The reform of Ukrainian universities – main goals and objectives

Kyiv Post: April 7, 2017. Speech at the symposium“Ukraine Dialogue: Education as the Battlefront of Democracy”; April, 6, Manor College, Philadelphia, USA.

After the victory of the Revolution of Dignity, we can talk about a vision of higher education reform in Ukraine. The main concept was discussed by academia in 2012-2013 and embodied in the Law “On Higher Education” (2014). The reform concept is rooted in the ideas of comprehensive university autonomy and internationalization. Following that, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine has created the majority of policy documents (including resolutions of the government, corresponding orders and explanatory notes of the Ministry), needed to implement the academic autonomy and establish the basis for organizational and financial autonomy of higher educational institutions.


However, the actual state of affairs does not allow us to conclude that qualitative changes in Ukrainian higher education have taken place. This statement can be supported with three main criteria. First of all, no generation change has taken place yet at the level of university rectors. The majority of this category of administrators grew up in the Soviet time. They have no international experience, no foreign language skills, and they are not aware of contemporary management practices and, therefore, they cannot compare Ukrainian and Western standards.

Nor has the total number of Ukrainian universities and their branches decreased yet, although in case of qualitative changes in higher education system it has to be a dramatic decrease. Finally, Ukrainian higher educational institutions have no short-term prospects to upgrade to decent positions in prestigious international ratings. So, let us try to consider the critical points which stand in the way of the reforms.


The global wave of populism fashion has overwhelmed Ukraine, too. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on important social issues, public debates very often have the nature of superficial political blame games. The politicians wish to look better than their opponents in public. Such behaviour is irresponsible. Instead, all of them together should be dealing with numerous challenges faced by Ukrainian society.

From this perspective, we have to draw attention to the positive undertakings done by all the Cabinets of Ministers which were implementing a certain educational policy. At least, as experts and activists we should encourage the government to act consistently when implementing such a policy.

For instance: when the first team of the Cabinet of Ministers, including myself, was starting its work after the Revolution of Dignity on Feb. 27, 2014, there was only $ 10,706 available on the unified treasury account (According to the Letter #10-04/67– 3992 from the State Treasury Service of Ukraine, dated 10/03/2017, this sum was 108,133.65 hryvnias). So, at that time Ukraine was a complete bankrupt.

However, we were enacting important laws, evacuating universities and academic institutes out of the occupied territories, and changing the rules of the game in favour of more transparent and democratic ones. One of the greatest achievements of the Government at that time was the energy independence of Ukraine from Russia.

Nowadays the Ministry of Education and Science is also making efforts to concentrate on the most important issues. For example, in 2017 the salaries in the educational sector were doubled, the regional financing of the educational infrastructure was substantially increased (these are also positive outcomes of decentralization policy).

Specific attention is being paid to articulation of the conceptual bases for the secondary school reform. The draft Law “On Education” was adopted in the first reading by the Parliament. It outlines structural and other important changes in Ukrainian system of education. We need to understand the logic of the processes in this field to make effective impact on them.

There is the very simple truth. An educational reform can only be integrated in a holistic way. It is impossible to change certain elements of a system while ignoring the others. Moreover, in this case one can hardly expect tangible consequences. As a result, the overall picture will not change. All other issues derive from this problem in this or that way.


In Ukraine, the situation with observing academic integrity is the worst part of the problem. The first efforts to overcome such flagrant violations as plagiarism led to aggressive reactions from a large group of fake researchers who would say “Why not?” Even when obvious examples of plagiarism are detected, such as illegal use of big parts of somebody else’s text, even when the “borrowed” text exceeds a hundred of pages, or even when about 30 percent of a dissertation is stolen, in Ukraine it is still possible to simply vote for this case not to be judged as plagiarism at different administration levels.

Some of such authors go to court which can judge: plagiarism should not be considered as plagiarism. Even if a theft of somebody else’s thoughts was officially proved and publicly confirmed, it hardly results in any negative effects for the university or political career of such individuals.

The most obvious illustration of tolerance to plagiarism within Ukrainian academic community is the presence of plagiarists in the National Agency for Quality Assurance of Higher Education. Taking into account the important powers which the Agency has (such as licensing, accrediting, and elaboration of quality assessment criteria in education), it becomes clear that under such circumstances no true reforms in Ukrainian higher education can take place.

The problem of academic culture is so grave that it cannot be settled by some separate decisions only. It takes time to change. What is fundamental to succeed in the battle for academic integrity is, first of all, intolerability to plagiarism among academia itself.

However, it is also important to make right decisions. For example, the present team of the National Agency for Quality Assurance of Higher Education must be dissolved. New elections should be announced only after relevant changes are made in the current Law “On Higher Education”; specifically, in the part providing for more concrete requirements to the Agency members and the election procedure.

Higher education in Ukraine is still viewed as something separate from scientific research. The main problem lies in the blind conservative position of the leadership of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU) who is not an agent of changes and ignore implementation of the Law “On Science and Research” (2015).

Higher education (universities under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Science) is not integrated with academic research (research institutes under the NASU’s jurisdiction); the organizational activities of the NASU, whose rules of functioning were determined back in Stalin’s time, do not change in democratic direction; the creation of new administrative bodies is procrastinated; policy and regulatory acts are adopting with great delays; and state policy on scientific research is not yet being developed, as it is requested by the above-mentioned Law.

Accordingly, the establishment of Ukrainian world class universities which would be competitive at an international level is postponed for an indefinite period of time. Increased financing of scientific research in Ukraine should be resulting from, not contrary to the objectives of science reform.

