New dawn for higher education in Ukraine?

In an unprecedented move earlier this year the Ukrainian prime minister called on academics to review draft laws deciding the future of higher education. Could this mark a dramatic change in how universities are run? In my previous blog, I wrote about Ukraine’s new law on higher education. This has now developed in quite an unexpected way.

To understand the way things work in Ukraine, one must remember that it is a post-Soviet state with its own features that cannot be compared to any other system in the world.

For example, it is quite natural for a Ukrainian official, even one not suspected of being corrupt, to think one thing, say another and act in a way that reflects neither what he thinks nor his proclaimed position. Under these conditions, laws are not just bypassed but become so flexible that they can be used in support of totally opposite positions.

Once I asked two rectors of really good Ukrainian higher education institutions the following question: “Why do you support any decision taken by the Ministry of Education and Science in Ukraine, including the obviously absurd draft law on higher education?” The answer was that I worry about the wrong things because it does not matter what the new law says.

No matter if it is very good or very bad – no one will obey it because it is inept or because it is impossible to follow its stipulations. What will happen is that a kind of middle road will be forged based on the need to keep Ukrainian universities alive by providing minimal financial support from the state budget.

An unexpected development
In late February this year, something unexpected happened.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Asarov took part in a round-table discussion with representatives from the academic community, and said that he wanted them to review the draft law on higher education. At that point one draft law prepared by Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk, and two alternative draft laws prepared by MPs, had already been submitted to parliament.

The prime minister admitted that the draft law prepared by the education minister needed work and asked Mykhailo Zhurovskyi, rector of the National Technical University of Ukraine (Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, or KPI) to organise a working group to look at the document immediately and bring it in line with Ukraine’s economic needs.

Tabachnyk was not allowed to be present at the round-table meeting. Despite this, he remains education minister.

The formation of the working group was like a bolt out of the blue for the Ukrainian academic community, for several reasons.

First, the education minister had been trying to remove the rector of KPI from his post. Second, the government had previously ignored all alternative opinions given regarding the proposed higher education laws, dismissing them as politically motivated rather than taking into account the drafters’ professional experience.

Third, by organising the round-table meeting, Prime Minister Azarov took the side of those who had protested against Tabachnyk’s position and against his authoritarian vision for the future of Ukrainian science and higher education.

Also present at the round-table meeting were leaders of student organisations that had earlier taken part in mass protests.

The members of the working group and the way they operated under the leadership of Zhurovskyi, was also unprecedented. The group consisted mainly of KPI and NaUKMA (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) representatives, student leaders and independent experts.

Representatives of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, the administration of the president of Ukraine, the Corporation of Employers of Ukraine, trade unions and non-government educational organisations were also involved.

The working group considered about 4,000 proposals from more than 100 organisations and institutions. Literally everyone could participate. The academic community gradually realised that this group was shaping the future of Ukrainian universities.

A key factor in shaping the draft law, which brought both positives and negatives, was that it had to be done by consensus. This meant there were no controversial issues left in the text of the new law. This was necessary to make sure that there was no professional group that could criticise the document.

Draft law improved

The working group focused on the need to improve the quality of education and academic research to meet the demands of the Ukrainian economy and society, and to help Ukraine integrate into the European Higher Education Area.

Therefore the new draft law regulates the academic, organisational and financial autonomy of universities. It keeps distinctly separate the powers of the state, which deals with education policy, and higher education institutions, which are responsible for the quality of education. It stresses the idea that universities are autonomous from the state.

The very way the working group functioned showed that the Ukrainian academic community is able to think independently and stand up for itself.

Special attention was paid to the integration of science, education and innovation, intellectual property issues, PhD training and decreasing the teaching burden on faculty so they can spend more time on research.

The State Accreditation Committee (SAC), which is responsible for licensing, accreditation, setting education standards and overseeing professional qualifications, will work according to new principles. It will cooperate with the European Association for Quality Assurance. Special independent agencies will be organised to monitor the quality of education.

The SAC will function on the basis of quotas and will report to cabinet. It will include representatives of state universities, private and communal institutions of higher education, students and the education ministry.

The draft law counters the authoritarian tendencies of previous years and will help develop links between higher education and the labour market. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union’s ‘planned economics’ in the late 1980s, Ukrainian universities’ work has been totally separate from national economic needs.

Threats to higher education development

Political instability is the main threat to the development of higher education in Ukraine. The academic community does not know what made the prime minister change his attitude to educational politics so dramatically.

The situation could easily revert to what it was and authoritarianism could return along the lines of the ‘Russian model’ of centralising state government.

Another threat is the impossibility of passing a radically liberal new Law on Higher Education, without taking into account the likelihood of post-Soviet relapses. The draft law prepared by the working group includes too many social guarantees, but it did reject the obligatory ranking of Ukrainian universities.

In general, the vision of what we want for our universities as a consequence of the educational reforms has not been spelled out, and that is why there are some questions about it. The group’s eagerness to overcome corruption led to a number of contradictions around the principles of university autonomy.

To reform Ukrainian universities fundamentally, we need to look first at the quality of what is on offer; we must tangibly reduce the number of higher education institutions and implement new rules that the European Higher Education Area and the Western world can understand.

Only radical market self-regulation will enable us not to fall back into the old ways of the Soviet system. Keeping state politics transparent runs side-by-side with these aims.

The working group supplied its version of the draft law to cabinet on 7 March. We have been given a promise by the prime minister and the authors of alternative draft laws that the previous documents will be withdrawn from parliament, so we can submit the working group’s draft law instead.

We need urgent action on this issue as the problems in Ukrainian higher education need to be resolved without delay.

Today Ukraine has a unique chance to adopt a progressive higher education law. It is the result of a broad public discussion, and it is not an over-statement to say that it is a tribute to Ukrainian civil society.

It would be most unfortunate if politicians were now to turn around and criticise the demands of the academic community. If that does happen, what has been a professional debate will inevitably return to the political arena.

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