When it comes to the global market in higher education services, more and more often prospective students hunt for recognised global brands. More and more frequently the brand and stance of any given university in the international arena depends on its position in each of the major world university ranking tables.
Ukrainian universities are nowhere to be found in these rankings. This fact, however, does not discourage the current leadership, including the Euromaidan-appointed Minister of Education and Science, Serhiy Kvit, from setting high goals and demonstrating optimism bordering on wishful thinking.
His predecessors shared in his optimism, claiming success in attracting international students. Ukraine hosts around 50,000 foreign students, of which only 4,000 come from Europe. Apparently, the standard of Ukraine’s higher education and the quality of its academic life are good enough for students from developing nations, but not quite for students from developed ones.
Quality: past and present
While they were cogs in the 'perfect machine' of the Soviet education empire, Ukrainian universities enjoyed a reputation as high-quality educational hubs that offered professional training in both fundamental and applied sciences in many fields and disciplines. Students from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe flocked to Ukrainian universities during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
However, over the past quarter century, the quality of education offered has dropped dramatically due not only to a lack of state funding and a consequent brain drain, but primarily to rampant endemic corruption. Failed structural reforms and institutional incapacity in higher education have left Ukrainian youth without any hope of receiving world-class education and have had a negative impact on international students as well.
Ukrainian universities have lost reputation and recognition, even in developing countries. So much so, that in 2011 Saudi Arabia decided not to recognise the degrees of its students who studied in Ukraine. The reason is very simple: weak admissions criteria and a low quality of education.
In Ukraine, students from the Middle East used to like the medical education it offered due to its affordability, lax standards and the opportunity to buy positive grades in exchange for bribes. Naturally, the Saudi Arabian government does not want to subject its citizens to medical treatment provided by physicians with bogus Ukrainian medical degrees.
Origins and destinations
Despite the decision of Saudi Arabia, more than a third of all international students in Ukraine seek medical degrees, including 5,000 medical students from India. There is always a trade-off between cost and quality and with tuition of US$2,000 to US$4,000 a year, Ukraine’s education has always been a bargain.
The largest share of students – over 10,000 – come from just one country, Turkmenistan. The explanation for this phenomenon is simple: Ukraine receives natural gas from this Central Asian 'emerging democracy' and in exchange it hosts many of its students.
The despotic Turkmen regime virtually ruined its already weak higher education system back in the 1990s and now has to send its students to a low cost, largely Russian-speaking country with lax educational standards, a strong record of human rights violations and corruption aplenty. In this sense, Ukraine is a perfect match.
Russia accounts for fewer than 3,000 of Ukraine’s international students; in most cases they come across the border to attend cheaper Ukrainian universities. China only sends around 3,000 students to Ukraine.
Cash cows and businessmen
International students are considered cash cows, bringing hard currency to universities. In the 2012-13 academic year alone, international students were expected to pay UAH4.3 billion in tuition and fees, which at that time was equal to more than half a billion US dollars. Their total contribution to the economy, including personal consumption, renting apartments and giving bribes increased this sum significantly.
Public perceptions in Ukraine are such that international students are distinct by a lack of discipline, low scholastic abilities and an unwillingness to study. Language issues also play a part.
Furthermore, some international students work as salesmen in wholesale and retail markets, run small businesses and due to their involvement in 'extracurricular' activities do not attend lectures and seminars.
Some international students pass all their exams in one go by paying a lump sum in the dean’s office instead of giving bribes to each professor individually. Some international students manage to graduate from universities without mastering the language of instruction.
However bad the situation was, though, it has got even worse. The ongoing hybrid war, which has resulted in numerous casualties among the civilian population and millions of displaced refugees, adds to the less-than-welcoming climate that international students face in Ukraine.
In spring 2014, every international student sat examinations earlier than scheduled – in May instead of June – in order to be able to leave Ukraine safely. Some students escaped even earlier as political violence in the country escalated.
While this evacuation went relatively smoothly, it is not clear how many foreign students actually returned when the summer break was over.
With the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation, the task of keeping statistics on international students has become problematic: should those coming to study at Crimea’s higher education institutions be counted as international students in Ukraine or in Russia? Each of the two countries would certainly have a different answer.
Low-quality teaching, ineffective bureaucracy, red tape and systemic corruption at all levels, which often makes degrees worthless, are not the only reasons why foreign students studying in Ukraine will not get a better future.
The old infrastructure, the absence of university campuses, poor management, dilapidated student dormitories, high crime rates and insufficient security, racially motivated assaults and the lack of recreational facilities all make their living and learning experiences substandard.
Thus, Ukraine’s higher education is more of a trap than a trampoline: it provides no present and offers no future. A drastic improvement has been promised yet again – this time by Kvit. Before that happens – and if it happens at all – the only advice that can be offered to prospective international students is to steer clear of Ukraine.
Ararat L Osipian has a PhD from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, USA. He is author of several books, including Raiderstvo: Corrupt Raiding and Hostile Takeovers.
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