New law could breathe life into higher education

30 September 2012 University World News Global Edition Issue 241

Higher education in Ukraine will not progress without an overall strategy setting out what it aims to achieve. The draft Law on Higher Education offers just that strategy, but analysts fear it is in danger of being kicked into the long grass. Because of the parliamentary elections that take place in Ukraine on 28 October, public debates on higher education have a certain spin. Instead of debating necessary reforms, the ruling political forces have been involved in a series of PR stunts.
These stunts have included ‘Russification’ measures and attempts to reshape Ukrainians’ historical memory of Russia, and have been fuelled by vain hopes of getting cheap gas from Russia.

Opposition politicians are right to criticise the government for failing to develop its education policies. After the Orange Revolution there haven’t been any education reforms, although there has been a lot of talk about them.

The new academic year in Ukraine began with a celebration of the Day of Knowledge on 1 September. A few days earlier, the working group responsible for elaborating the draft Law on Higher Education held its last meeting to sum up all the remarks and proposals that have come from various ministries. A final report was submitted to the government.

So, on 28 August the working group officially stood down. Its participants emphasised that they will support the passing of this extremely important law through parliament. Conversely, if there are attempts to alter it, the academic and student communities will resume public protests.

The final version of the draft law was published on the websites of the Kyiv Polytechnic and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy as a way of combating possible interference by the government or parliament.

Experts pessimistically predict that the government will not consider the draft law before the elections, and that afterwards it will be kicked into the long grass. Nevertheless, we still hope that the ruling party will pass the law in order to boost its popularity ratings.

Education on the decline

This year over 90% of applicants applied to 50 universities of the more than 250 functioning in Ukraine today. This means that people are increasingly responding to the inefficiency of the higher education system.

The search for better universities has become a kind of unofficial ranking of school-leavers’ preferences, but the quality of Ukrainian universities can only be judged if they participate in international rankings and comparisons with the world’s best universities. Currently, this is not possible.

In addition, the standard of secondary education is dropping. Every year universities receive fewer prepared applicants, especially in the fields of natural sciences and mathematics. But although the education system is weak, its graduates are strong.

Young people are aware that they have to take responsibility for their own lives amid the current economic, educational and social chaos. Graduates often have knowledge and skills that are not taught in universities.

In the absence of reform of the national education system, what happens is brain drain.

In August, the new Law on National Language Policies took effect. Now the language used for teaching can be changed in regions where minorities make up more than 10% of the total population.

It is obvious that the law is designed to provide special preference for Russian. Attempts by Crimean Tatars and Bulgarians to proclaim their language as a ‘regional’ one in Crimea and some cities in the Odessa region have not succeeded. This proves that the law was written only to promote Russian.

The potential for inter-ethnic conflict caused by the law could be problematic for universities if groups demand to be taught in one of the non-official languages. At present, due to a lack of teachers, textbooks and classrooms, Russian is the only language that can be used instead of Ukrainian.

This had led to a form of discrimination against Ukrainian in some areas. However, the government’s reaction has been to intensify its ‘Russification’ policies.

For instance, the Ministry of Education has published 1.9 million of 2.06 million school textbooks in Russian.

Tendencies in education

According to the director of the Centre for Education Monitoring, Pavlo Polyanskyi, a number of tendencies can be seen in Ukrainian education.

One is growing centralisation and ad hoc instead of proper management of the education system, with all important decisions being made by the education minister personally or by a circle of ‘insiders’.

Also, experts are not engaged in discussions about socially important issues. In 2009, on the Ministry of Education and Science website, 62 documents showcased public expertise; in 2010 there were only 49; in 2011 there were 28; and during the first eight months of 2012 there have been only 18 such documents.

Those who disagree with the minister’s position tend to pay for it. The public is misinformed about the real state of affairs in education. There are also corruption scandals, the most high-profile of which was the government’s purchase of poor quality, dangerous school buses.

Inna Sovsun says that Ukraine has not yet defined what the long- and short-term aims are of its education system. The government’s approach is chaotic.

This year has seen an increase in demand for IT specialists. At the same time, the number of natural science and mathematics places were cut by 6.6% (there has been a 12% decrease in places since 2007).

On the one hand, it is clear that government projections for engineering, natural sciences and technical places were not met. On the other hand, the quantity of university graduates who paid to obtain diplomas in law, economics, and science and political science is growing.

This means that the government’s aim to increase the number of students in selected fields that are important for the national economy does not correspond to the preferences of prospective students. They are more driven by a desire to make money.

Then there is the funding issue.

The ministry says education funding is at its highest since independence, although in 2012 public financing of education did not reach the same level as in 2010: UAH19 billion (US$3.3 billion) versus UAH19.7. It should be also taken into account that UAH19 billion today does not have the same value as it did two years ago.

Nevertheless, financing of education is a local issue, not a strategic one. The government first needs to define what it wants from the higher education system. Action on even the most important of local issues does not make sense before a national education policy has been formulated.

First we need to look at the whole picture and understand what results we are aiming for. Only then can we choose the tools we need to achieve those objectives. Enacting the new Law on Higher Education is an important first step.

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