The Need For Adaptation - The Future Of Polsocs
Whether you are currently involved in Polish student campus life or not, you are likely to have noticed, heard of, or at least deduced, a decrease in the number of our compatriots at British universities. Obviously, the main reason for this is the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, which drastically increased tuition fees for students from Poland and severely restricted credit opportunities. Unfortunately, considering the actions of the ruling Conservative Government and recent declarations of the opposition Labour Party leadership, the situation is unlikely to change in the near future.
A bit of a defeatist mood in Polish student communal organisations has emerged as a result, as if we are the last generation of its kind, a dying species, almost. Less dramatically speaking, Polish student initiatives seem to be seeing the writing on the wall, and adapting in order to survive as they believe they should.
Thus the Congress of Polish Student Societies in the United Kingdom, after fourteen editions, has now rebranded as the International Congress of Polish Student Societies.
I don’t want to criticise such decisions. The expansion in scope of a yearly event to the international stage - which will increase the number of future organisers, attendants, and sponsors - seems like the right move, at least from an outsider’s perspective. But what I am concerned with is a task that no conference, whether hosted in Britain or anywhere else, can carry out on its own. This is because maintaining, building, uniting and representing local and viable Polish student communal life can not be accomplished by organising a large meeting once a year, or even every few months, no matter how extravagant and well-prepared it is.
How can I argue this in the current situation, when prospective students from Poland, the backbone of Polish Societies, are abandoning Britain as a study location en masse? Let’s examine this view for a moment. Hard evidence is limited, but I believe that even anecdotal data on numbers can be insightful.
The University of Warwick Polish Society, as can be seen from attendance and organisation of recent conferences, is one of the strongest and most active PolSocs in Britain. When I finished my BA there last year, I was one of the 271 registered Polish Students. Which, of course, does not include all students with a Polish background, such as many students who have grown up in Britain since they or their parents migrated here after we entered the European Union in 2004. However, even only considering the official statistics, it may surprise outside readers that only once or twice a year would event attendance approach a fifth of that number. The ‘core’ members of the community numbered about thirty, with about half of them attending events regularly.
That number, 271 (which we found out as a result of an FOIA request) is likely to go down, as it is at other British universities - but by how much? And will the drop be compensated by an increase in ‘home-grown’ students (considering that the oldest Poles born in the UK after EU enlargement are now 18-19 years old) who may or may not be attached to a Polish identity, as is their free choice? It’s hard to say, but the situation might not be as hopeless as it may look from an initial glance.
Nevertheless, in order for these potential community members, whether they arrive on campuses from London or from Lublin, to become proportionately more involved in Polish student spaces, the latter need to adapt from the status quo, at a local and national level.
If we do not want our communal spaces to start disappearing across Britain soon, we have to take action. This will not be an easy task, considering that student bodies undergo an almost complete turnover every three or four years. And at the current rate, many smaller Polish student communities might struggle after the first ‘Brexit turnover’ - that is, around 2024. Larger PolSocs may remain active with perhaps a dozen members or so, with only London having enough universities in close proximity to create any kind of organised communal space.
This might sound a bit over-dramatic to you, but it’s likely. Therefore, if we want to avoid this fate, then I believe we must counteract the forces leading us to it through a comprehensive plan of adaptation. What you will see below does not claim to be such a plan, but rather an outline of some of the basic ideas that could be important in the process. Ultimately, the goal of our communal spaces should not only be to pragmatically self-sustain themselves, but develop environments in which we would want to live in the world at-large - full of life, culture, and friendship.
What is often reduced to a vague buzzword in discussions about society and politics, has an important value in how we imagine our communal life to be - it is a key factor in attracting and integrating students who are currently not as involved in Polish student spaces as they might have been, but may be potentially interested in joining in.
The main such groups include, in no particular order:
- Postgraduates and Academics. Based on my experience of studying at two universities, most student societies, including PolSocs, tend to be dominated by undergraduate students. A vicious cycle can be often observed where many undergraduate-run societies cater to undergraduate students, thus leading to postgraduate students getting less involved - which is most noticeable through the types of social events that they organise.
- Polish students who have already found their own social space. There is no inherent reason why a Polish student should join a Polish student space, especially if they feel comfortable enough in a different social space. It’s also completely understandable that those who have grown up in Poland and are now abroad might not want to be surrounded by people, social events, music, customs, language, etc. that remind them of home.
- Poles who don’t fit into the traditional image of Polishness. This may be due to one’s background, skin colour, religion, language, sexual and gender identity, accent, upbringing, and many other factors. Of these, language might be the trickiest to address, since many Polish students gravitate towards PolSocs specifically to speak Polish, and not necessarily about ‘Polish affairs’. Nevertheless, students who feel more comfortable speaking English (as many students of Polish background who have grown up in Britain) must be integrated into Polish student communal life - how this will be done will largely depend on the specific nature of the events organised. Additionally, facilities must be arranged for those in our community who want to learn Polish and practice it in a non-stressful environment.
- Students from less prestigious and established schools. Those arriving at British universities straight out of Poland’s most prestigious high schools, such as Warsaw’s Batory or Kopernik, are much more likely to involve themselves by default in their PolSocs, simply because they will meet many of their schoolmates there. For students from provincial towns and cities, going alone to an event in which they do not know anyone, but where many people have known each other for years, can be a daunting task.
- Poorer students. One of the main ways to meet Polish students across university boundaries in Britain is through conferences, the tickets for which are usually above 50 pounds, not including transport and accommodation. Some local events might also be exclusive due to their price. For students who work part or full time to pay for their education, a trip to Poland 2.0, or a fifty-pound formal, might simply be out of reach. Too many forms of communal socialisation are effectively locked behind paywalls for some Polish students.
