13:03 8/12/2017
Education reform adopted on September 5 has certainly reformed Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors in Eastern Europe - long before changing its own education system. Forcing the country’s minorities to adapt to a new school routine, the new law will also affect many young lives in the province, where a dramatic lack of quality education leaves the rising generation with a hard choice between home and voluntary exile in search of a better life, both futures equally unclear.

As the heat of public debates and diplomatic scandals cools down, the prospects of Ukrainian education do not promise any easy ways. Putting his sign under the law, President Poroshenko gave another green light to the unrestrained ‘neo-Ukrainization’ policy (resembled, for instance, in language quotas for television and radio) bearing a lot of purely radical traits. ‘Decommunization’ announced after Euromaidan has already resulted in demolished and vandalized symbols of the Soviet era and had been warmly received by many Ukrainian media and numerous far-right forces along with the like-minded part of society. Despite of such ‘renovation hype’ accompanying every new effort at erasing the unwanted past, the newest law-making initiatives were mostly promoted by politicians interested in their implementation. If healthcare and pension reforms can (to some extent) be seen more as economic steps with a more specific purpose, reformatting the education system inevitably leads to diverse transformations in broader society, affecting its intellectual deposits.

In 1996, Ukrainian Parliament adopted an education law ordering to allocate at least 10% of GDP for education. Although this never happened, the closest match was set in 2009 with 8,2%, but since then the number had been gradually decreasing and reached the current 5,4%. (19,75 bn UAH, or about 6 bn EUR). Although (according to UN) Ukraine was ranked 36th among 188 countries for the accessibility of education and literacy of the population, the ranking does not assess the quality of tuition.

Primary and secondary education

Experts of CEDOS thin tank believe the problem of quality derives from irrational distribution of resources. If many developed countries spend more on secondary and post-secondary education, Ukraine gives priority to higher education. In 2014, 29% of education budget was invested in universities (III-IV levels of accreditation – institutes, academies, universities), 18% - in basic secondary schools (5-11 grades), but only 6% had been reserved for institutions of I-II levels of accreditation (technical schools, colleges). Ministry of Education offers to address the issue by allocating 7% of GDP instead of 5%. This must help raise teachers’ salaries and improve the overall intellectual atmosphere and cooperation between tutors and pupils in schools.

In 1991, Ukraine had about 22 000 schools, 543 000 teachers and over 7 mln pupils (15 per teacher and 327 per school). Currently there are about 16 900 schools (excluding Crimea and ‘war zone’ in the east) with 3,84 mln pupils and 438 000 teachers (8 pupils per teacher and 213 per school). 38 schools in cities and 231 schools in villages have been closed since 2014. A typical class in Ukrainian schools now consists of 18-19 pupils, which is less than in most countries. This figure inspires Ukrainian officials to speak of closing even more schools, 2/3 of which are located in villages. For these, a new system of ‘hub schools’ had been designed (suggested by ex-Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk): several unprofitable schools can be united into a single hub school.

Ministry of Education says in 2016 there were 613 1st and 2nd level schools (1st – 9th grades) with less than 25 pupils. While a regular pupil would cost the budget 9600 UAH, those studying in the province may be worth 20-60 thsd. (add here the lack of tutors, many of which have to teach several subjects, which affects the quality of education).

Hub schools for pupils after 4th grade will admit children from remote villages. More than 800 mln UAH were spent by Ukrainian government on school busses in 2016 and same investments had been expected from local budgets. Getting to school will become a problem for some, although the government thinks it is a small sacrifice. Ukraine currently has over 300 hub schools with 744 branches (related institutions). A similar system took Finland 15 years to implement, but Ukraine seems to have coped in just 2.

Attempts to introduce a 12-year school program started already in 2001, but the new reform will put a period in the story regardless of the fact that 70% of parents and 68% of teachers spoke against it (according to a survey covering 15 regions). Longer education grants ‘European’ quality because many countries have 12-14 schools, says the government. Nowadays parents can choose at which age their child should start the 1st grade – at 6 or at 7. 4 years of primary school are divided between the adaptation (first 2 years) and the main periods (other 2 years). Some of these had a prefix ‘with an intensive learning of’ pointing at in-depth courses in certain subjects. By abolishing these titles, Ukrainian education officials are planning to eliminate the harmful competition on the market caused by higher demand on such institutions, which at the same time did not always ensure quality.

However, quality does not mean equality, because paid ‘elite schools’ (gymnasiums, lyceums and colleges) with monthly fees several times the amounts in regular schools will remain. Attended mostly by children of businessmen, MPs etc., they have better private funding and can afford better teachers and tuition tools to prepare pupils for entry exams in universities. Private schools offer even greater value to families planning on sending their children abroad. Yearly fees ranging between 900 and 20 000 USD make them hardly affordable for the majority of Ukrainian families.