The problem of vocational education must be resolved. As far back as 2015, the Ministry of Education and Science prepared drafted a Law “On Vocational Education”. In line with the best world practices, it was called to radically reform the Soviet network of the so-called specialized secondary and vocational institutions toward the creation of new type of vocational institutions with different educational levels, many professions, and much bigger size. The main decisions concerning development or rejection of certain occupations in different regions of Ukraine must be taken by regional councils of stakeholders which should include the largest employers, representatives of local authorities, vocational educational institutions, of course, and experts.

To date, there are still efforts to regulate colleges and technical secondary schools by the Law “On Higher Education”, which is a conceptual nonsense since this Law was developed specifically to regulate the level of university education. Unfortunately, the Committee for Science and Education at the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine is involved in these games.

The following question emerges from the previous problem: what do we exactly mean when speaking about universities? If the total number of higher educational institutions and their branches (which, in practice, are separate higher educational institutions) in Ukraine is over 900, we cannot seriously discuss the implementation of the Law “On Higher Education” with all of them. Since the main goal of the majority of them is diploma trade in various forms, rather than achievement of the excellence.

We should start from the fact that the main distinguishing feature of universities is to undertake research activities. The argument about an analogy between Ukrainian higher educational institutions and Western teaching universities also does not stand criticism because teaching universities have completely different design and purpose.

As a result, preserved is the phenomenon of rector feudalism (which we forecasted while drafting the Law “On Higher Education” back in 2012), when leadership is not regarded a team concept but is tied only to charismatic traits of a single person; also the absence of culture of internal quality control (this correlates with the above-mentioned problems of the National Agency for Quality Assurance of Higher Education which has to embody external quality control of higher education).

We can also observe unwillingness of many universities to reduce the teaching workload for instructors and classroom load for students, to modify the organization of learning process, to implement real electivity of academic disciplines in practice, or to reform aspirantura/post-graduate education (PhD programmes). They tend to ignore the demands concerning the use of Ukrainian and English languages and the requirements for publications in academic journals listed in internationally acknowledged bibliographic databases; to hinder the creation of fully-functioning student self-governance, and so on.

We need to understand that the mentioned problems are related to the fact that in contemporary Ukraine higher education plays a role of a big social project. While in Soviet times only 20% of school graduates were accepted to universities, nowadays about 80% of school graduates become students. For comparison, in OECD countries (the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) this figure reaches 30 %.

The problem is that it is hard for school graduates to find a well-paid job on the labour market in conditions of economic crises, which is why they pass the time in universities getting wildcat diplomas from pseudo-universities instead of getting education. However, no explanation can abolish the demands to higher education to undergo reforms aimed at creating Word Class universities in Ukraine. It is a demand placed by modern society, by Ukrainian industry and by global competition. So, our priorities have to be the realisation of the concepts of a knowledge society, a learning society, and an innovation economy.


How can we breathe new life into the higher education reform? First of all, with the help of economic levers, by cancelling the practices of placing a o ordering” for university students which is another kind of Stalin’s heritage. State support of universities does not stop. It only must become effective. Here, I would like to remind of the “Conceptual Model of Financing State Higher Educational Institutions based on their Performance”, which was presented by CEDOS analytical centre on March 8, 2016, and the related public debates in previous years.

Instead of non-transparent and incomprehensible system of state ordering, the Ministry of Education and Science proposed to implement new concepts: basic financing alongside with a social fund, a development fund, and a fund of state targeted support. Last year two laws were drafted: “On Making Amendments to Some Laws of Ukraine on Financing of Higher Education (on Economic Relationships in the Sphere of Higher Education)” and “On the Amendments to the Budget Code of Ukraine on Financing of Higher Educational Institutions”.

These were only the first steps. We need to strengthen the requirements to the university status (concerning academic research, labour market demand, including regional dimensions, the benefits for local communities, etc) — simultaneously intensifying their financial and organizational autonomy. This should result in consolidation and higher quality of Ukrainian universities, as well as in massive closure of low-quality higher educational institutions and their branches. At the same time, the size of a university itself is not crucial.

Finally, issues of education and research are not the part of the political agenda in Ukraine. This indicates a lack of perspective thinking and insufficient personal educational level of Ukrainian politicians. Even if they have learned to talk about the strategic importance of education for Ukrainian society, they do not think and do in such way.


To sum up, let us reiterate the axiom: unless education reform is system-oriented, it will not succeed at all. The Ministry will not be able to control the reformed Ukrainian universities in a manual manner (though the university managers are used to it). In a similar way, authoritarian forms of individual rector regimes should fade away.

Renewed universities will be of interest to stakeholders: first of all, to the state, but also to businesses, instructors, students, parents, and local communities. That is why the boards of trustees will be playing a much more important role. Legal incomings will increase: teachers’ and employees’ salaries will be limited not by the state, but by their own abilities to earn. So, reputation will become the main capital, and informal incomings (various forms of bribery) will disappear forever.

It’s also important to mention that higher education reform will definitely result in higher quality of private higher educational institutions and healthy competition between state and private universities. State funds will be targeted at high-quality educational programmes in private sector, and public higher educational institutions will have broader opportunities to involve private funds.

Along with academic autonomy, Ukrainian universities must receive complete financial and organizational autonomy. Public interest lies in the quality of national universities, rather than in the control over all operational processes. Then, the state will rely on its universities when protecting national interests in different areas. Ukrainian universities, in their turn, will satisfy the actual demands of the society and national industry in highly-qualified human resources, expertise, and innovations.

All these reforms will become possible provided that Ukrainian political class becomes more responsible for the future of its country.

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