Although most of the reforms envisaged in Poland before martial law remain stalled, parliament has given the country's 70 colleges and institutes of higher education an unexpected margin of autonomy.
The new education law passed early this month is not quite so liberal as it seemed when it was adopted, but it retains much of the spirit of the progressive draft that was halted by the imposition of emergency rule Dec. 13.
The minister of higher education is given ample opportunity to intervene, should he decide that university programs or student activity are contrary to state policy.
But within such provisos, the universities - and students - are left with a meaningful measure of independence. That had seemed unlikely, when martial law broke resistance to the authorities' moves to emasculate an educational reform package prepared by a mixed commission and accepted by virtually the entire academic community.
The minister, for example, ''coordinates and supervises.'' But the 70 members of the main Council on Higher Education - elected in secret ballot by university and college senates - are responsible for the principal guidelines on educational programs.
Rectors, deans, and other academic officers are subject to his confirmation and, therefore, by implication, to his veto. But they are elected by the universities and colleges themselves.
One of the introductory articles in the new law defines higher education as based on ''humanism and social justice.'' The universities and other schools are described as self-governing associations of academics, teachers, other staff, and students.
The minister's supervisory role over their activities is to ensure all their activities are within the limits of the act and consistent with respect for the structure and policies of the erence to a Marxist or communist form of society.
There is, moreover, a striking reference to the principle of ''freedom of science and art'' in higher education and development of ''a variety'' of scientific and artistic trends based on ''respect for different world outlooks.'' (This is more explicit than a reference in last year's draft legislation.)
There is also a guarantee of free access to written source materials. In the past there have been taboos and library limits, especially for students of history. Sensitive bits of history about Poland and its powerful Eastern neighbor have often been a closed book.
Students are guaranteed representation in senates and electoral colleges and will have the right to form their own associations, either within a university or college, or on a national scale. Intramural organizations will need the approval of the rector; national ones will have to be registered and have their charters approved by the minister.
How and when these rules may go into effect remains to be seen. The act does not have the force of law until the new school year begins next fall. But as long as martial law persists, the military will have the final say.
In theory, an independent student union could emerge. Students say a new union would not be modeled on last year's short-lived association, which became increasingly politicized and asserted a ''right to strike.'' Many students disapproved of its repeated use.
A new student union would more likely be modeled on the association created in the late '50s, they say. This highly popular and apolitical organization confined itself to cultural and sports activities and economic aid for the children of needy families. Ninety percent of all students joined it.
In 1974 the Gierek regime dissolved that student union to make way for a politically controlled ''socialist'' union. Many students joined the new union because of the privileges and career opportunities it offered, but it never was as popular as the previous nonpolitical union.
''Self-governance'' concedes wide university responsibility for the direction and content of teaching programs, campus publishing, and extracurricular activities.
Students may organize meetings and demonstrations, subject to their rector's approval. They are denied the right to strike.
Instead, conflicts involving students must be referred to negotiation and settlement through the senates or the main Council of Higher Education. The council is the final arbiter, again in liaison with the minister.
At present the campuses are quiet. Classes are continuing, but other student activities are canceled. Students who do not attend classes risk suspension or expulsion.
Protest over the dismissal of the popular ''liberal'' reformer, Marxist Prof. Henryk Samsonowicz, as rector at Warsaw University has subsided, as has the fear it sparked of a purge of academic life.
While military rule lasts, the new law must remain largely on paper. But it marks a first tangible follow-up to the authorities' repeated pledges that the August 1980 ''renewal'' program will be carried through, albeit within strict political limits.
In other fields, the reform process has yet to get under way. This inaction, more than anything else, is fueling the doubt and apathy that are so apparent as time slips by.