Higher education reform – On the slow road to Bologna

For more than 20 years, countries in the European Higher Education Area have been working towards establishing a common education and research space. However, the Bologna agreement has become a 47-speed process with each of its member states progressing at a different pace.

In order to ensure greater awareness of the implementation process, higher education ministers have emphasised the importance of data collection and reporting during numerous meetings. Nevertheless, measuring progress remains a challenge for governments in several countries.

Thus, an opportunity has opened up for academics, higher education stakeholders, as well as civil society organisations, to take a greater role in data collection and dissemination.

The International Foundation for Education Policy Research took the lead in collecting and reporting the data on the implementation of the Bologna process in Ukraine. In 2012, the Foundation published its first analytical report on the integration of the Ukrainian higher education system into the European Higher Education Area, or EHEA, and the European Research Area.

This came about as a result of a monitoring study conducted by Foundation experts in collaboration with the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Ukrainian Association of Student Self-government.

The report highlights the lack of transformation in Ukrainian academia from both legislative and practical perspectives. It shows that joining Bologna was a rather formal step taken by the Ukrainian authorities who were resistant to the attempts of other stakeholders to encourage debate on the higher education reform.

In December of 2014, the Foundation’s experts finalised the second report of their research outcomes on the progress of Ukrainian higher education accession into the EHEA. This monitoring report covers the transformations which took place in 2012-2014. However, these years were divided into two sub-periods since in July 2014 the Parliament of Ukraine adopted a new higher education bill.

The Ukrainian higher education system in context

The national system of higher education in Ukraine has been forming since 1991 and has inherited features from the Soviet Union’s education system. As a result, it has evolved in its own complex and contradictory way.

The system is binary in nature. It consists of higher education institutions of accreditation levels I and II, which award degrees comparable with level five of the International Standard Classification of Education, or ISCED, 2011. A second group of institutions are those of accreditation levels III and IV, which provide programmes for attainment of ISCED levels six to eight.

In the mid-1990s, the number of students enrolled in higher education institutions in Ukraine started to increase steadily, which marked the country’s transition to a system of mass higher education. However, in 2008 the number of students reaching tertiary education began to decrease due to a reduction in the school-aged population, which reflects wider demographic trends in the country.

The only exception to this downward trend was in the higher education institutions with accreditation levels I and II. In 2010, the number of students in these institutions started to grow. This may be due to the introduction of independent, external testing for admissions to other higher education institutions.

The higher education system in Ukraine relies heavily on public funding. State expenditure on higher education exceeded 2% of gross domestic product, or GDP, in the years in question.

Financing is allocated for training of both undergraduate and graduate students at public institutions of higher education, meaning almost half of the overall Ukrainian student body receives tuition-free higher education. These students are selected on the basis of merit. Therefore only those public university students with a lower academic performance and students who are enrolled in private higher education institutions pay tuition fees.

Structural reforms

Ukraine was lagging behind the other Bologna countries on the pace at which it was implementing structural reforms until the adoption of the new Law on Higher Education of Ukraine in the summer of 2014. The new legislation created a framework for the application of the three-cycle degree system, European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, or ECTS, and qualification frameworks.

These basic elements are needed to ensure the comparability of Ukrainian higher education and its recognition in the other member states of the EHEA. Nonetheless, the report by the International Foundation for Education Policy Research highlights the challenges that remain with regard to the structure of Ukrainian higher education. They include the implementation of the Bologna tools, the allocation of ECTS credits based on learning outcomes, the application of qualification frameworks and student-centred learning.

According to the research outcomes, there is another barrier to the comparability of Ukrainian tertiary education – the extensive list of areas of student training which does not correspond to the Statistical Classification of Economic Activities in the European Community, or NACE.

One of the most crucial elements of the new Ukrainian higher education legislation is the introduction of the national quality assurance system. It was designed in line with the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the EHEA and aims to improve the quality of tertiary institutions in Ukraine as well as to establish trust in national education credentials.

The system consists of internal quality assurance of higher education institutions and external quality assurance at the national level, which is to be executed by the new National Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education and a network of independent agencies. The work of the National Agency is expected to begin in September.

Social dimension

Access to higher education is a long-standing priority in Bologna member countries. However, progress on widening access within the EHEA is rather disappointing. The Ukrainian case is no exception. The enrolment of certain categories of citizens in higher education institutions remains unrepresentative of the general population.

Moreover, the conflicts in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have posed new challenges to ensuring access to post-secondary education in the temporarily occupied territories and for internally displaced people.

