From higher education legislation to implementation

The lights turned green for Ukrainian universities two weeks ago – parliament adopted a new law, which is a starting point for fundamental change in the country’s higher education system.

University World News has repeatedly written about the major changes the law introduces. However, these fruitful results would not have arisen if it wasn’t for several years of struggle by a considerable number of people.

Therefore this is a success story that deserves to be told to the world.

At the beginning

Back at the beginning of 2011, things didn’t look that bright. Dmytro Tabachnyk was minister of education and science at that time. He constantly demonstrated lack of intent to bring about any qualitative change in the system.

His Soviet management style was evident in all his actions: the sensible and necessary procedures of public debate became pure formality to cover up decisions that had already been taken. Changes in higher education were no exception.

News about Tabachnyk’s plans to reform universities raised public concerns. The proposed changes did not stand up to scrutiny. They included plans to centralise higher education, increase the powers given to the minister and the return of corrupt practices at the heart of the university admission process.

Moreover, the rights and funding accorded to universities were to be defined by the number of students at each institution. Under such a system universities like the world famous Caltech would be doomed to offer only bachelor degree programmes.

By a ‘strange coincidence’ the universities that publicly opposed the appointment of minister Tabachnyk found themselves under attack. These were the small but influential and educationally modernised Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University.

This might have been the spark that drove the reforms that have now been passed.


Throughout 2011 big cities like Kyiv and Lviv were overtaken by loud student demonstrations that notably decreased the chances of the ministerial project and indeed blocked it in the Ukrainian parliament.

Students demanded a public discussion about the changes involving real representatives of professors and students in the process. Instead, the minister kept up his pretence of consultations with the public.

At the beginning of 2012 one of the biggest and most influential Ukrainian universities, Kyiv Polytechnic Institute or KPI, reached a stand-off with Tabachnyk. The ministry sought to subvert the election of its rector and Tabachnyk once again demonstrated his disapproval of the principles of university autonomy.

However, the minister had not foreseen the consequences of his unlawful steps. His moves only increased the passion behind student protests. As a result then prime minister Mykola Azarov had to intervene and fix the problems caused by his minister.

He assured the dissatisfied students that elections for a new rector would be held eventually and invited KPI’s Rector Mykhailo Zhurovskyi to lead the working group that was updating and finalising the minister’s draft reform.

The working group – which brought together around 60 representatives of teachers, experts, employees and protesting students – immediately set its own terms. As the views of the newly formed group did not coincide with the minister’s, parliamentary members refused to work with its draft law and started to work on their own one.

The new draft law opened up a process of deregulation and decentralisation of higher education. However, the working group had to take into account the position of the ruling faction as, without its votes, the draft law would have had no chance. For this reason, some progressive proposals were not included in the text.

The new draft law was registered in parliament at the beginning of 2013. Six months later the head of the parliamentary committee of science and education Liliya Grynevych, an MP from the then opposition faction ‘Batkivshchyna’, supported it.


After the revolution, students occupied the building of the Ministry of Education in February 2014, playing their own role in the changes brought about after the Maidan protests. The main demand of protesting youth was the reform of the education system.

Soon afterwards, with students’ approval, Serhiy Kvit was appointed the new minister of education and science. Kvit was a member of the working group and his team immediately started to promote the draft law.

The Maidan protests and the revolution created a favourable climate for more radical reform. Also, the public demand for such changes had increased hugely. So the new ministry team, together with students, experts and the head of the parliamentary committee, united to improve the draft law and get parliament to vote for it.

Once again, the working group gathered to add necessary amendments to the draft law to make it more progressive and relevant to the requirements of Ukrainian society after the Maidan revolution.

Now students and activists appeared on the streets with rather different messages: no longer were they against the draft law, but they were asking MPs to adopt it.


However, the mood inside the Ukrainian parliament was split.

Some MPs claimed that this was not the proper time for higher education issues – military and economic topics were more important. In addition, analysts pointed out that the so-called post-revolutionary reform window had already closed and MPs were back to voting mainly according to the interests of various financial groups.

Despite all this, the enthusiasm of students and educators remained high and they kept on pushing for reform.

The new ministry team knew that, without the new law, their hands were pretty much tied and all attempts to reform the ministry and the whole system would have little chance of success.

Experts, civil activists and students realised that their chances of getting the draft law passed were higher than ever. Furthermore, everybody was aware of the huge price Ukraine would have to pay in the future if it did not reform the country’s universities.

Tireless campaigning and united action have finally resulted in success: needing only 226 votes to get the draft law passed, the new higher education law was adopted with 276 votes.

Certainly, the changes that the new Higher Education Act introduces do not stop here. It is necessary to remember that for now it is just legislative reform. There is a big difference between a law’s adoption and its implementation.

That’s why this victory is just the beginning.

Only our efforts and relentless work can smooth the path towards true reform and quicken the pace of change. All the authors and activists involved in this struggle need to stay together and work towards the process of implementation.

The key to success will be constant monitoring of implementation and compliance with the reforms. Those who are ready for the changes will start to live by the new rules more quickly and easily while those who aren’t will be left behind.

* Yegor Stadny is a higher education policy analyst at the Centre for Society Research, a think-tank in Kyiv. He received a masters in history at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and a masters in East European Studies at Warsaw University. He is currently doing his PhD at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.