New opening for academic exchange during the pandemic - NAWA

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Interview with dr. Grażyna Żebrowska, Director General of the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange NAWA

NAWA reacts on an ongoing basis and tries to respond to the needs of the academic community. Completely new programmes will appear in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The offer will include, among others, the Polish Returns for Biomedical Sciences and Health Sciences programme encouraging Polish scientists with outstanding scientific achievements to return from abroad so that they can help fight the pandemic.

What challenges, after the still ongoing health crisis, will the academic community in Poland and worldwide face?

Dr. Grażyna Żebrowska, Director General of the Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange NAWA: The challenges are similar all over the world. It is, above all, the maintenance of continuity in the education of students, in the recruitment processes and in the conduct of scientific research, as well as the continuity in the provision of financing to universities and science, the implementation of academic exchange programmes which support the improvement of the quality of education and research, such as those offered to the academic community by NAWA.


How will science and its internationalisation change?

At this point we are not able to predict all the consequences that will be brought by the pandemic. However, we can already observe that they are significant for both universities and science. These will be short-term and long-term consequences. The short-term consequences include, for example, the need to change the way in which classes are conducted, terminating experimental research, withholding international academic exchange and cooperation between foreign research and development centres, but also the financial problems of students and the intensification of social and financial inequalities among the academic community. The long-term consequences may entail a decrease in the quality of education and research and a widening of inequalities in terms of access to education and the achievement of breakthrough research results that ensure development. Therefore, action is now needed to support academic exchange as it has a tremendous impact on improving the quality of education and research. We have to bear in mind that the high quality of student education and ensuring education at international level influences the development of society and its welfare in the long term.


So what are the challenges that NAWA is faced with in this new reality?

NAWA reacts on an ongoing basis and tries to respond to the needs of the academic community. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, two completely new programmes will appear: Intervention grants to support research teams or individual international mobility in response to important unforeseen events, and Spinaker – Intensive Programmes, whose main objective will be to develop international cooperation in the era of virtual mobility through the creation and implementation of intensive courses, summer and winter schools, which support real, virtual and blended mobility.


Are there any further actions planned soon?

We are currently preparing a programme concerning the return of Polish scientists with outstanding scientific achievements from abroad, who could help fight the pandemic. Polish Returns for Biomedical Sciences is an action aimed at bringing medical doctors, pharmacists and representatives of the broadly defined biomedical sciences to Poland. This human capital is extremely valuable at the moment and we must take action to bring these people back.


International exchange of students and scientists is an important part of university life. However, the pandemic put academic mobility on hold for several months. How will it evolve further on?

Once the pandemic has been contained, a moment of reflection will certainly be necessary to propose ways to return to the pre-crisis level of international cooperation. Certainly, the academic community has discovered the possibilities offered by modern technologies. They will be used in the future, but it is not the only option. I think that the dominant formula of cooperation will be the blended formula. I cannot imagine that physical international mobility of students or scientists would be completely given up. I hope that modern technologies in teaching and science will contribute to the quality of cooperation, not to its reduction.

Owing to this year’s NAWA programme calls for proposals for foreign students and researchers, we can be optimistic about the future of academic exchange. There has been no decline in interest in NAWA scholarships; moreover, in some student programmes the number of applications has even increased. With future NAWA scholarship holders in mind, we are preparing solutions that will allow them to prepare online for studying at Polish universities, if necessary.


Does the pandemic pose a threat to academic mobility or is it rather an opportunity to take a new look and redefine actions undertaken by NAWA?

Difficult times are always a period when new solutions are being sought, and thus an opportunity to improve the ways in which we operate in order to handle crises more easily in the future. This is the moment for a “new opening”. NAWA strengthens its cooperation with other higher education and research institutions in order to join forces in the academic exchange of students and researchers. We continue our cooperation within the framework of the agreement with the National Science Centre in Poland and together we encourage Polish and foreign scientists to conduct scientific research in Poland. In June, NAWA concluded a trilateral agreement with the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education and with the Foundation for the Development of the Education System on the internationalisation of Polish universities and on increasing their attractiveness on the global education market. Joint efforts of these three institutions should make the voice of our universities better heard on the international scene. This will happen, among other things, thanks to the constant and coordinated presentation of the domestic higher education sector both at home and abroad, as well as the creation of permanent cooperation platforms between universities.