To Marta R., who made me tell this story
It may seem surprising but I don't have a driving licence. My parents had a car once, and they sold it because my father – being an utterly independent person – was constantly irritated at other drivers. And those were the times when only six or seven families living in our block of forty flats had cars. Petrol was scarce; one had to buy fuel with coupons or find somebody who knew somebody who sold stolen petrol. We didn't have a car, later I was not interested in having one and, over the course years, I grew pretty sure that I will never have a driving licence.
In my everyday life I have to rely on public transport: I use minibuses to get to my home town, I use trains to get to the college in Katowice, and in Bielsko, the place where I live, I use city buses. Actually, Bielsko has quite a good network of bus lines (although buses are running less and less frequently). The buses itself are modern – the popular joke is that finally everybody can manage a million-dollar Mercedes with a driver – but the quality of service hasn't changed for the past ten years. Why? The answer is simple: we have new buses, but we also have new, inexperienced drivers, who still think that they drive a truck loaded with sacks of potatoes. This usually makes for interesting rides. So, what had happened to experienced drivers?
Today, I shared my experiences as a passenger with one of my students and she asked a simple question: What happened to experienced drivers? I told her the story of Karol.
Karol is a bus driver. He is thirty-something, has a wife of the same age and a daughter, who is eight. Karol comes from an average family: his parents worked in cotton factories here in Bielsko, lost their jobs after the fall of the communist regime in the early 1990s, found other jobs and somehow they managed to bring up Karol and his two brothers. Karol went to the kindergarten for three years, at the age of seven he started his eight-year primary school (we had a different system), and finally he went to a five-year technical school because he wanted to be a mechanic. As you can easily calculate, his education took sixteen years.
Although part of his life was under the communist regime, it was quite easy for Karol to adapt to the new economic system. He was skilled and mechanics were in demand. He was a courier and drove a small van, then he switched to trucks but the company went bankrupt. Karol was lucky and when there was an opening for a bus driver, he did a special course and got a job with the public transport company in Bielsko. In the meantime, Karol got married to Helena, they had a lovely daughter and life became predictable for them. And then, in 2004, Poland joined the European Union.
First, a small trickle of really desperate people sought employment in the UK. These people visited Poland and talked about better life. Helena and Karol had a dream: they wanted a small house in the suburbs of Bielsko, but with Karol's salary it was impossible to get a mortgage. Helena had to stay with the child because none of the grandparents could baby-sit. And then there were stories about jobs for lorry drivers and bus drivers, all kinds of well-paid jobs offered by British companies. Karol talked to his friends who in turn had friends actually working in the UK and he learnt that with his experience he would be offered job with decent salary, a crash course in English and a small flat. Of course, being an EU citizen he would be able to work legally, he would pay taxes, he would be insured, he would be eligible for benefits. And he would earn 2,000 pounds sterling per month, which was five to six times more than his meagre 2,000 zloty which was his monthly salary in 2004.
Karol spent some time thinking, then he talked to his wife and they decided to go to the land of plenty. And it was really the promised land; they had a flat and enough money to start saving up for the future. Of course, driving on the left side was a strange experience for Karol, but only for the first five seconds. Of course, it took a while to sort out all the papers and permits because British bureaucracy – however efficient it is – is still bureaucracy. Karol's daughter had to change the school but you know, children adapt easily. At least, that's what they say. Karol's family is happier now and they have a chance to buy this little house on the outskirts of Bielsko.
On the personal level, this is a story of a family who has made a decision and – so far – is happy with it. But this story is much, much broader than you think...
Most of you would say that you aren't good with numbers, so let me remind you: Karol's education took sixteen years. The cost of educating a child in a state school is now around 4,000 zloty per year. At least, this is the amount of money which is refunded to schools by the government. We can safely assume that Karol's education cost about 100,000 zloty. This is the cost of paying his teachers, buying equipment for schools, paying electricity, heating and water bills etc. Karol's parents did not pay for his education directly because education is "free" in Poland. This means that all taxpayers sponsor education, regardless of the fact whether they have any children or not. This is the system and few people reflect on how it works. I am sure that Karol's parents didn't.
We may treat Karol's years of education as a period of investment: the child goes to school, teachers dedicate their skills and attention to him, taxpayers pour their money into the system. And voila, after sixteen or more years we are presented with an educated, productive citizen. The rule is – or at least should be – simple: the child takes, the adult pays back. Well, it is quite obvious that something went wrong in this case; Karol is an investment which paid back only partly. When he started contributing and paying his debt to the society, he was lured (or stolen, if you want) by another country.
I hope that now you see the complexity of the situation. When we look at individual cases, we see people who struggle in the Polish reality and who have every right to seek the way to improve their situation. This includes the right to travel and work in another country. But when we look at the problem from the time perspective, we see that the cycle of investing and contributing is becoming disrupted. To put it bluntly: our educational system works for the British, not for us, Poles. We educate and train tens of thousands people and we let others steal them when they in their most productive years.
My student was perplexed with this claim and she objected, saying that Poles who move to the UK still contribute to the Polish economy. Her argument was that: "Poles living and working abroad send money home". Well, let's do a simple calculation: there are around two million Polish people living and working in the UK, which means that their education cost roughly 160 billion zloty. That is 30 billion pound sterling. Officially, Poles send home around 1 bln pounds every three months. At this rate, we need 7.5 years just to get back money we invested in them. But we only calculated the cost of primary and secondary education. What about doctors and IT specialists who work in the UK? The cost of studying is not 4,000 zloty per year...
If we look at this issue from the perspective of the British government, it is all logical and justifiable: there are not enough qualified workers, so we need to get them somewhere. There is not enough time to educate and train them and we do need them right now, so what can we do? Here is the solution! Open the borders, give those Poles the right to live and work in our country (for God's sake, don't let them apply for citizenship) and keep the right to expel them if they are no longer useful. We may call it "the open door policy", "the right to exercise one's freedom" and smile broadly when they come to us.
However, if we look at this issue from the Polish perspective, we can clearly see that this "open door policy" is hurting us deeply. The young, brave, productive people leave the country and we simply don't know what is going to happen. Are they going to send money back home? Maybe... Are they going to come back to Poland after ten or twenty years with their savings? Paradoxically, the UK is TOO close for that to happen. What about their children? Will they be Polish at heart or will they become British (or English, or Welsh, or Scottish or Polglish or Welpoles or whatever)? And only when we ask these questions, will we realise that the British profit right know and for us the outcome is uncertain.
So what can we do? Tell the people who leave Poland that after one or two years their Polish citizenship is null and void? That would mean hurting people who have been hurt already. Ask the people who leave Poland to at least give back the money which was spent on their education? How would we enforce it? Or maybe the best solution is to ask ourselves the question: why are those people leaving? What can we do to stop them in Poland? And this is not the question for the Polish government, this inefficient and corrupt bunch of greedy, short-sighted politicians, but for all of us Polish people who stay. And we should also look at how the British have organised their country so that people from all over the world want to come to them. We should imitate all the good solutions, ignore the bad ones, and make our country attractive.
Karol would come back then, he would have his small house and at last I would be driven in a Solaris by an experienced driver :)