Draft higher education law is retrogressive, obstructs integration
The appointment of Dmitry Tabachnik as minister of education and science in March 2010 was an attempt to turn back all of Ukraine's efforts towards integration with Europe on higher education issues.
The education policy of Tabachnik is based on his political views, which are viewed as being pro-communist and pro-Russian. In my view Tabachnik is a Russian chauvinist in his attitude to the Ukrainian language, culture and historical memory.
His policy represented in a new draft law “On Higher Education”, is shaped primarily by purely technical aspects of the ‘Russian model’ of governance. This is based on complete state control of the academic and financial activities of universities, ignores the principles of the Bologna process and denies university autonomy.
Along with the restoration of autocracy, Vladimir Putin's Russia has inherited many features of the Soviet system, including lack of free speech. A key feature of Russia’s current system is the centralised distribution of substantial financial resources (mainly from oil and gas) to the best universities, which gives them an opportunity to become competitive in the international arena in accordance with the formal requirements of various university rankings.
The situation in Ukraine is dramatically different.
I should mention several characteristics of Ukrainian society: a desire for freedom of speech, an ironic suspicion towards any form of official authority, and a lack of public finances specifically aimed at supporting higher education.
That is why we should focus on the development of universities through the establishment of real market conditions – in other words real competition – and university autonomy. This would develop initiative on the part of universities, would involve competing for resources from business and industry, and would allow the Ukrainian academic community to speak to their Western partners in the same language.
One important separate issue is the antiquated and bizarre structure of Ukrainian and all post-Soviet universities, which dates back to the concept of the first years of Soviet power.
In the 1920s the Soviet government separated education from research. It required that training take place in institutes of public education (what universities were then called), but research took place separately in institutes of the Academy of Sciences. Such a system is incongruous with the rest of the world and prevents universities from raising their competitiveness and rising up international rankings.
Today, Ukrainian and all post-Soviet universities (except those in the Baltic countries and Georgia) continue to suffer from this legacy. As a result, institutions have extremely inadequate laboratory facilities, lack research funding and carry a very large teaching workload (more than 900 hours per academic year), and academics cannot compete regarding the number of publications they have in peer-reviewed journals, which is a key criterion in world university rankings.
The draft law
The aim of Tabachnik’s draft higher education law is to place insurmountable obstacles, a kind of new ‘iron curtain’, in the path of Ukraine's integration into the world community, primarily the integration of Ukrainian universities in Europe.
Ukraine will not be able to align its education with international standards as long as the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports continues to block university autonomy, trying to preserve all the worst policies of Soviet totalitarianism. Under such conditions, Ukraine will continue to remain a post-Soviet space, dominated by Russia, with low quality education and a high level of corruption.
There is another reason that makes it impossible to integrate Ukraine into the European Higher Education Area: the English language. In general, the Ukrainian academic community does not have an adequate level of English because in the Soviet period only Russian was considered to be the language of international communications and relations.
Today, English is perceived by the authorities to be a destructive factor that could undermine the so-called ‘progressive’ Ukrainian (post-Soviet) system of higher education and research.
Poor knowledge of English, or lack of it, is a problem of all post-Soviet states, a fact that is completely ignored by the Ukrainian government.
The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
The National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) is the only Ukrainian university that has two working languages: Ukrainian and English. It is also the only university that openly opposed Tabachnik’s draft law.
That is why in 2011 and 2012, for the first time since 1991 when Ukraine became independent, the ministry prohibited the requirement of English from applicants to the university. The struggle between the ministry and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy reached a peak in late 2010 and continues to date.
There was serious talk about rejection of the university’s bylaws (statute) and even about its closure. However, so far the main result has been a significant reduction in the university’s budget. The university continues to defend its rights and continues to promote national educational reforms based on autonomy, academic freedom and higher education standards.
Despite the fact that Ukraine’s current law does not provide for university autonomy, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, established in 1615, functions as a university where the concept of freedom is a fundamental principle, continuing the university’s tradition and legacy. It defends its rights against the ministry in court, a fact that is singular and one might say remarkable in a post-Soviet country.
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s efforts have received international support from independent intellectuals, dozens of partner universities around the world, in particular from Jan Petter Myklebust in University World News, and from governments throughout Europe and North America. Support was also expressed at the international conference “Roads to Freedom”, held in Kyiv in October 2011.
International and national attention to the university, along with Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s resolute position and repeated waves of strong student protests against current education policy in Ukraine, has resulted in a massive and much-needed public discussion and proposals for two alternative draft laws, one prepared by member of parliament Yuri Miroshnychenko and the other by MPs Arseniy Yatseniuk and Lesia Orobets.
Focus on autonomy
The main focus of media, experts and the public is the establishment of autonomy, including the right of universities to determine the content of education: the right to introduce interdisciplinary programmes, to have structured doctoral programmes, to provide recognition of international diplomas, to organise vivas, to award diplomas, to manage own budgets and funds, to take responsibility for the quality of education, to include student self-government and to be accountable to their own university community and the general public.
Today Ukrainian universities are deprived of these rights and responsibilities.
There is universal agreement that reform is needed. But the rhetorical paradox is that in Ukraine any changes are called ‘reforms’. In reality, there is no consensus about what changes should be instituted to reform higher education to make universities competitive in the international arena.
The problem is that contemporary Ukraine does not yet have a strong civil society to aid social change. Opinion polls show that rectors, teachers, students, their parents and politicians are unwilling to assume the role of agents of change.
All of them want ‘stability’ in contrast to the current turbulent transitional situation after the collapse of the Soviet system. A new system has not been created yet. There is no understanding among Ukrainian politicians about the importance of education and research as key issues for the development, competitiveness and stability of the country in a contemporary world.
However, it is worth noting that public opinion strongly favours reforms that would take the country away from corruption and privilege for the few to a more equitable society that provides equal opportunities based on merit, freedom and participation in civil society.
Up to now, all Ukrainian reforms have been focused on process rather than results. Therefore, the future of universities should be considered in the context of the need to reject Ukraine’s status as a perpetual ‘country in transition’, a label that has become an excuse for Ukranian politicians to milk the system for their own private business gain.
* Sergiy Kvit, a prominent commentator on educational issues, has been rector of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy since 2007. From 2002-07 he was dean of the social studies faculty. He founded the Kyiv-Mohyla School of Journalism in 2001 and became president of the Media Reform Centre set up to initiate open debate and promote more transparent media and government. He currently serves as chair of the Consortium of University Autonomy. Kvit’s research focuses on mass communications, university management and philosophical hermeneutics and he has published several books and numerous articles. He has a PhD from the Ukrainian Free University in Munich and also holds a doctorate in philology. He has been the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Ohio University in US, a Kennan Institute scholarship at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington DC and a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship at the University of Cologne.