The barriers faced by such marginalised students are not impenetrable, but they do unnecessarily limit their engagement with Polish student communities. Efforts must be made explicitly to remove them.
The need for active PolSoc committees, aware of the need of creating safe environments for the student groups mentioned above, is an important part of going forward. Additionally, all the integration issues are united by a single general solution: creating a greater diversity of ways to be involved in a local Polish student community. These can be study groups, film nights, cultural events, discussion clubs, social events and parties, academic talks, sports teams, none of which should be categorised in a hierarchy of regular attendance. This will allow students who are interested in perhaps only one kind of event to become included as full members of the community, in the way that those who only attend one event a year but not anything more regularly are not.
The good news is that in most of the established PolSocs, these activities are already initiated spontaneously, as students will want to form social spaces without waiting for the Annual General Meeting to submit an official motion to do so. The task of the PolSoc leadership, then, is to develop on what is already being done, bearing in mind that one event of a kind is unlikely to be enough (what if a student really interested in film can’t make it to the only movie night organised per year?). Such a level of engagement as described above might sound daunting and unrealistic to some. Please bear in mind two things: firstly, the creation of such environments would lead to more students becoming involved in the PolSoc, sharing the burden of organising across more people; and secondly, many such events could take place through cooperation across universities and nationwide.
A further aspect to adaptation will be establishing greater connections with local Polish communities, which have themselves been significantly and negatively impacted by Brexit.
While the specific aspects have varied between students and non-students, it would pragmatically benefit both to coalesce around unifying issues.
Many such sticking points come to mind. There is the fight for the right to settle and work, and against anti-immigration extremists who want to make our lives miserable. Additionally, further development of Polish cultural and communal spaces and activities (in particular those not affiliated with the Catholic Church) could be catalysed through the interactions between students and non-students and the joint pooling of resources. The potential for this is massive - Polish is the second most spoken language in Britain, but there is little representation of this fact in British cultural and social life, other than having the option to use it to pay at the WHSmith self-checkout machine (I always do it.) The non-Student Polonia could benefit from university-educated, fluent speakers in Polish and English, who are looking towards building their future, many in the UK. PolSocs could use the facilities (including local churches and community centres), knowledge and experience that a more established communal presence can give to them - and one that does completely change in membership within a few years.
I am not expecting that the initial efforts will be enough to form rapid bonds between Polish Oxbridge readers and Polish workers sometimes literally slaving away in warehouses. But enough commonalities around, perhaps, experiences of Brexit and diverse forms of Polish culture might result in developing some forms of communal solidarity. Such local and national organising could ultimately lead to the development of democratic institutions strong enough to claim the mantle of legitimately representing British Polonia. But let’s stay grounded in the present for the time being, and examine a factor that looks at the situation from a macro perspective.
Regional and National Connections
The final area that should see our focus is the development of greater connections between PolSocs. Currently, Polish students mostly meet each other across university boundaries through conferences. Even considering the limitations I mentioned above, the continued organising is something we should be very proud of as a community.
However, already event-packed and not designed to do so, conferences are simply unable to fulfil the potential for intercommunal cooperation. Thus the development of further regional and national ties, such as through organising joint society events, should be seen not as competition, but as an addition to the conference student experience.
Local Polish Society confederations, such as those established in London and Scotland, are certainly a step in the right direction. Some developments have also been taking place in the North, but in the rest of the country there is little coordination. To give my personal example - Warwick and Oxford, both some of the largest and most active PolSocs, are less than an hour away from each other, with many of their members knowing each other well. Yet little activity accompanies these facts, along with other PolSocs in the region.
PolSocs working together can better pool resources and organise events like talks, career fairs, social events or tournaments. The age of the Zoom conference has made this all the more easier, though of course in-person meetings should be made as viable as possible. These would be particularly interesting to students at universities without Polish communities.
One of the best ways to encourage these exchanges would be to organise joint trips and set up an mutualised accommodation system, whereby travelling Polish students could be guaranteed places to stay overnight free of charge wherever other Polish students would offer such an opportunity. This would significantly decrease travel costs and make integration easier between societies, and would be a crowning achievement of Polish student life.
In order for such an ambitious initiative, along with the rest of the points mentioned above, we need a national organisation that can offer logistical help and share knowledge between the societies. Years of neglect contributed to the present committee finding the Federation of Polish Student Societies in a rather sorry state, but it absolutely has the potential to fill the role. Several important steps in the right direction have been made this year, but more needs to be done, and preferably as soon as possible.
One can not forget the importance of having communal media to popularise all of these endeavours as much as possible, which is exactly what The Lambert is for.
None of what I have written above is done to underplay the incredible accomplishments of Polish Students in communal organising in Britain, both at a local and a national level, over the last decade or so in particular. Our conferences in particular are unrivalled in their scope and scale by any other EU student group here. What I believe our goal should be now is to work towards the changes needed to adapt to present and future conditions in an organised fashion, whether through the Federation, the PolSocs, or through more or less official, local and national, student groups, collectives and movements.
If, due to factors beyond our control, Polish student life were to slowly peter out, or be reduced in a much smaller form outside of maybe London, Oxford and Cambridge, it would leave behind a great legacy of accomplishment. But it does not have to be like this. With certain adaptations, the basics of which I have tried to outline in this article, Polish student communal life can not only survive in Britain, but continue to expand and flourish.