Unpaid bills force universities to close until spring

Ukraine’s universities have no money to pay heating bills and have had to close their doors and send students on extended holidays until spring. The heating problem has affected universities throughout the country and has included its flagship higher education institution, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

This is no surprise as chronic underfunding combined with draconian rises in utility rates, including heating, has placed many higher education institutions in Ukraine on the brink of financial collapse. What is interesting, however, is how universities and the state attempt to mitigate and silence the problem in the media.

Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv fiercely denies the shutdown, suggesting that it is the student organisation that asked the university administration to extend winter holidays and that it was done in spring 2017. The line of argument is that students may need more time to celebrate Christmas and New Year and are not excited about cold lecture halls.

Provost for Academics and Research, Victor Bugrov, says: “We do not have a debt. The university paid its utility bills for January and made a prepayment for February.” He claims there is no distance learning, because distance learning means studies by correspondence. Instead, there is learning with the help of distance technologies of learning and knowledge control. These semantics, however, do not help heat the classrooms.

When the scandal got into the media, the university even issued a special statement, pointing out that the university remains open and the extended holidays that equate to distance learning were approved by the rector, Leonid Gubersky, in March 2017.

But across social networks students are sharing a different perspective. First, they do not believe in the initiative of the ‘Student Parliament’, a self-governing body that has only a nominal power. Second, students point out both the technical and organisational unpreparedness of universities for distance learning. It is not clear why students pay high tuition fees and then have to do distance learning.

The public is left asking the rhetorical question: “State budget allocations, tuition fees, donations and contributions, and finally, bribes are not enough to keep classrooms warm?”

The Ministry of Education and Science defends universities and refers to university autonomy. It states very clearly that universities may not replace in-class teaching with distance learning “under any circumstances, including climate changes”. At the same time, the ministry says that universities are free to allocate their class-time and other student activities along the academic year. The ministry demands universities report their educational plans.

It also points to the low energy efficiency of old Soviet buildings and that there is a project funded by the European Investment Bank at €160 million (US$199 million) to modernise old buildings. The project begins with seven universities in Kyiv and involves around 150 buildings.

The Minister of Education and Science, Liliya Hrynevych, mentioned very briefly that, “universities decide for how long they conduct teaching in lecture halls depending on their budgets.” But she effectively admitted the problem of unpaid utility bills by saying that students who miss classes in February will study in June, thus shortening the summer holidays.

Problem is 'widespread'

What the ministry does not say is how widespread the problem is. Some media reports suggest that universities have closed due to unpaid heating bills not only in Kyiv, but in other cities as well.

In Odessa, several universities, including Mechnikov Odessa National University, National University Odessa Law Academy, Odessa National Academy of Food Technologies, Ushynsky South Ukrainian National Pedagogical University, and others, have sent students on their winter holidays until spring.

In fact, representatives of Mechnikov Odessa National University say that lengthy winter holidays are a normal practice started in 2011 and that winter holidays for 2018 were approved back in May of 2017, so there are no surprises.

For now, the winter holidays are planned to continue for two months, from 1 January to 1 March, but who knows how long they will take in reality? Ukraine is a cold country after all and March without heating may be no better than February.

The Soviet health and safety norms say that the temperature in the workplace should not be below +18 degrees Celsius, which implies that faculty members do not have to conduct classes under lower temperatures. Ukrainian higher education has not moved far from Soviet standards and traditions, set in Stalinist Russia.

Provost Bugrov of Taras Shevchenko National University says that the system of heating was built in the era when a barrel of oil cost as much as a barrel of water, pointing to low cost of oil that explains low energy efficiency. He may be right, but the model under which universities operate also dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, by now completely outdated.

University autonomy remains just a declaration for as long as the minister of education and science unilaterally appoints and dismisses university rectors and merges and closes colleges and universities.

Competing for talent on the world market is also impossible given the salary level and outright rejection of foreign degrees. At present Ukraine has more than a hundred national universities, but due to the low quality of instruction, little or no research and narrow specialisation, they are more akin to commercial and vocational schools.

Unable to produce well-rounded graduates, they continue to rely on bones thrown by the ministry. Direct allocation of state budget money to each given college or university remains the rule of the game.

The likely impact of closed classrooms and lecture halls may be less dramatic than some commentators would like to predict because of the low attendance rate among Ukrainian students. They prefer to earn money on the side, instead of spending time within university walls.

Term papers and theses are available for sale via numerous academic ghost-writing services. Positive marks on examination sessions are being paid for in bribes. As the economic crisis in the country proliferates, the only possible solution for the heating bills crisis might be … global warming.

Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, New York, and honorary associate at the department of political science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States. He has spent the past four years conducting fieldwork on academic corruption in Ukraine.