Leading academics warn that Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk’s attempts to centralize control over universities is hindering their work and dragging Ukraine away from European standards in higher education.
Educators and officials from Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, two of the country’s leading institutions, said that reducing their independence by introducing greater control over financing and curriculums would damage the quality of teaching and research.
Experts said such moves contradicted the Bologna Process, an attempt to align European education systems which emphasizes university autonomy.
A parliament committee in February rejected Tabachnyk’s draft legislation for further central control following protests by academics and students.
But the minister, seen by many as pro-Russian in his views, appears to be pushing ahead with his plans despite protest.
Hanna Herman, a senior adviser to President Viktor Yanukovych, told the Kyiv Post that a redrafted bill will give universities the right to self-determination and will be in line with Yanukovych’s often-stated European Union integration objective.
The draft bill that she referred to is to appear on the education ministry’s website soon.
Even before Tabachnyk’s controversial bill was turned back by lawmakers, leading academics were complaining that the Education Ministry was tightening its control over university jobs and courses.
“Universities have had to document the curriculum much more precisely than before,” said Serhiy Kvit, director of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
“There has been much tighter control of what we are teaching,” said Mykhailo Zgurovsky, rector of KPI.
Mychailo Wynnyckyj, an associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said academic staff could now only receive additional payments for jobs that are officially recognized by the Education Ministry, even if funded from private sources.
Ukrainian Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk
“We are not allowed to have, for instance, the position of director of the doctoral school. Therefore, even from private sources, the doctoral school director can’t be paid extra money for doing this job,” he said.
Wynnyckyj and Zgurovsky also said it was more difficult to get permission from the ministry to run courses that had previously received approval.
The ministry, they said, has also set which subjects students need to pass in their final university entrance exams in order to take a particular course at university. Universities themselves used to set the requirement.
For example, Kyiv-Mohyla required English, but now it cannot enforce that rule.
Both KPI and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy said they have had their state funding cut. Kvit indicated these cuts could have been punishment for speaking out and not implementing demands of the ministry.
KPI ranked second and Kyiv-Mohyla ninth in the Compass ranking of Ukraine’s universities.
Wynnyckyj alleged that by regimenting teaching, the Education Ministry was preventing universities from training critical thinkers, which is seen as the aim of a modern European education system.
Critics say minister punishing educators who raise objections
A spokeswoman for Tabachnyk had not responded by late Aug. 25 to a detailed set of questions from the Kyiv Post sent by email on Aug. 12.
He has frequently insisted that any reforms are aimed at providing universities with greater autonomy and integrating the education system with Europe.
Student activists and academics warn that further negative changes could be ahead, even if Tabachnyk’s draft legislation is watered down.
The original bill proposed that the Education Ministry will set the content of courses, set a strict list of which courses can be offered, and take greater control over staffing and financial issues.
“Implementation of any of the stated articles will mean a permanent establishment of ministry control and stagnation in the process of achieving greater autonomy,” said Yegor Stadny, a student who is actively involved in the protests against the draft law.
Increased central control over the country’s educational establishments – whether a revised draft of the law is passed or not – could threaten the integration of Ukraine’s education system into Europe.
Rolph Gollob, a Swiss education expert to the Council of Europe, said that university autonomy, “in the sense of universities determining the nature of their courses, the content of their teaching and the management of their resources, is the very basis for Bologna.”
Ukraine joined the Bologna process, intended to harmonize European countries’ education systems, in 2005.
“Autonomy is a precondition for quality science, innovation and good education. The first and most essential element of Bologna is a comparability of quality. But quality is only guaranteed when there is autonomy,” he added.
This could have negative effects for Ukraine’s students, Gollob said, as they could find it harder to get job or a place on a higher degree course abroad.
Tabachnyk’s actions and proposals have also received criticism from within the authorities.
Herman, the presidential adviser, said the decision that Kyiv Mohyla should not be allowed to require a high level of English or teach in English was a mistake.
Hanna Herman, senior adviser to President Viktor Yanukovych.
“If we are integrating into the European Union, if we want world-class experts, then we should be teaching in English,” she said.
Experts said the Education Ministry is trying to improve quality across the board by taking greater control of the country’s notoriously corrupt universities.
This could, however, lead to a situation where “the worst universities might even get better, but the better universities get worse when controlled,” said a top official from one leading university, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Wynnyckyj argued that Tabachnyk’s predecessors had already failed to implement major changes to harmonize Ukraine’s education system with Europe’s.
He said, for instance, that degrees had been renamed to match European guidelines, but the content of the courses hadn’t changed.
Herman said that any financial pressure being placed on universities was possible only in a system where state funding is given and taken away, depending on what and whom the ministry likes.
Christina Penzola-Vitovych, an education expert at the American Council, a U.S.-funded organization that promotes education in Ukraine, said the system needs a fundamental overhaul if it is to conform to European standards.
“To change the way in which the system of education works in Ukraine you have to change the system itself,” she said.