Krakow, Poland — When Ludwik decided to write his history thesis, he chose ``Polish-French relations in the 16th century.'' ``It's easier,'' he explained. ``There's no correct political view to express.''
Being a student in Poland has always been difficult -- and now it's bound to become more difficult for Ludwik (not his real name) and others. Having toughened the penal code, raised food prices, and begun sentencing dissidents to harsh terms, the government plans to quash remaining student unrest. This week, parliament has been discussing probable amendments to the higher-education law which will curb academic freedoms won during the Solidarity era. But at time of writing, the amendments had not yet been approved.
In interviews, government officials said the changes are necessary to steer the universities back to their main task of providing well-qualified professionals. Andrzej Stolarski of the Ministry of Education said ``more discipline is needed'' because ``at present 60 percent of college students don't even graduate on time.''
A high-ranking authority added that the ``state wants a say in the running of universities just as American corporations want a say in the running of universities to which they give money.''
The academic community sneers. University senates have passed critical resolutions and students have held rallies against what they see as an imminent purge of one of the few remaining areas outside complete government control. Already, one prominent historian and Solidarity adviser, Bronislaw Geremek, has been dismissed from the academy of sciences because of his political views.
``Education might seem like a marginal field of national life,'' Professor Geremek told the Monitor. ``But it's not marginal in political terms. It's one of the only places where Solidarity continues as an idea.''
Polish academics have long battled government control. When Casimir the Great founded the Jagellonian University, the country's first, here in Krakow in 1364, its professors insisted on academic autonomy. The King granted it.
Throughout the following centuries, Jagellonian safeguarded Polish culture against foreign invasions, first by the Swedes and then by the Austrians. The Viennese authorities insisted that all courses be taught in German, but independent-minded professors refused and held informal courses off-campus in Polish. Not long afterward, the authorities gave in and reinstated Polish as the language of instruction.
The modern communist government has proved tougher. When students took to the streets of Warsaw to protest government censorship in the spring of 1968, security police responded with mass beatings, arrests, and expulsions. Radical sociology and philosophy departments were closed, and technical training and political indoctrination programs instituted.
Still, academic opposition did not end. Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, and Karol Mozelewski -- all products of the 1968 campus generation -- grew up to become Solidarity leaders. In many ways, Solidarity represented a grand coalition between workers and academics. Workers provided the movement's political strength; academics gave it intellectual backbone.
Solidarity's formation in August 1980 spurred large changes on campus as well. Students formed their own independent union and unofficial newspapers and leaflets were sold openly on campus. Professors revived the ``flying universities,'' informal extracurricular classes in such sensitive subjects as politics and economics, classes that the government had banned in 1980. Even the ``black spots in history'' -- past Polish-Russian conflicts such as the 1920 Polish victory or the 1944 home Army rising -- no longer were taboo.
Sit-in strikes during the following year forced more government concessions. In addition to legalizing the new independent union, the government signed a ``freedom charter'' giving universities the right to elect their own rectors and determine their own academic programs.
It also allowed students more freedom to choose courses. Instead of an obligatory course in Marxism, they had several options in philosophy. And instead of the obligatory ``socialist economy course,'' students could choose among several economic electives.
While the imposition of martial law in December 1981 ended much independent union experiment, the universities guarded many of the other freedoms -- until the amendments now pending were proposed. Here at Jagellonian, for example, a respected nonparty academic, Dr. Jozef Gierowski, remained rector after his election last year by the university senate. From now on, though, the minister of education will appoint the rector, and in an interview, Dr. Gierowski said he fears ``the increased ministry control.'' What professors, students, stand to lose
Professors also oppose greater ministry pressure. The amendments give the minister power to dissolve entire departments and dismiss individual lecturers because ``they carry out activities contrary to the task and nature of a socialist university.'' Dr. Gierowski said this power ``will destroy a professor's sense of stability.''
Students may even lose more. They would be represented only by the official communist or pro-communist youth organization, to which a mere 15 percent of them belong. Senates and departmental councils (elected staff-student bodies) will be stripped of student members.
``Students are violently opposed. Our influence on university life will be destroyed,'' said Marek Siwiek, editor of Jagellonian's ``student'' weekly.
Such opposition makes it doubtful whether the new amendments will achieve the government's stated goal of turning students back to their books and away from politics. In fact, students say the changes don't tackle the fundamental reason for the soaring number of students failing to complete their studies on time. Interviews here at Jagellonian reveal that, just like their undergraduate counterparts in the United States, Polish students are primarily concerned about their careers. Even government officials admit that it is almost impossible for students to find positions in their fields. Economic outlook discourages graduation
In addition, little incentive exists for an engineering student to work as an engineer because professional fields are so badly paid. He would be paid much more mining coal, an export-earning sector where the government wants to limit labor unrest, or selling flowers, one of the few opportunities for private enterprise.
``Why should we finish our studies when it's impossible to find a job?'' asks editor Siwiek. ``It's better just to put off graduation.''
The proposed changes will not increase student diversity, either. After the communists came to power, they began a massive affirmative-action program for disadvantaged students from the countryside and working class. By the end of the 1940s, Dr. Gierowski says, half of Jagellonian's student body came from these backgrounds. The percentage has since fallen to just below 40 percent. Such students still receive ``bonus'' points on their entrance exams, but Siwiek and others say there is no reason for them to continue their studies when one can live better on the farm or at a factory than with a PhD.
Instead of equalizing opportunity or improving academic standards as the government suggests, the changes probably will turn the best students away from the university and toward the Roman Catholic Church. As the government has cracked down on public life, the church's educational role has grown.
The church university in Lublin represents the country's one university outside state control. Many local parishes have also instituted entire courses of study on their premises. There, professors come and give lectures without any fear of retribution. How church's educational role grows
Ludwik, for example, goes to church classes. Echoing many other Polish students, he says the church has once again become the only place to learn about sensitive subjects professors are afraid to talk about in public.
At the university itself, Ludwik says, that he censors himself. If he had not picked such an innocuous subject for his thesis, he says, he would have had to watch every word he wrote. Also, he says his chances of finding an independent-minded professor would have been poor.
His attitude explains why the government will continue to have difficulty controlling the universities. With less than one-sixth of the student body belonging to any communist-related organization, most, like Ludwik, will continue to find ways of continuing their studies while avoiding communist ideology.
``You can't make a party hack into a top mathematician or a historian,'' Ludwik said. ``There comes a point when you have to know your subject. In my department, none of us are communists and there's nothing the government can do to make us believe.''