‘One day a poster announcing the “preparatory course”, an accelerated training programme for university, appeared in a village in central Poland. The ad presented Pokusa – a surname meaning temptation – as the first to enrol: He was accepted after passing an exam. Now he is one of the best students! “You just have to want to do it,” he explains.’ This is how a local newspaper in 1953 encouraged youths from rural areas to study at the University of Łódź, a model socialist university established in Poland’s largest industrial city in 1945. In the announcement Mr Temptation is awarded a scholarship, which comes with a dormitory bed healthcare, and subsidized meals. A state-guaranteed job awaited him after graduation. That is if he ever managed to gradu­ate: working-class children dropped out of their courses more often than those from the intelligentsia; their peers regarded them as a ‘mob’ or ‘boors’.

Policy for the underprivileged

Despite structural obstacles and everyday classism in Poland, Mr Temptation exem­plified state socialism’s greatest aspiration: unprecedented upward mobility. Debate on education under Stalin often recalls how academia was held captive and students were seduced by propaganda rather than considering improved socioeconomic status and equality. However, in the post-WWII period of state socialism, ‘democratization’ inferred equal access rather than direct rule. The social structure of students was projected to reflect the social structure of society as a whole. It was an attempt to construct not only a new elite but also a new educated citizen within a new society.

Education was ‘parameterized’ in post-war socialist republics, making activities measurable and countable. Universities were obliged to respect assigned quotas of students and graduates – as many as the planned economy needed. Courses became compulsory, and unlike what was called the ‘aristocratic manner of studying’, students were supposed to emulate factory workers: their study would last almost eight hours per day, include a roll call and be monitored for efficiency. The first three years of study were designed to pre­pare students for practical tasks. An additional two-years’ magister (master’s degree) advanced student skills. Work experi­ence encouraged contact between students and their future workplaces. Universities became part of a production process aimed at training skilled specialists, with the humanities training future teachers and office workers. Censorship was reinforced, international cooperation strictly controlled, and many disciplines such as sociology labelled as ‘bourgeois’ and simply abolished.

Despite the negative effect of Soviet so-called educational reform on academia’s autonomy, state socialism suggested new paths of upward mobility for millions. Polish reformers planned higher education provision for as many as 80% of each year’s high-school cohort. Policies of enrolment, points for working-class origin, preparatory courses and learning groups were supposed to advantage those historically socially underprivileged, making the vision of a socialist university a reality.

Opening the university system

The democratization of universities, coupling higher education with the economy, has become a global phe­nomenon. In­ternships in future workplaces and efforts to produce the professionals needed in indus­try might even appear more like capitalist than socialist solutions. The captive, state-controlled, highly censored institution may be the stereotype of socialist education, but it is not what made this post-war model distinct. While its central planning, state management and politi­cal control may have been more direct, strict and pre-determined as a public entity than in the West at the time, the most discrete goal of reforming universities under state socialism was equal access to higher education and its benefits for the rest of society. It was these values and the vision of future society as well as the role of the university within it that made this model of the socialist university an alternative to the capitalist model. Discursive declarations in the press and political speeches championing broad access to universities and their role within a wider society are indicative of the socialist university model.

Mr Temptation no doubt took advantage of the ‘preliminary year’ to help bridge the study gap exacerbated by war. Prospective students from a working-class and/or rural background were only required to have completed seven years of school. Further legislation provided paid leave for the duration of courses to those already at work as enticement to study. The state reserved a significant quota at universities for those who completed preparatory courses.

Between 1946 and 1958, 22,000 people enrolled on courses in Łódź and Warsaw. However, only 14,850 completed their studies and less than 32% obtained higher education diplomas; most of the latter were party activists who had only continued their education because they had been encouraged to do so by the Communist Party. Despite these results, preparatory courses represented a radical project for social change, devised from the bottom up. From the outset, conservative members of the academic community and authorities viewed the initiative with great scepticism. Standard students perceived those who had done the preparatory course as threatening newcomers at­tempting to invade the university through their political connections. But the presence of these new participants had no major impact on the social profile of students in general, as they were few in number and often dropped out.

