The paradoxes of post-Soviet world: education and research Ukraine in the context of the current political situation

Speech at the Atlantic Council on May, 23, Washington, DC.

Immediately after the Revolution of Dignity in the years 2014-2016, I led the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine. As such, it is fairly easy for me to do a review of the major changes, achievements and obstacles faced by Ukraine in the implementation of educational reforms. Our common priorities are: universal access to quality education; the decentralization of governance; the autonomy of educational institutions; deregulation; reduction in bureaucracy; public-private partnership and state-community management. The Revolution served to set the bar very high for educational reforms in Ukraine. Despite the economic crisis, the demands to the government by society still exist and we have the confidence to meet them.

The Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine now welcomes a new Minister, Liliya Hrynevych. It is important to note that despite Minister Hrynevych and I belonging to different political forces, we have worked for many years as a part of the same team, defending the interests of education community. Therefore, there exists continuity in the reform process of Ukrainian science and education. Moreover, I have every reason to believe that among the political forces represented in Parliament, with the exception of outspoken pro-Russian and populist MPs, there are not fundamental differences in views on the content of educational reforms. It is for this reason that when it was time to vote for new and progressive laws, like the law “On Higher Education” (2014) and ” On Science and Research ” (2015), it was not difficult to find voices of support.

There are many challenges that hinder the reform of education and science in Ukraine. At the top of the list is the post-Soviet consciousness of the much of our politicians. Even if they had already begun to improve public rhetoric, scientific research and education are not political priorities for most of them. With this in mind, education experts wrote a draft law “On education,” highlighting the special position of education as one of the main priorities of the Ukrainian state. I predict that prioritization of education on the political agenda not really come soon. The state budget intended for education and research is still treated as expenses rather than as an investment in the future of Ukrainian society.

It is also worth mentioning a significant problem in the management structure in Ukraine. For example, the Ministry is responsible for all levels of education and research. According to European models, it is necessary to divide control of education into at least two parts: the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of National Education (roughly) that would include pre-school, secondary, extra-curricular, vocational education and adult education. These kinds of managerial problems are not on the political agenda as of yet. The general opinion is: if Ukraine is not able to fund important national projects required for the reform of science and education, then this period, after the success of the Revolution of Dignity, is the best time to make systemic changes that enhance the rules of the game.

In practice, this means trying to liquidate post-Soviet management approaches, changing the post-Soviet network of educational institutions and research institutes, and making some structural and infrastructural changes. The most systematic reform in science and education were discussed and approved by the National Council reforms number 12 in October 2015. The National Council reforms included the President as a head, also Prime Minister, Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine, and all of the current ministers. It also involved the deputies of Ukraine, leading representatives of the expert community, the public and journalists. Therefore, its decisions and its ability to monitor the implementation of basic items outlines government policy and carries considerable weight.

To implement the necessary reforms requires a number of priority laws that make it possible to change the way of academic life. In addition to the already adopted law «On Higher Education» and «On Science and Research», a new draft law «On Education» and bill «On Vocational Education» are currently in Verkhovna Rada for review. In the near future we hope to bring to the Parliament a draft law on a new way of higher education funding. Our goal is full financial autonomy of universities, regardless of the source of such financing.

We have to understand, that most laws still do not change the reality of academic life. In the post-Soviet world, which we work hard to pull ourselves out of, there is a big difference between formal laws and regulations – and the actual practice of their application. I would like to dwell on higher education and scientific research, as we have for almost two years been implementing the first relevant law and have begun implementing the second. The reform of higher education is based on the main idea of ​​comprehensive university autonomy. During the implementation of the law “On Higher Education,” we created an appropriate regulatory framework that established academic autonomy, greatly expanding the limits of the financial and organizational autonomy of higher education institutions.

Now the university itself formulates the list of educational programs and their content, taking responsibility for organizing the learning process. In the end, it is the university that is responsible for the quality of learning, teaching, research and professional skills of its graduates. The University cooperates closely with the labor market, recognizes the foreign diplomas of their teachers, and opens current and deposit accounts in banks. At the heart of the new system of awarding degrees and academic titles are the international scientometric criteria which began the process of integration of higher education and research, two fields which had been dramatically separated by the Soviet authorities back in the 1920s. Instead of the post-Soviet system of aspirantura, we are transitioning into structural PhD programs.

