To have a complete view of the higher education system in Ukraine, an account of student movements is essential. Ukraine has a large number of youth organisations that draw attention to problems in higher education.
The website of the Ministry of Education and Science lists 88 organisations, but they represent only a small proportion of the real number. Among them are professional, trade union, scout and political groups, as well as various student-led organisations.
Their main feature is that they were established by young people – or launched by those who ‘work with youth’. Therefore, the agenda of these organisations is often formed either by independent volunteers or directly by the government.
What is the ‘voice of universities’?
Active Ukrainian students do not totally understand the different constituencies that universities represent. On 21 July, at the All-Ukrainian Student Forum of Regional Coordinators, I answered this question in the following way: first, universities represent the research body; second, they represent expert knowledge; third, they are official institutions with their own established positions; and finally, they represent student voices.
In some cases, representatives of student movements can participate in the expert knowledge process. They did so when the draft law on higher education was being elaborated.
In a previous blog, I mentioned the report Inclusion of the Ukrainian System of Higher Education in the European Higher Education and Research Area, in which the Ukrainian Association of Students’ Self-Administration was featured.
Ukrainian universities normally dare not speak as public experts on issues that are of interest to the whole society. It is a popular misconception in Ukrainian society that universities have their own expert opinion. It is the state government that speaks for them.
That is why the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Kyiv Polytechnic Institute were the only higher education institutions participating in the struggle for the new progressive draft law on higher education.
Only a handful of universities protested against the draft law on fundamentals of language policy in Ukraine, which is now being actively promoted in parliament by forces that favour the ruling party. The legislation is aimed at furthering the ‘Russification’ policy, which started in Ukraine more than 300 years ago.
Among the protesting universities were the Ukrainian Catholic University, the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, and the Ostrih Academy. Nevertheless, only the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy is currently working on a deep analysis of the draft law.
Student action should target universities
When higher education institutions are passive, students’ voices sometimes become the voice of Ukrainian universities. Student movements should not just focus on external social transformation. Ukraine’s universities need drastic change themselves. Therefore, student activity should target universities more.
Firstly, they need to focus on democratising the administrative processes, introducing university autonomy and establishing high-quality Ukrainian universities.
The Centre for Society Research says the Ukrainian student movement is the most successful in Europe. In 2011, it documented student participation in 121 public protests in Ukraine. Most of these protests were part of the Campaign against the Degradation of Higher Education, and were aimed at preventing the enactment of the new draft law on higher education initiated by the Ministry of Education and Science in 2010.
The campaign was initiated by the independent student trade union Priama Diya (Direct Action), the public movement Vidsich(Rebuff) and the Foundation of Regional Initiatives.
It is worth mentioning that other youth groups, as well as higher education and school students, their parents and teachers, participated in the actions held in Kyiv and different regions of Ukraine. Among other organisations, the authors of the research mentioned the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda (Freedom), Opir(Resistance) and the Democratic Alliance.
In 2011-12 the Ukrainian student movement was victorious. In particular, the authoritarian draft law on higher education was stopped, a new working team was organised and the text of the new progressive draft law was elaborated and passed by the Ukrainian government on 25 July.
Students also managed to get most of their social and economic demands met, either by public bodies or by university administrators.
Although the achievements of the student movement are quite considerable, the authors of the research conclude that it is still far from being as strong as European student movements are. European students are better at communicating with other protest groups, their actions are much more radical, and their protest actions engage many more participants.
The victories of Ukrainian students are due to the fragility of the government rather than the strength of a well-organised movement.
The student movement and universities
What keeps a student movement from developing?
At first sight, the cause is obvious: the student movement in general demonstrates a lack of understanding of current Ukrainian social, economic and political realities. As a result, students often forget how important qualitative transformations in their own universities are. In spite of being successful at a national level, they do not have enough rights in universities.
Second, this has a negative impact on university autonomy, because autonomy can only be achieved through common efforts by the whole university community – academics, students and staff.
Third, the student movement often copies Western models without critically analysing them. For example, its representatives tend to connect negative processes in higher education with neo-liberal trends in politics. Ukrainian realities are quite different. Discussions on the ‘disadvantages of liberalism’ are not the most pressing issue in Ukraine now.
The problems of Ukrainian higher education are connected with post-soviet and post-colonial throwbacks such as corruption, fear of real competition at national and global levels, a distorted infrastructure, and the post-colonial narrowness of Ukrainian political leaders, who are not able to understand the importance of science and educational development for the formation of an effective modern state.
Fourth, a Ukrainian university has special importance as a social institute that has a central role in the state reformation process. The student movement neglects the social weight and impact of our universities and is too influenced by ideological factors.
Fifth, these ideological factors misinform the broad student public. For example, critical theory is confused with critical thinking in general. Ukrainian universities are often presented as an objectification of power in a wholly negative way and as an instrument for personal enrichment at students’ cost.
Market mechanisms in post-totalitarian Ukraine should be considered from the liberal position of the concept of the ‘free market of ideas’ and ‘free market’ principles for relations between higher education institutions. This could result in the growth of university quality and competitiveness. Corruption should not be presented as a demon or an invincible evil; instead, it must be eliminated by necessary reforms.
Young people love talking about revolution. Nevertheless, in Ukraine there is not just one revolution. The first revolution is a social one and is about making the system of government fairer and more effective. The second is a national revolution, focused on the struggle for Ukrainian independence, language and culture.
This kind of division is a huge mistake. A national revolution cannot happen without a social one, and the converse is also true. The success of the Campaign against the Degradation of Higher Education can be explained by the uniting of ‘right’ (Vidsich) and ‘left’ (Priama Diya) organisations.
The provocative draft law on fundamentals of language policy, proposed by the Party of Regions and the communists as parliamentary elections approached, was vigorously opposed by the public movement Vidsich, while Priama Diya was totally indifferent.
However, a properly functioning civil society would not ignore a government’s attempts to discriminate against the Ukrainian language, especially in higher education and research. This issue is of the same importance as social needs in areas such as healthcare. It also resulted in student hunger strikes in Kyiv, which gained media coverage.
Social, economic, national and cultural demands in post-colonial Ukraine should be part of one big movement. By coming together, Ukrainians can help the country emerge from the politics of ‘blackmail’ and from a state that is corrupted by oligarchs, and move it towards a more effective and fairer democratic system.
There is no doubt that student movements will play a really important, maybe even a decisive, role in such change.