Reforming Ukraine’s Universities during Crisis

(Lection at the Center for Russian, East European and Russian Studies of Stanford University, February, 11, 2015)

First of all we should figure out what do we mean by talking about crisis. After the Soviet Union had collapsed – the whole political and economic life of Ukraine could be considered as a permanent crisis.  Even those short periods, which were originally assessed positively, later were characterized as crisis.  In particular, this can be said about the disappointment of inaction of Ukrainian authorities after the Orange Revolution. 

The time of Victor Yanukovych’ regime, with Dmytro Tabachnyk as a minister of education and science heading the humanitarian policy, was by no doubts a crisis for Ukrainian universities. It was characterized by xenophobic attacks on Ukrainian language, history and culture in behalf of Russian chauvinism. The corruption had spread incredibly and was centrally controlled right from the Ministry.

From a professional point of view the public policy of that time we can call not self-sufficient, such that stemmed from the concept of isolation. We can see the same in Vladimir Putin’s behavior today. However, there is one significant difference – Vladimir Putin puts at the center the interests of Russia as he understands them, Yanukovych’s main goal was his personal enrichment. Thereby Ukrainian universities were doomed to degradation.

Here we must understand that the Soviet system of higher educations and scientific research actually ceased to exist at the end of 1980-s, along with the failure of the totalitarian Soviet system to control all aspects of university life. The new system is in the process of creation now, after the Euromaidan (the Revolution of Dignity). In particular, the new progressive law “On Higher Education” was passed by the Parliament last summer.

Its implementation is one of the main objectives of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. I would like to talk about several illustrative case studies that characterize these processes.

The first one is the very name of our Ministry – the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. It contains a serious contradiction. In the 1920’s the Soviet government has separated the scientific research from higher education, dramatically breaking the structure of Ukrainian universities and the infrastructure of scientific research. This way it was easier to control the intellectual life and scientific work at universities and research institutes of the National Academy of Sciences.

It means that now in Ukraine we have to perform a really important mission – to integrate higher education into scientific research and research into universities, because they cannot exist apart. We plan to unite research and educational institutions, to encourage joint master’s and PhD programs, to finance all research projects in Ukraine from one united fund. Newly passed Law “On Higher Education” helps us in this, as well as the Law “On Science and Scientific Research” that will be considered by the Parliament in March. We need to change the structure of Ukrainian universities and infrastructure of scientific research, as well as to overcome the post-soviet isolation and integrate into global educational and research space.

The second major case is about the introduction of the universities’ autonomy in Ukraine. The basis of the Law “On Higher Education” is the principle of university autonomy – academic, financial and organizational. Ukrainian academic community, experts, social activists, leaders of student organizations, trade unions and journalists were developing this Concept of Higher Education since 2005, immediately after the Orange Revolution. We have worked on this Law’s text for 3 years of Victor Yanukovych’s regime that was not easy. And finally the adoption of this Law has become one of the first results of the Revolution of Dignity.

The problem is that Ukrainians are very emotional people. They are so active when it comes to participation in the process of revolution, but they are not active enough in controlling the results. We do not have any problems with the organization of the victorious revolutions, only with their consequences. I mean that we lack a healthy rationalism sometimes. Therefore, university autonomy is important for Ukrainians mostly as an ideal for which we must strive. It is rather a goal, not a reasonable way of achieving quality learning, teaching and research. Such approaches should be changed.

For example, a big media debate over so-called “certain mandatory teaching humanities” has just finished in Ukraine. It is known, that during the Soviet period all universities had to teach a special set of mandatory ideological Marxist-Leninist disciplines.  The goal was to demonstrate political advantages of totalitarian communist system as well as planned economy and exceptional international importance of the Russian language and culture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union this set was changed for a new one – also consisted of mandatory disciplines with the main task entrusted to the History of Ukraine, Ukrainian Language, Philosophy and the History of Ukrainian Culture.

Such approach could be justified in post-Soviet Ukraine, with its heritage of a couple of centuries of russification, communist brainwashing, colonialism and totalitarianism. By the way, the conservation of Soviet political consciousness largely took place in eastern Ukraine, where an undeclared Russian-Ukrainian war is waged right now. This means that local people, affected by the influence of Russian propaganda, feel themselves not Russians opposing Ukraine. They still consider themselves primarily Soviet people who cannot accept the loss of the Soviet Union, with all its symbols and attributes.

We are talking about a humanitarian, ideological problem that in particular should be solved with a help of good education, language skills and the ability to travel the world. And with deep economic reforms of course. Therefore, after the new Law “On Higher Education” was adopted, we began to approach the organization of educational process to global standards.

In particular, it is about a free choice of students to choose the disciplines that are not directly related to their educational specialization and about the competition between faculties within the University. Thus the notion of mandatory subjects should disappear entirely. But in response a huge wave of protests arose, arguing for example that the university autonomy in Ukraine is not the time when students lose the opportunity to listen to mandatory humanities.

It is time for freedom of choice, especially considering the price that was paid for the opportunity to choose. However it is very likely that there will be a certain amount of rectors in Ukraine today, who would say that their universities do not need English or Ukrainian language or other humanities. Later we will talk about the threats that might be carried along with the university autonomy in Ukraine.

Under these circumstances the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine decided to provide guidelines for a transitional period on how the procedures of “choosing” should be carried out at the universities (how students will choose and register for the disciplines of free choice) and on how to reduce the workload of teachers from 900 to 600 hours per year in order to provide them more time for research etc.

For the first time in the history of Ukrainian Independence, the Ministry of Education has got into a weird situation – we encourage and sometimes even force universities to be autonomous. We refuse to provide total control functions, which mainly conservative university management used. Such inconsistencies are temporary. They point to real changes that are taking place in the Ukrainian academic life.

