Michał Mazur: Will Poles who study abroad return to Poland?

In September of this year, as an organization called Our Future Foundation, we hosted the Our Future Forum conference, which discussed how to encourage young Poles to return to their country. We have managed to gather in one place representatives of business, government and non-governmental organizations, and especially students, whose perspective is most important. The topic of “brain drain”, although so important for the future of our society, unfortunately does not occupy an important place in the public debate. However, the problem does exist. After all, we are talking about more than 50,000 excellently educated young people who could determine the strength and development of the Polish economy in a few years’ time. After years of growth by attracting western capital with relatively cheap labor, Poland faces the opportunity to build a truly innovative economy. The experience and skills gained by graduates from leading foreign research centers are key to achieving this goal.

The fact is that internship programs for Polish students abroad have been conducted for several years now, which are very popular. However, the scale and scope of their activities are absolutely inadequate. To stop such a powerful wave of skilled emigration of young people, it is not enough to offer dozens of jobs in Warsaw. The Polish market is not adapted to the demands and needs of students and young professionals. Many companies do not want to hire candidates without years of experience or offer them unpaid internships that are not competitive with those abroad. The situation is similar in the administration and the civil service, which are unable to attract a large number of highly skilled graduates. All the more, students who go abroad disappear from the radar of Polish companies and are not interested in them. Therefore, fighting for them is the joint responsibility of government, business and non-governmental organizations.

Not just the Polish problem

We must be aware that this problem is not limited to Poland. Other countries in our region face similar challenges, with the emigration of young people also being a major problem. Unlike in our country, however, coherent strategies have been developed there to reintroduce them to the local labor market. Lithuania is an example of effective measures in this direction. One of the programs run there – “Talents for Lithuania” – allows graduates of foreign universities to complete six months of well-paid internships in sectors of interest to them. In a country ten times smaller than Poland, we have been able to offer more than 4,000 jobs this year to Lithuanians living and studying abroad.

Following a good example, the starting point should be to set up a comprehensive program to ensure the presence of Polish companies and state institutions on foreign campuses. Through active cooperation with the Polish community abroad and academic organizations, it is necessary to create a database of students who want to return to the country, paying attention to their specialization and interests. In the next phase, domestic employers can offer candidates job opportunities or include them in mentoring programs.

It is necessary to create a user-friendly comprehensive IT system that collects data from potential employers in real time about available jobs with appropriate competences and reward for graduates of leading foreign universities. All students and graduates of these universities will have access to the system, and the system itself will be actively promoted by Polish student associations at universities, who are just as close to a sense of duty in the fight against reversing the brain drain. In this way, an automated system is created for the continuous flow of talent from abroad to our own labor market. There is no doubt that implementing this project will require a lot of effort from all stakeholders, but organizations such as Our Future Foundation can help coordinate this process.

Need for scholarships

Education at foreign universities undoubtedly gives the opportunity to obtain the highest qualifications. Students have access to state-of-the-art equipment, meet world authorities in their fields and participate in groundbreaking scientific research. However, this privilege is currently only reserved for a small group of young people from the best-off families. The monthly cost of living alone in European capitals is often more than PLN 5,000, excluding the amount of tuition fees. For the vast majority of Poles, these amounts are absurd. The state and private institutions provide very little support to the most talented people, especially those from small centers. This creates a barrier that prevents students with less financial resources from realizing their great potential. Many young people from Suwałki would do as well in Oxford as their peers from the Wilanów district of Warsaw, but they never get such an opportunity.

The solution to this problem could be the establishment of a broad scholarship program that would fund the most prominent for tuition and living expenses abroad. In return, prospective graduates would commit to return to the country and work in a selected state administration unit or state treasury company. Likewise, interested private companies and enterprises looking to invest in future top-level workforces can also participate in the program. The program could also be a nice reference to old Polish traditions. After all, the value of education abroad was already recognized in the Renaissance. The elite of royal officials during Poland’s golden age were graduates of universities in Padua, Bologna and Paris. Often their studies were financed by the king or magnates. The career of Jan Kochanowski, who became royal secretary immediately after his education in Italy, shows how great benefits can be obtained from such “investments”.

This modern patronage must be based on comprehensive student support from the early stages of education. The key is to find young talents, especially from smaller centers, so that they are aware that financial constraints should not be a barrier to pursuing their dreams. The most active actors in this regard are non-governmental organizations such as Our Future Foundation. In just two years, we managed to expand the scholarship program to over 100 talented students from underprivileged families. Today they study at universities such as the University of Oxford, Yale and the London School of Economics.

After 2004, 1.5 million people, mostly young people, left Poland. We cannot afford to lose another generation. The 50,000 studying abroad today are a symbolic group that we must fight for. The current investment in young people also means that Polish companies will have access to highly qualified managerial staff in the future. Time is not in our favor, especially given the advancing demographic crisis. We cannot afford to have these people with their education and skills permanently settled outside our country. We need to convince young Poles that they can find the great future they seek and deserve in their homeland.

The author is the chairman of the board of the Our Future Foundation

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