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An anti-education Ministry of Education

A new post by NaUKMA President Serhiy Kvit on University World News

 

 

News about higher education in Ukraine over the past few years has been mostly about whether or not the Ministry of Education has managed to undermine the high education system again. But Ukrainian higher education still needs fundamental reforms.

There is no demand in the job market for some 20% of professions offered by the education system, and 18% of higher education graduates cannot find work. But some political analysts still claim that ‘Western standards’ are harmful to Ukrainian education and that we should pay more attention to the ‘Soviet experience’.

New law on higher education

Over the past two years, experts and the public have focused their attention on the proposed Law on Higher Education. On 12 June, the parliamentary committee on science and education decided by a majority of votes to recommend the passing of the Draft Law of the ‘Zhurovsky working group’, submitted by independent MP Viktor Baloha.

Although most members of the committee belong to opposition parties and there was another draft law submitted by opposition MPs, the committee supported the draft law from the ‘Zhurovsky working group’ – which was based on expert views and not associated with any particular parliamentary faction.

This demonstrates politicians’ ability to accept a compromise on higher education reforms.

The Ministry of Education, which supports a Soviet-style draft law devised by three rectors, was not happy with the decision and started a new, behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit the alternative draft laws. Its main plank of opposition is to anything that promotes university autonomy.

There is broad support among experts, politicians and journalists for the draft law devised by the ‘Zhurovsky working group’, and this is a considerable achievement. The draft law has the full support of students, except student organisations controlled by the ministry, and in most instances it has the support of the media.

The need for higher education reform is supported not only by independent experts and the political opposition – for instance, the head of the committee on science and education Liliya Hrynevych – but also by representatives of the left (ex-education minister Stanislav Nikolayenko), representatives of the Party of Regions (MP Serhiy Tyhipko) and even some communists.

Cross-over admissions

The issue of ‘cross-over admissions’ is an important indicator of Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk’s attitude to Ukrainian higher education. The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (KMA), which I lead, has allowed cross-over admissions since 1996 – the year it launched Ukraine's first masters programmes.

The system of cross-over admissions is based on Western university practices and allows graduates of any bachelor programme to apply to any masters programme. Students must only ensure that they keep within particular university requirements and take into account any exceptions established by national legislation.

In the former Soviet Union there were no cross-over admissions because students were not allowed to decide their own path of studies. Students had to follow a unified study plan depending on their specialisation.

The term ‘cross-over admissions’ appeared in Ukraine as part of the debate on student mobility and interdisciplinarity. Post-Soviet countries like Russia and Belorussia allowed cross-over admissions even without revising laws; the change only required decrees of the Minister of Education and executive orders.

But the situation in Ukraine is totally different; despite 17 years of positive experience at KMA, the ministry has prohibited cross-over admissions. In court, the lawyer representing the ministry argued that cross-over admissions were illegal and would undermine professionalism.

The ministry also launched a media campaign against cross-over admissions. Honourable rectors told people such admissions were impossible and harmed higher education and that Ukraine was not ready for such changes.

But, under pressure from experts and the media, the Ministry of Education announced a trial of cross-over admissions in June to see whether they could be useful. This experiment will start on 1 September 2013 in 12 Ukrainian universities. KMA, of course, has not been included in this list. So, the minister is now casting off any responsibility for blocking implementation of this progressive move.

Independent external evaluation

Ukrainian experts are also worried about attempts by the ministry to compromise or abolish the system of independent external evaluation – a centralised way of testing school students’ knowledge before they are admitted to university.

As corruption in Ukrainian education is high, this testing is conducted independently of schools and universities. Independent external evaluation is the only planned innovation in the Ukrainian education system since the Soviet Union collapsed. All Ukrainian society supports it and treats its implementation as a higher education reform.

The ministry and a considerable number of rectors, however, are aiming to compromise independent external evaluation and downplay its significance in order to reinstate the old system of admissions examination, which was the basis for educational corruption in Soviet times.

Those lobbying against independent external evaluation use speculative arguments about Western universities’ rights to establish their own admissions requirements. Western universities do have such rights. But to implement the same system in Ukraine requires reform of the higher education system that focuses universities on academic quality and rids it of corruption.

The ministry’s actions regarding higher education reform, through promoting the draft law of the three rectors in particular, does not lead us to expect competitive high quality universities in Ukraine any time soon.

Academic teaching loads

A big achievement of the education community was blocking an initiative that would have increased academics' teaching load. Currently teaching loads are calculated based on the number of students per academic, with the average being one academic to 11 students.

Even under existing standards, many university teaching staff are considerably overworked. They spend too much time in the classroom and do not have enough time for research.

On average, they spend over 80% of working time teaching. The remaining 20% must be shared between administrative work and research. Very often teaching takes up all of their time and research flies out the window.

It is difficult to find out who exactly suggested increasing the teaching load to an average ratio of 1:18.

In April, Minister Tabachnyk stated that the standard teaching load in Ukraine is lower than that in Western Europe and should be increased. He argued that lecturers in other countries are responsible for a higher number of students and based his assertions on UNESCO reports.

The minister does not differentiate between the compulsory standards that apply in Ukraine and statistical information. Moreover, only in the post-Soviet region do salaries of professors depend on the number of students at the university where they work, not on the employment contract they sign with the university, which reflects their professional achievements including research and publications.

Trade unions, experts, politicians, the media and student organisations immediately opposed the proposals. They feared such ‘reforms’ would end up with over 30% of university faculty fired, a rapid decrease in education quality and a damaging impact on society.

The plans failed this time. But what should those working in higher education in Ukraine expect in the future?

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