Furthermore, there is inequality in educational opportunities based on students’ economic status due to overall poverty levels in Ukraine. Students from low-income families struggle to cover their accommodation costs and consequently miss out on education experiences because they have to take up a part-time job. The researchers point out that the price is often a significant prolongation of training and poor quality education.

Likewise, students with special needs are disadvantaged in terms of accessing quality higher education. In most higher education institutions in Ukraine, the infrastructure and training of teaching staff does not allow the participation of students with disabilities. The only higher education institution that is fully equipped to educate students with special needs is the Open International University for Human Development ‘Ukraine’. However, this is a private institution which does not receive sufficient state support.

There has, however, been positive discrimination for engaging underrepresented groups in higher education. Numerous categories of prospective students are admitted to public institutions through a non-competitive admissions policy. They are only required to submit a full application form and are guaranteed tuition-free education.

The categories include applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds, students with disabilities, orphans and others. However, the new Law on Higher Education has decreased the possibility for positive discrimination by promoting an equal admissions procedure to the second and third cycles – masters and PhDs.

Consequently, all applicants to these degree programmes have to go through the same merit-based competition to enrol in higher education institutions. Therefore, there is an expectation that in future positive discrimination for certain categories will be replaced by conventional mechanisms for addressing underrepresented groups.


The transformation of the homogenous education system inherited by Ukraine from the Soviet era to a higher education with several cycles has been accompanied by a lack of understanding of graduate qualifications by employers.

Nevertheless, the research found an increase in employer satisfaction with the level of training of bachelor graduates, particularly in the private sector. However, students are also motivated to pursue a higher level of education in order to increase their competitiveness in the labour market at a time of poor economic conditions in the country. Over 60% of first cycle graduates in 2013 continued their education to obtain a masters qualification.

Meanwhile, graduates still find it hard to obtain a job when they leave university. The monitoring report underlines the low quality of careers advice services in higher education institutions, which leads to a lack of job search and career planning skills among students.

Moreover, there is a mismatch between tertiary education curricula and modern practices in the workplace. Therefore, employers often require work experience, even for applicants to entry positions. Subsequently, students engage in unpaid internships or part-time employment during their studies to make themselves more employable on graduation.


Despite its participation in the Bologna process, Ukraine has not developed proper legislation or the necessary strategy or programmes to encourage mobility of students and academics. Most of the study abroad programmes available to Ukrainian citizens are financed by foreign governments.

However, the new Law on Higher Education introduced a formal definition of academic mobility, as well as mechanisms for its practice. The legislation defines international and national mobility. The recognition of the latter is logical since the country is large and has a heterogeneous culture.

Ukraine does not have a national data collection system for outbound mobility. Experts estimate that the number of students engaged in credit mobility does not exceed 23,000 people per year. It includes both incoming (2,000-3,000) and outgoing mobile students (roughly 20,000) and makes up around 2% of the student population in the country.

Over 46,000 Ukrainians studied abroad in 2014 whereas over 59,000 foreign students studied in Ukraine during the same year. The top destination countries for Ukrainian students are Poland, Germany and Russia.

The report reveals a growing interest on the part of Ukrainians in obtaining education in European institutions of higher education, as well as a decline in the number of students enrolling in post-secondary institutions in the former Soviet Union republics. However, international students in Ukraine tend to come mainly from Asia, with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan at the top of the list.

The report also reveals the main barriers to student mobility. The biggest obstacle to pursuing education abroad is a lack of financial resources. Moreover, students wanting to study abroad experience challenges in the recognition of their learning outcomes, a lack of knowledge of foreign languages and problems with obtaining visas.

International students increasingly express dissatisfaction with the quality of Ukrainian education, as well as with the problems around the recognition of their educational documents. Therefore, if Ukraine is to meet its ambitious mobility benchmark it needs a substantial increase in state support for academic mobility.

Moving towards the EHEA

The Yerevan Communiqué, adopted at the latest EHEA ministerial meeting, acknowledges the challenge presented by the imbalanced implementation of the Bologna process and calls upon member nations to ensure proper application of higher education reforms. Therefore, Ukraine needs to do more to ensure its higher education system meets expectations and needs to improve reporting on its implementation of the Bologna process.

The Foundation’s report underlines the inconsistency of existing national data. Non-state actors and researchers have been working to improve this and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine has established the Institute of Educational Analytics. It can create an opportunity for the necessary in-depth education research and encourage evidence-based policy and is widely supported by higher education stakeholders.

Ielyzaveta Shchepetylnykova is a Fulbright Scholar and MA candidate at the George Washington University, USA, researching issues in internationalisation of higher education.