Polish students flock to the UK, but there are dramatic reasons to head the other way.

The quarter of a million Poles who have come to the UK in the past three years have had a mixed reception, but one place they have been welcomed is at universities.

Since Poland became a full member of the European Union in 2004, the number of Poles at British universities has tripled. More than 3,000 were given places last year. For the first time this summer, Oxford’s Boat Race crew included a Polish student.

Few British students are going the other way, but Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) is looking in a small way to address that, with an MA in acting based in Poland but aimed at British and international students.

Notorious for its homophobic thuggery, its academics threatened with an anti-Communist purge this summer, Poland seems a hard sell. Many British uni versities have links with Polish counterparts, but where these are institutionalised – as with Bradford’s franchised Masters in business and management – they often take the form of British expertise on offer |to local students.

Manchester Metropolitan University’s Masters is something else. Now in its second year, the MA in acting is taught in Poland and run jointly with Piesn Kozla, the award-winning theatre company. Just one of the students last year was Polish. Piesn Kozla set the pace, with MMU tutors and special guest lecturers shuttled in and out during the year.

Students spend most time at the company’s studio in Wroclaw, along with a research trip (to Siberia this year) that forms the foundation of the graduation performance, which is a tour of Europe.

“The course is for students who want to move into a different world,” says Niamh Dowling, course director at MMU. Dowling was working with Piesn Kozla as part of MMU’s undergraduate programme before the company hit the limelight by scooping awards at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival. To turn that into a partnership for the MA meant persuading students to up sticks to Poland for a gruelling year of physical theatre.

“For the university, it’s an extraordinary thing to do,” Dowling says, but she hopes it becomes more common: “There is a model, definitely.” MMR could strike similar deals with companies in Africa and America.

No matter how exciting a group is, though, who would choose to spend a year studying full-time in a country where they cannot speak the language? Ewan Downie was one of the first students to take the course. “It was tricky to start with,” he says. “But in some ways it was an advantage, being taken out of your normal life where all you have is this very intense course.”

Downie became enthused by Piesn Kozla’s work when he did a one-month workshop after leaving drama school. Disillusioned with much British and Irish theatre, Downie was looking for a new way to engage with the audience.

“It seemed completely different,” he says. “Most theatre in the UK and Ireland starts with words or concepts. This is the reverse: you’re trying to create a physical flow between performers and the text derives from that.”

Taking such a conspicuously foreign model creates opportunities for students, but there are pitfalls. Graduates of Piesn Kozla do not fit as easily as conventional drama-school students into the UK acting scene. Most of the British graduates either joined the company, as Downie has, or teach and take workshops.

Kate Perry moved to the Gers in the South of France after finishing the course, bought a ruined farmhouse, built a studio and set up her own workshops. She did her first in June, drawing on her work with Piesn Kozla. It was not just what she got to know, but who: she now has a European network to draw on. “That was what was so great about the course, working with so many practitioners,” she says.

Emigrants such as Perry and Downie will not match the Polish student immigration any time soon. But cherry-picking the best of contemporary culture and building courses around it, advocates say, is an example of how European integration isn’t just about selling British education, but about broadening it.