limited follow-up at the end of the last European Union Structural Fund programming period (the focus of the follow-up programme is employees in enterprises). Nonetheless, innovation and entrepreneurship are key pillars in the strategies and plans of many HEIs.

Entrepreneurship education is offered in most HEIs and in most departments and faculties. Courses to encourage entrepreneurial mind sets and behaviours in students are also spreading, although they could become more interdisciplinary. The use of practice-based learning for entrepreneurship education (e.g. living labs, the use of case studies, games and simulation) is increasing, but not generalised yet. These changes are led by a small number of enthusiastic academic staff and they are in need of more support and training in creating new curricula related to entrepreneurship.

Extra-curricular learning opportunities have become an important complementary, if not dominant, part of the entrepreneurship teaching and learning provision. For example, student enterprise clubs are a very popular and an important part of student life and education in Poland. Many of these clubs have developed entrepreneurial activities or are centred on entrepreneurship. Business plan competitions are also an important part of the extra-curricular opportunities.

Business start-up support for students is typically built around a network of Academic Business Incubators (AIP) operated by the AIP Foundation. The Foundation has agreements to operate the incubators in 56 HEIs. These incubators provide students with an opportunity to launch their idea and receive basic start-up supports. The incubators are well-known and appear to be operating near capacity. For more intensive supports, students are often referred to off-campus services by the incubators and career offices, but this part of the support system is less developed. For academic staff, the existing supports include technology transfer offices and special purpose vehicles for creating start-ups to commercialise research. These supports are generally strong but the number of spin-out companies using these services is quite low.

Many HEIs appear to be involved in active partnerships and knowledge exchanges with the business community, as well as with local government and regional development agencies. However, these relationships are often reliant on personal relationships rather than strong institutional linkages. There is therefore a risk that these partnerships will weaken or stop when the individuals involved move on. There is a need to make these linkages deeper and more systemic. The new joint research and innovation funding approach (i.e. Regional Research and Innovation Strategies for Smart Specialisation) that requires HEIs to partner with industry, public administration and society holds promise for strengthening the role of HEIs in regional economic development.

Despite these reasonably strong connections with the local community, the Polish higher education system is generally not very international. The number of international students is increasing but remains very low and most international students come from neighbouring countries. Similarly, there are few international academic staff and very few international visiting professors. However, there is a small, but growing, number of international research projects with HEIs outside of Poland and multinational companies. These can be used to help HEIs become more international.

HEIs are generally aware of their entrepreneurship activities and frequently track the number of participants in courses and other basic input metrics. However, more sophisticated monitoring and evaluation techniques do not appear to be used to measure and understand the impact of entrepreneurship and innovation activities. This is a substantial hindrance to HEIs understanding their strengths in entrepreneurship support and building on them.

Key recommendations

For the Ministry of Science and Higher Education

  • Build a resource base for entrepreneurship education and training, including platforms for good practice exchange and networks of entrepreneurship professors and entrepreneurs who can contribute to entrepreneurial learning.

  • Increase the legitimacy of entrepreneurship as an academic field by funding research and organising Polish entrepreneurship conferences and exchange platforms to encourage academic staff to engage in the entrepreneurial agenda.

  • Encourage the newly established Innovation Council to work with HEIs to define an entrepreneurial vision for the Polish higher education system and to oversee its implementation.

  • Co-operate with the Ministry of Economic Development (and the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development) to strengthen the start-up support infrastructure using European Union Structural and Investment Funds.

  • Develop a new international exchange programme for academic staff to build on the experiences of the Top 500 Innovators Programme, and strengthen animation of the existing network for past programme participants.

For higher education institutions

  • Appoint a senior manager in each HEI with responsibility for the “third mission”, including innovation, entrepreneurship and building relationships with government and the business community.

  • Incorporate a strong entrepreneurial element in advisory boards at the HEI and faculty levels.

  • Encourage and support the participation of academic staff in international entrepreneurship networks and conferences.

  • Use more active methods of teaching and learning in entrepreneurship education and training.

  • Increase the interdisciplinarity of entrepreneurship education.

  • Develop more intensive business start-up support for students with high-potential ideas.