A struggle to shake off the Soviet era mindset

Ukraine’s higher education system is going through a period of upheaval as Serhiy Kvit, Minister for Education and Science, tries to implement widespread reforms to establish university autonomy, end corruption, and develop research capacity.

It began with a new higher education law in 2014 and only two weeks ago parliament passed a new law on science and research.

A former rector of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a national research university in Kiev – and a former literary critic and University World News blogger – Kvit took office after the Euromaidan revolution or Revolution of Dignity, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych at the end of 2013.

The latter had refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, at the urging of Russian President Vladimir Putin. When he was toppled the new regime was not recognised by Putin, and pro-Russian separatists occupied the Crimea and eastern parts of the Ukraine.

University World News interviewed Kvit in London on 8 December, where he was speaking at Ukraine Universities Day, an event co-hosted by his ministry and the British Council.

The following Q&A has been edited for fluency and length.

UWN: Why are you here in London?

Kvit: I am here to sign a cooperation agreement with the British Council and to make a presentation of Ukrainian reforms to British universities, in the hope of connecting our institutions with them, so that we can have common international research projects and other activities in future.

UWN: What reforms are taking place and why are they needed?

Kvit: We worked on the new law for three years before the Revolution of Dignity in December 2013 – with academics, experts, politicians and journalists – and when the government started its work in 2014 the implementation of this law was the focus of our attention. The basic idea is to establish university autonomy – organisational, financial and academic autonomy.

UWN: How can you make that happen?

Kvit: The most important problem is the Soviet-style psychology of many of our university leaders, the rectors and presidents, as well as the mindset of our politicians, who may say that the development of education is our most important task, but they don’t actually think so.

UWN: Wasn’t there a great stress on education in the Soviet Union?

Kvit: Yes, but it was not based on the idea of autonomy. It was a totalitarian society and the main idea was to have a strong state and militarisation. Research focused on the military activity of the state and there was no freedom of speech.

This means we have to create a new academic culture. This is quite a hard task. We can approve the law but the change of psychology and professional culture will take years.

Let me give you an example. When I went to visit one university and told them, “Now you can feel free to be autonomous,” their answer was, “Yes, but we still need your orders and guidelines.”

They still feel they need orders from the state and the state has a very powerful position today. But we have to implement a new way. Now only universities have the responsibility for ensuring the quality of education and the results of research activity, where previously only the state had responsibility. This is very important.

Our next task is to merge educational and research activity, because since the start of the Soviet era, in the 1920s, it has been divided. Universities in the Soviet Union were there for learning but research was not part of their activities – it was carried out by special research institutions within the National Academy of Sciences.

Two weeks ago our parliament approved a new law on science and research, prepared by my ministry and this is very important to the development of our universities.

UWN: What changes does the new law make?

Kvit: We have to change our Soviet-style system, with its National Academy of Sciences, which today is a state within a state and has had a special kind of autonomy since the days of Stalin. In the Soviet era the Communist Party controlled all of our research activities, but now the Communist Party has disappeared and the state does not know what the National Academy does. It is true.

We are opening different ways to develop our research institutions. We think some will become part of the universities and others will develop as contemporary research institutes. The new law enables new forms of collaboration between universities and the institutes, such as having common masters and PhD programmes.

UWN: So what was research focusing on before?

Kvit: It is an interesting question. In the time of the Soviet Union everything worked under the control of the Communist Party and focused on military [interests]. Today we have to establish a national policy in research and innovation. We need to create the conditions for collaboration and support between our research and industry.

We need to organize a special evaluation of the real academic level of Ukrainian research to understand what the state needs and what Ukrainian science needs, and where we can be leaders on the global scale.

UWN: Looking more widely across higher education you have faced problems of lack of equality of opportunity and problems with the quality of higher education – how are you addressing those?

Kvit: It is important for our time to create new opportunities for international collaboration and it is part of our policy to send more students and teachers abroad for different exchange programmes.