However, a significant number of universities do not take advantage of university autonomy because their leadership is unwilling to take responsibility for making decisions and do not focus on quality of education. We often deal with different institutions that are called universities, but they bear this title in name only. Conservative management, passive teachers, and indifferent students – these are also some of the realities of modern Ukraine.

Over the past two years the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine has been the main initiator for the introduction of university autonomy and the fight against plagiarism, which is quite strange. The explanation is simple: after the victory of the Revolution of Dignity, the Ministry was comprised of those who were in opposition to the previous political regime.

Today, university autonomy is rarely implemented and when it is, sometimes it takes shape in ugly and comical forms, something we call “rector feudalism.” We have numerous cases where the university community do not use democratic tools provided by the law “On Higher Education”. If the Ministry of Education is trying to introduce new practices of academic life, some conservative rectors can quite easily win the court and leave practices largely unchanged at their institutions.

I have one more example. The elections for the National Agency of quality assurance were corrupt. So, as the Minister, I could not recognize the results of the election. In order for a fundamentally new reality in this Ukrainian academic body to work, we must go through changes and refinements to existing legislation. In particular, the law “On Higher Education” was written in a Ukrainian academic environment led by the Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk. In those times we were focused on protecting universities against an arbitrary Ministry. Now we are faced with attempts to keep the university system at the status-quo. This is a political problem.

At present Ukrainian society continues the struggle between the new-requesting revolutionary changes – and passive conservatism. The same people who came to the Maidan and achieved the overthrow of the previous government really want changes, but not always when this means making changes to the status-quo in their own professional realities. This traces the legacy of the Soviet consciousness. In a society there exists two parts: a nation of volunteers, who won the Revolution of Dignity and stopped Russian military aggression, and a community of individuals who can only lament the injustice. They have not learned to use existing mechanisms to influence important decisions and monitor their implementation. Indeed, they wait for the intervention of some magical force, like a “justice state” to remedy the unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The second problem, which is a reflection of the first – is a specific feature of post-Soviet societies in which certain practices, old habits if you will, often dominate applicable laws and regulations. Therefore, after the victory over the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, there are still many politicians and public servants who wish to continue to operate as they did under Yanukovych and his party, including the utilization of authoritarian approaches and corruption. Although we see tangible results in the reform of the national police, the creation of a new justice system is a much more difficult task.

The third question is one that I really wish to find the answer to. How do we correlate the responsibilities of the Ukrainian state to take actions that are difficult but necessary for progress with the responsibilities of an active civil society? How can we change the political culture of Ukrainian society while the justice system has come to a standstill? With regard to the education and science, we focus on university autonomy, the critical thinking of teachers and students, and the rise of the activity of the academic community to spread their demands and principles to all.

I would like to cite another case related to the reform of the academic sphere. It is about the implementation of the new law “On Science and Research.” Since the present research infrastructure in Ukraine emerged in Stalin’s time, the system requires a truly dramatic change. To illustrate this point, consider the following: the current president of the National Academy of Sciences is 97 years old and has been at the helm of the Academy of Sciences for 54 years in a row. In order to reinvigorate the field of research in Ukraine for the modern era, we are in the process of creating several important bodies in the sphere of science and research. This includes an Identification Committee, a National Council of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation. We are introducing the concept of national policy in research and democratize the decision-making system.

In 2015 Ukraine became an associated member of the European research and innovation program Horizon 2020. Therefore, the basis for optimizing our scientific system includes an independent international audit conducted through the instruments of the European Commission. This audit was somewhat delayed due to the tragic events in Brussels, but it began its work in Ukraine in May and, in early autumn, the results will be ready for us to analyze and learn from. The development of the scientific sphere will take place in the context of the integration of higher education and will also contribute to the creation of high-tech production and development of Ukrainian society. To this end, we promote laws on industrial parks and on technology transfer and innovation.

Returning to the question of the political situation – this depends on what Ukrainian society demands of its authorities and the willingness of the authorities to act decisively and make tough, and even unpopular, decisions when necessary. In my view, there are two distinctive features of Ukrainian society which highlight reasons for confidence in the success of our reforms. Ukrainians believe in justice and have the organic need for freedom of speech. These beliefs led us to victory during the Revolution of Dignity. The keyword here is faith. The next step is for us to rationally understand that the success of any social change relies on prioritizing national education and the advancement of research, both of which are the birthplaces of innovation.

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