A parallel higher education world
An Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, or EU, has been a central topic in the Ukrainian media for quite a long time. Hopes of educational reform are now related to signing of this document, which may take place on 28 November.
The agreement not only presupposes a free trade zone to unite Ukraine and the EU; in article 431, reforms of higher education and the standards expected in the Bologna process are also mentioned.
New cooperation between Ukraine and the EU presupposes establishing international institutions that include representatives from civil society, with the decisions of such institutions having legal power. Therefore, we may soon see media discussions about the agreement going beyond political and economic issues.
The education community is still waiting for the pro-European rhetoric of Ukrainian state officers to convert into real actions around higher education reform. Passing the proposed Law on Higher Education drafted by the ‘Zhurovskyi working group’ through parliament would have been the first step.
But Ukraine is a country of paradoxes – as are many unstable states with transitional economies and marginal political cultures.
As a result of actions by the Ministry of Education and Science, Ukrainian higher education institutions are being kept in a ‘parallel world’ in comparison with the rules European universities conform to.
While in the past the ministry has promoted cooperation with Russia as an alternative to European standards of higher education, it has kept quiet about this lately.
The third cycle of higher education
On 27 September at Maastricht University, a graduate of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy doctoral school Tetiana Stepurko defended her PhD thesis titled “Informal Payments for Healthcare Services – Corruption or gratitude? A study of public attitudes, perceptions and opinions in six Central and Eastern European countries”.
Is this not normal? Not in Ukraine. There is no third cycle of higher education yet.
The state does not recognise structured Western-style PhD programmes. In Ukraine these only exist at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy so far. That is why our university decided to work in partnership with other universities to prepare PhD students to defend their theses.
Besides Maastricht University, our students have also defended theses at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, and will do so at the University of Paris Est in France, at Western University in Canada, Macquarie University in Australia, and other West European and North American universities. In the meantime, on 10 October the ministry granted 1,427 first stage kandidat degrees, 776 second stage doktor degrees and 15 PhD degrees. Where do the PhDs come from?
Ukraine has not implemented educational reforms in line with its Bologna obligations with regard to implementing a third cycle of higher education, sticking to the Soviet degree system.
Instead, the ministry has invented new bureaucratic practices to convert the title of a post-soviet candidate of science into a PhD. It has translated ‘diplomas’ into English, merely changing the title without altering the methods of postgraduate education and integrating it into the European system.
This is what Bologna reform looks like in Ukraine.
Corruption and other systemic problems
Corruption has distinctive features in post-Soviet states that infect the field of higher education.
The student movement is tackling some of them. On 14 September the Ukrainian Association of Student Self-government held a panel discussion in Kiev titled “Student Vision of Legislative Reforms in Ukrainian Higher Education”.
Student leaders discussed the Draft Law on Higher Education, which is registered for consideration in parliament, and also motions regarding the draft law collected during roundtable discussions held in different regions of Ukraine earlier in the year.
Numerous problems were mentioned including bribery, the low quality of learning and teaching, and the centralisation of higher education administration, which makes it impossible for universities, students and employers to influence the educational process.
Participants declared their support for the proposal of the parliamentary committee on science and education, which identified the draft law developed by the ‘Zhurovskyi working group’ – rather than the alternative proposal before parliament – as the one which would best support the development of higher education and defend the interests of students.
More work also needs to be done on admissions to Ukrainian universities. Maksym Opanasenko, a journalist for the Svidomo website, noted that in admission rules that higher education institutions will need to conform to in 2014, the independent online system Konkurs – competition – is not mentioned at all.
Over the last two years, this system has enabled applicants to follow changes in the admissions rating of different universities during the admissions process. This significantly curbed corruption in admissions.
But bribery in Ukraine easily changes its colours.
Previously, bribes were mainly paid to get applicants enrolled at universities; now they are paid to ensure students stay there. Passing a test costs on average UAH50 (US$6) and the successful defence of coursework costs UAH2,000 (US$245).
The main factors causing bribery in higher education institutions are low salaries and the depreciation of Ukrainian diplomas in the eyes of employers, who now prefer to retrain university graduates so that they fit employer requirements.
According to the HeadHunter staff portal, in 52% of recruitment interviews HR managers only ask candidates whether they have diplomas certifying their education level. Only a quarter of those who participated in the survey said the employer questioned them in detail about their specialisation and skills.
For students it does not matter how they get marks as it will not influence their future employment. Only their skills are important, but these skills are often obtained outside universities through informal educational systems and moonlighting, according to the head of the Ukrainian Association of Student Self-government, Yelyzaveta Schepetylnykova.
What kind of reforms?
The current state of educational reform in Ukraine can be illustrated by a special page on the government website portal, with the promising title of ‘Educational Reforms’.
It contains information on two issues: pre-school education levels – here we can see progress from 73.3% in 2010 to 81% in 2012 – and the number of vehicles bought through the School Bus Programme – 112 in 2010 and 900 in 2012. The buses take children living in the countryside to schools in neighbouring villages.
The website states that this reform was implemented with the aim of integrating Ukrainian education into the common European education area.
What more is there to say?
* Serhiy 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 served as chair of the Consortium on University Autonomy from 2005-10. Kvit 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 was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Ohio University in the US, a Kennan Institute scholarship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship at the University of Cologne.