The reforms deepen and bring changes. During one school year after the adoption of the Law “On Higher Education” the number of higher education institutions has dropped from 802 to 317. By the summer it will be about 270 universities. The reduce of total number of higher education institutions is correlated with an increase in quality, provided by various new professional requirements, such as the implementation of the third cycle of education and structured PhD programs, or creating a fundamentally new body under the Cabinet of Ministers – National Agency for Quality of Assurance. The latter will function on the principles of professional independence from the Government and from the universities.

The third case concerns the threats of the new Law. The reform of higher education is primarily the reform of universities themselves. It aims to increase the universities’ quality and competitiveness on a global scale. Ukrainian universities are moving away from the obsessive patronage of the state, including even political control, to complete autonomy in decision making. This reform brings us a number of serious threats. Perhaps the major threat is a possibility of Rector’s feudality when some leaders of universities may decide that they are allowed.

That’s why we have not just to encourage the activity of university communities, but also to create conditions for their true will during the elections of rectors. Previously, there was much room for manipulation of public opinion at the universities by current rectors, who wanted to be re-elected for another term. The Ministry of Education and Science also used to intervene into rector election campaign at the stage of signing contracts.

The new Law “On Higher Education” introduces direct election of rectors in the Ukrainian universities. The right to vote is granted to all full-time professors, as well as staffers and students according to quotas, each 15% of votes respectively. This system replaces voting by general assembly, which was composed of delegates from various departments. The most amount of manipulations occured during delegates selection.

Ukrainians today do not trust in local or central government, which could assign rectors of the universities. Similarly, boards of trustees lack any real influence because it is currently impossible to support universities through open fundraising. That is why the opinion shared by the university community today is the most adequate solution regarding the selection of an acceptable principal candidate.

Soviet anomalies inside public administration system pose another big threat. A lot of government employees demonstrate absolute failure to understand why it is essential that universities are financially independent.  Thus, along with the implementation of new regulations and laws, it’s important to replace people responsible for executive decisions on a national scale.

In today’s Ukraine private universities are not yet in a position to compete with the State ones. The majority of Ukrainians cannot afford paying for higher education. Because private institutions were deprived of any State support the selection process was poor; basically every candidate with the money to pay the fees could be enrolled. In addition to this, almost no academic research was conducted there. The new Law “On Higher Education” gives the State an opportunity to finance private universities. However, for this time most of high-quality universities in Ukraine are the State ones, with only few exceptions.

Since the beginning of 2015 Ukrainian state universities and research institutes finally got the right to open accounts in banks and to be served in banks. Before now it was possible only through the State Treasury. The decision was preceded by a real lobbying war. But eventually the Government has made the right decision because academic autonomy is impossible without financial autonomy.

Raising the additional funds for the development of higher education and research is one of the primary tasks for leaders of scientific schools and heads of educational institutions. A very interesting case regarding the relations between the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine and “Volkswagen” International Corporation, took place in January 2015. Its representatives appealed to the Ministry for support of its many years traditional project of financing cooperation of Ukrainian, Russian and German research institutions.

We have responded with a proposal to slightly shift the emphasis of the project and to support the cooperation between Ukrainian and German institutions, including those of our institutions that have been evacuated from the occupied territories and from war-struck regions of Ukraine. There are already 25 such institutions (including 16 universities). However, “Volkswagen” has ended the dialog with the Ministry and announced call for proposals in the original version, which contained the participation of the Russians.

As it is not the question of supporting cooperation of independent critical thinking intellectuals from the three countries, but the question of scientific and technical cooperation, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine has issued a public statement and called Ukrainian researchers for a boycott of “Volkswagen” competition. We must remember that Putin’s Russia is the aggressor country. Ukraine is waging a war in the military front – against the Russian army. It is also a struggle for essential reforms of the whole social life.

Returning to the title of my speech, I would like to note that there is no crisis in Ukraine. This word is nothing but a euphemism widespread in the west. In very deed my country was first robbed by a former president’s gang, then was attacked by largest army in Europe and now we are fighting a war for our Independence. Ukraine is at war, a real war though undeclared. So we really need help. Expressing our gratitude to American people and to the entire international community for their various supports, I would like to tell about the kind of help we need in the academic field. This applies to those spheres in which Ukraine is not experienced enough.

First of all, the increase of innovation culture level should be hold through sharing experience, seminars, round tables and workshops involving American experts.  Also relevant innovative disciplines (such as innovation and investment management, competitiveness management, innovative economy etc.) should be implemented in Ukrainian universities.

The second is the development of venture business. US companies engaged in venture capital activities could contribute to the partnership with “The fund for small business innovation support” – an innovative non-bank State financial and credit institution, managed by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine.

Thirdly, we propose to discuss the possibility of establishing a join Ukrainian-American project for organizing foresight scientific research, familiarizing Ukrainian universities’ supervisors and persons responsible for departments dealing with intellectual property protection and technology transfer with the way the commercialization of modern technical advances work on the basis of major USA universities.

Fourthly, the mechanisms and tools of state support for commercialization of the latest technological advances should be studied by experts from those Ukrainian ministries which form the innovative and economic policy. I mean here the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Economy and Ministry of Finance.

The fifth is that universities’ labs and special research institutions require significant hardware upgrade.  The equipment does not necessarily have to be new, but it is really important for us to get this kind of support today.

These are our main proposals for possible support and cooperation. Ukrainian people have won the Dignity Revolution. We have crushed the Yanukovych’s totalitarian regime, backed by Putin’s regime. And now we are on the right way to the most important reforms. I believe that Ukrainian universities will complete the necessary system changes and will compete with the best universities in the world.

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