Disappointed pioneers of progress

While the first stage of post-war reconstruction brought significant advances in educational development, one can see how limited long-term change actually was from the biographical paths of post-war cohorts. The egalitarian inclusion of student from different social backgrounds – a key index for the democ­ratization of education – turned out to only be temporary. Peak representation occurred in the first half of the 1950s. During that period, almost 50% of all students were working class. The same was the case for women. The Stalinist period in Poland presented more educational advances for the working class, while the Thaw meant a return to more tradi­tional values, both on levels of gender and class. The mechanisms of social norms were again able to operate unhindered by state reforms.

University students, Poznań, Poland, 1947. Image courtesy of Bogdan Celichowski via Foretpan

While the first wave of post-war students benefited from ample job opportunities, by the second and third wave options were already shrinking. The state guidance and support they received led to employment that was far from their dream jobs. The post-Stalin Thaw additionally undermined student faith in socialism. A sense of disillusionment deepened. What had previously been instilled in them began to ring hollow. One preparatory course partic­ipant in remembering the disappointment stated: ‘At the time, we were told that we would be pio­neers of progress, education, new ideas. . . . That’s what I wanted to be!’ Those who had the most to lose in following the socialist dream felt the most let down. Despite the annual rate of high-school graduates entering university rising from 4-5% before WWII to 40% in the 1970s, 20-60% of these students, depending on their study, did not even finish their first year of higher education. Most dropouts were of working-class ori­gin.

Obstacles to upward mobility

The obstacles that new entrants faced within the revised university system were various. However, to understand the difficulties these freshers encountered, it is first necessary to contextualize the post-WWII development of Poland’s pre-degree education. Minor amendments were made to the curriculum after 1945, including the history of WWII and a new foreign language requirement. With the new state-socialist curriculum’s introduction in 1948, religion, which had previously been obligatory, was removed from the study programme, and Russian becam­e the mandatory foreign language. Primary education was still based on the seven-grade school system (ages 7-14) and the number of schools was doubled. As occupational training was favoured over standard lyceum education, however, vocational schools also grew in number. Facilities that provided training to skilled workers offered programmes that lasted from as little as a few months up to two years in some cases. In 1956 compulsory education was ex­tended to 16 year olds and religion was brought back but only in the form of extracur­ricular classes. From 1959 to 1965, thanks to the Thousand Schools for the Millennium of the Polish State project, over 1,200 schools were built. Fortuitously, this coincided with the years post-war baby boomers started school.

The key to increasing working-class and rural university student numbers lay at an earlier stage of education. School pupils on completing their primary education faced a pivotal decision between three next-level education choices: lyceum, technical school, or vocational school. Access to education had increased during the entire period of state socialism but only up to secondary school. Past that point, obstacles to equal access did not decrease but rather increased. Even among the post-war generation who completed their secondary education between 1957 and 1960, only 10-13% were accepted at universities.

In the 1960s a significant discrepancy between access to education in the countryside to that in the city, and between different regions of Poland, contin­ued to determine educational paths. Girls from rural areas, who not only experienced difficulties in accessing educa­tional infrastructure but often also had to defy the social expectations of their families and communities, constituted the highest dropout rate. As late as the mid-1960s, fewer girls than boys went to sec­ondary school. In addition to the prospect of working on the family farm, traditionally jobs for women like domestic help or childcare were still considered viable alternatives to education.

While lyceums attracted the most able pupils, vo­cational schools became the first and securest choice. The vocational school re­cruitment process was less stringent than academic schools, which attracted pupils with lower grades or those who needed to start work as soon as possible. From 1945 onward, nonaffluent students unwaveringly chose vocational schools with enrolment numbers skyrocketing from 2,552 in 1952 to 8,780 in 1965.

As some post-war generation children did not even continue their education beyond primary school, the path to advancement was not higher education but rather secondary educa­tion – and, more precisely, vocational schools. These institutions became the main path for working-class upward mobility. Up until the 1970s, 45% of Poland’s industrial workforce was educated in vocational schools.