We have to offer our new generation higher education with enough quality and this is only possible by raising the competitiveness of our universities.

The internationalisation of Ukrainian universities and research institutes is one of the most important things we have to get as a result of our reforms and I think all national standards of quality must be compatible and understandable internationally.

UWN: Do you mean you want international recognition of your qualifications?

Kvit: This makes sense within a common labour market, but Ukraine today is not part of the European labour market and we already have recognition of diplomas in our universities by Western universities, which enables our students to take masters or PhD programmes abroad.

But we do need to develop our universities further and one of the problems is that we have too many, 317. This is a lot – although we used to have 800 before the new law divided them into two categories, one for universities and one for vocational education – and we have already closed 80 universities and their branches in the past year.

UWN: How did you do that?

Kvit: First I asked rectors with about 200 students in their university, "how can you survive economically", and they agreed that their institutions must be closed without any discussion.

UWN: Is that an example of Soviet-style mentality, that they just agree?

Kvit: No, it is because they are just selling diplomas. Very often they don’t offer learning, students just pay them something and they receive a diploma. That is why they understood that it was finished and it would be better to close the university.

UWN: So there is corruption?

Kvit: Yes, we have lots of corruption in different ways and selling diplomas is corruption. This is why we plan to change the system of financing our universities and the requirements for applicants and we plan to raise the requirements on what kind of institution can become a university.

The most important idea is to overcome the corruption with our admissions system. We have an independent testing system [for school leavers], which is successful. But we have a strange system of funding, in which the state issues an order to universities for how many students it will fund in each field.

So there are students secured by budget money, who study free of tuition fees, with small scholarships. They get education free. The rest have to pay, for tuition fees and living costs, so they have to find the resources themselves. The system is absolutely inefficient from the view of labour market and society needs.

UWN: But isn’t it true that with the competition for paid-for places there is corruption involved, because families will pay universities to secure a budgeted place?

Kvit: Yes. But we believe having high-quality, autonomous and competitive universities will easily overcome corruption.

UWN: But isn’t there also a problem with weak criteria for admission being used? Didn’t Saudi Arabia decide four years ago not to recognise the degrees of its students who studied in Ukraine because of the weak entry criteria, particularly in medicine?

Kvit: That is another problem, because it is about international students and it was the policy of the previous government to admit all students who can pay. It is a very strange policy but we are changing it now. International students just must pay and that is all. I agree this is a problem.

UWN: Are you going to change the rules?

Kvit: Yes, we are in the process. We are also tackling the language problem. We would like to have two working languages for international students, Ukrainian and English – and not Russian, which we don’t agree with – and that is why we are bringing in special requirements, not only for international students but for our teachers and universities to be able to deliver education services in English.

UWN: Russian is a sensitive issue because of the political situation, the conflict in the East. What have the effects of the conflict been on higher education?

Kvit: We don’t call it a conflict area, we call it occupied territories. We had to move 16 universities and 10 research institutes to other parts of Ukraine. They survived and are developing. We support them, and we try to connect them to international partners.

One of the rectors, from one of the best universities in Luhansk was in my meeting with the CEO of the British Council today, because all of their professional equipment, labs, buildings and dormitories are today in occupied territory and they now have new accommodation in different cities.

It is a very hard time for these institutions but they have their students and teachers, and central and local government – and other higher education institutions – support them in all cases.

And we use distance learning – many students in the occupied territory can get some course distantly from other parts of Ukraine. In some cases teachers work distantly too. Others live in the occupied area and travel to other parts of Ukraine for months at a time and return for different reasons, if they have old parents and some are afraid for their property.

UWN: How many students are working from the occupied area?

Kvit: We don’t know; it is a very hard question. In Luhansk they had 25,000 students, and today they have 10,000 living in the new campus. But that’s because when the war started – in the Donbass region – it was our task to help students change university and a lot of them accepted. It was later that we relocated and students were given a choice of whether to stay with their new university or rejoin their old one. Mostly they stayed at their new universities.