Following the nationwide Women's Strike protest in Poland, the Minister of Education and Science, Przemysław Czarnek, threatened to withhold grants from universities that allowed their students to skip class and join the demonstrations. His words didn't go unnoticed by the European Commission. Mariya Gabriel, the Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, and Youth, calls on the minister to explain his remarks
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“The European Commission attaches great importance to academic freedom and the freedom of expression. The Commission supports the autonomous status of higher education institutions, both in terms of their financing and self-governance. Our common European values and liberties should be protected throughout the entire EU” – reads the letter Commissioner Gabriel sent to the Polish Ministry of Education and Science at the beginning of November.

Czarnek accuses universities of „putting students’ lives at risk”

Ms. Gabriel’s letter is a direct response to the minister’s remarks about the first Women’s Strike demonstrations he made on the state broadcast news channel TVP info.

“Please remember that I also have the authority to allocate investment resources, funds, and research grants for universities. Many such applications are waiting to be reviewed by our ministry. I don’t have the slightest doubt that while assessing them, we’ll also have to consider the actions of universities who encouraged their students to participate in crowded manifestation at the height of a pandemic. Such decisions not only put the lives and well-being of students at risk but also exposed their loved-ones and senior family members to infection” – Minister Czarnek said on air.

The minister’s words met with a wave of criticism by the public opinion. His remarks were interpreted as an attempt to violate the autonomy of universities and a clear sign of the ruling party’s malevolent intentions towards schools and higher education institutions. Czarnek’s threats also coincided with his announcement of an upcoming reassessment of school curricula and changes in the required reading lists.

Commissioner Gabriel asks the Minister to clarify his words

Commissioner Gabriel referred to the minister's comment and recalled another one of his statements regarding the Women's Strike in which he directly threatened school teachers. "Those who draw our children into an ideological warfare and expose them to health hazards will be facing consequences" – Czarnek said.

His threats caused an outrage among the activists from the Polish Teachers' Association. Several local Law and Justice party politicians even reported a number of teachers.

In her letter to minister Czarnek, Ms. Gabriel pointed out that his threats to suspend funding "may particularly affect the financial stability of higher education institutions at a time when the crisis-related response requires additional resources," and that "it may have serious consequences in terms of the quality and accessibility of higher education”.

She also asked the minister to clarify whether any decision regarding the suspension of funds to any Polish university has already been made, and if so, on what grounds. Another one of her questions concerns the consequences which the "anticipated or already implemented" penal measures could have on the "financial stability of higher education institutions, their participation in EU programs, and their academic autonomy”. The Commissioner’s third question concerns the measures taken "against teachers accused of encouraging students to participate in the protests".

 We’ve asked the Ministry of Education and Science about its response to the questions issued by Commissioner Gabriel. As of this writing, we still haven’t received an answer.

Minister Czarnek, in turn, is currently distancing himself from his own words. “I never said I’ll be withholding grants” – he said during an interview with the RMF radio station last Saturday, adding that “there is no place in Poland for teachers who set a bad example for our students”.


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