Societal expectations

A rich body of sociological research from the period offers multiple insights into changes in social structure, educational aspirations and professional expectations. While lower-class families were primarily driven by a desire to provide their children with a better future and help them ‘escape’ their class of origin, intelligentsia parents placed the bar much higher. Their ambition was to provide their children with the opportunity of a scientific or scholarly ca­reer; an academic post was considered the pinnacle of achievement. Other sociological studies on educational aspi­rations from the late 1970s show that the intelligentsia strove to educate their children by any means necessary, regardless of their talents or the family’s material resources. At the same time, young people from the intelligentsia were more motivated to take up their studies. Not only did they want to maintain the same social status as their parents but they also wanted to secure economic and cultural capital. The children of the intelligentsia were in a way forced into higher education, yet could do so without enduring psychological setbacks or issues of self-confidence.

For lower-class families, it was enough that education averted hard physical labour and enabled a step up to being a white-collar worker. It was not necessary for the working class to pursue further scholarly ambitions. These, if they existed at all, could be achieved during free-time study rather than as professional development. A handful had ambitions to give their children a ‘from-peasant-to-gentleman education’ while an equally small group wanted to see their children become engineers dedicated to build­ing socialism. But, for the majority, the wish was only to protect their children from working in the fields or enduring the monotony of a production line.

The socialist economy model needed low-skilled workers and technicians with a secondary-school-level technical education. Considering the negligible salary differences between higher-education graduate and non-graduate work, and the growing prestige of technical professions, the choice to study at university was not an obvious one for working-class students. Indeed, by the 1960s, it was more the type of work you did in Poland, and not your education, that affected your income. While, for the children of in­telligentsia families, an educational path that did not lead to higher education and that academic post equalled a downgrade and failure, for working-class families, vocational schooling was considered progress. In the majority of cases, the societal status quo continued unabated: in the 1960s, thousands of working-class children still worked in the same factories where their parents had worked.

Although the aspiration of universities was to educate people to shape Polish culture and politics, the whole educational system, on a practical level, was set up to educate professionals for industry: chem­ists, mechanics and technicians. The new intelligentsia might have received an educa­tion at university, but new professionals gained theirs at technical schools, specialized colleges for subjects such as economics and pedagogy, and, last but not least, at vocational schools. All in all, universities did not become the core of the educational revolution; everyday classism, the system’s inefficiency and tra­ditional class divisions remained strong among professors and students. More change hap­pened in trade schools and technical colleges than at universities.

The Alma Mater ideal

Despite upward mobility only being experienced at the extremes of Polish society by the intelligen­tsia and unskilled workers (who had started at the lowest position), the university still served as a symbol of open possibility. In 1957, when one-third of Polish citizens were still unable to read and write, and 7% of adults had never attended school, a new generation was graduating from universities. Before 1989, the number of graduates nationwide reached almost two million. Every next genera­tion brought up during the Polish People’s Republic had a greater chance of attaining a higher ed­ucation, decreasing educational inequalities. And yet, only a very small group of students decided to pursue academic careers after graduation – a fact that ultimately reveals the limits of post-war social change.

Mr Temptation probably did graduate from university. He likely secured a stable job in a factory and a small apart­ment in a block of newly built city-district flats. His vaccinated children no doubt went to a nearby kindergarten and later a primary school built to mark the Millennium of the Polish State in 1966. Probability also suggests that they too had a good chance of getting into a lyceum and finally obtain­ing a higher-education degree. Mr Temptation probably retired in the 1980s and re­ceived a state-guaranteed pension, just when state socialism was crumbling. It would be easy to dismiss this image as post-socialist nostalgia, but it is equally tempting to think in terms of these probabilities.


This article has been published as part of the youth project Vom Wissen der Jungen. Wissenschaftskommunikation mit jungen Erwachsenen in Kriegszeiten, funded by the City of Vienna, Cultural Affairs.

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