In general, cities show higher progress in studies than villages. External independent testing (EIT, examinations for university admission) results reveal a 10-point gap between pupils from cities (with an average of 151 points out of 200 total) and villages (140 points). Compulsory since 2008 and ordered to be conducted in Ukrainian language only, EIT became a real barrier for minorities. Vocabularies provided by government could not save the situation. Civil protests led to translation of tests into minorities’ native tongues, but as early as in 2010 Ukrainian was appointed the official EIT language. Starting with 3 subjects (Ukrainian language and literature, optional math or history), the list of tests was later expanded and some of them were translated to fit the needs of minorities. But the situation has changed again since the adoption of education reform this year.

A game of languages

‘Language question’ was always valid in the independent Ukraine having one official language. An attempt to make Russian country’s second official tongue failed in 2010, but the bill of 2012 ‘On the principles of the state language policy’ granted official status to regional languages. It says that if a certain language is spoken by at least 10% of an area’s population, it becomes regional. Sharing the fate of many Ukrainian laws, this bill did not take full effect. Certain EU spokesmen considered it biased and undermining the status of the official Ukrainian language (also providing additional privileges to Russian language), although the Venetian Commission noted particular positive effects for country’s multilingual environment. Russia, Romania and Hungary expressed their support, Romanian President even thanking Viktor Yanukovych (then President of Ukraine). The bill also allowed more freedom of minority language use for local media.

A 2014 attempt of bill cancellation by Parliament’s radical opposition gaining ultimate power immediately after Euromaidan revolt was a decision that had opened the doors for country’s decisive ‘nationalization’ and suppression of other languages (which can be viewed as one of the formal reasons of ‘separatism’, although essentially it is driven by more significant political and economic motives). All the way to the current education reform, there is an undoubted move towards uncompromised ‘ukrainization’ of all life spheres in the country. For education this means that greater attention will be paid to the ‘patriotic’ upraising. Minister of Education Liliya Hrynevych has specified patriotism as one of the conceptual benchmarks of new school system, posing ‘Ukrainian identity’ as one of its key values.

Describing the new system, Deputy Education Minister of Ukraine Pavlo Hobzei says in an interview that only 40% of minority school pupils studying in their native language (with Ukrainian language and literature as separate subjects) are able to pass the Ukrainian language test required for entering a university. By introducing a new approach, Ukrainian government plans to change the situation by inverting it: minority language and literature will become side-subjects during the middle and high school years (5-11 grades), but all primary school teaching will be still carried out in their native tongue. All minority school pupils who started their secondary education before September 1, 2018 will continue studying in their native languages until 2020, but with a gradual increase of subjects taught in Ukrainian. Government will also divide all school courses into «variative» and «invariative», which means that in the first case the teaching language may be chosen by the education instance, whereas the second group consists of courses taught only in Ukrainian (and for which the government provides textbooks). Hobzei also says that teaching in foreign languages encompasses only 10% of the total Ukrainian education statistics (176 Hungarian, 200 Romanian, several Moldovan and one Slovak school). Requirements for organizing classes consisting of ethnic minorities in Ukrainian schools will remain untouched: if a minimum of 8 pupils wish to study in their native language, their rights must be fulfilled (if it is technically feasible).

Today in Ukraine there are 581 schools teaching in Russian (356 000 pupils), over 70 teaching in Romanian and as many teaching in Hungarian (16 000 pupils in each group). Polish and Moldovan schools are few with only a couple of thousands of pupils.

Higher education

In 2016 Ukraine had 287 higher education institutions of III-IV levels (institutes, universities, academies) with about 1 369 000 students and 693 300 teachers. Around 400 000 diplomas are issued every year, but only a half of all graduates are willing to exercise their profession. On the average, the number of universities and students has grown compared to the 90s, but did the quality of education?

Ukraine-EU association agreement demands common standards in higher education along with greater independence for universities. Numerous attempts to reform the sphere have made their impact on every aspect of its life, but their formal nature has inhibited every possibility of true change. Talks about the need to reform the higher education system in Ukraine have been taking place since the very moment of proclamation of country’s independence. Catastrophic inflation rate (over 10 000%) left no chance for development in the sector, leaving many primary education institutions a step away from closing. Despite the introduction of a ‘rescue’ program of 1993 entitled ‘Osvita’ (‘Education’) and called to decentralize and personalize the education process, no real improvements followed. The only ‘innovations’ consisted of newly introduced paid tuition, establishment of private universities and simplification of enrolment procedures. The latter helped to raise the number of students, but the quality of tuition remained without changes.

Following the ‘pro-European course’ of Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine joined the Bologna Process in 2005. In the same year, the UCEQA (Ukrainian Center for Education Quality Assessment) was established. A year later, the government implemented the credit-module system with a 100-point evaluation scale. This step had to modify the academic life and ‘westernize’ the post-Soviet education. 2007-2010 were the years when Ukrainian language became more deeply integrated into the education process and Ukrainian literature became a compulsory part of the EIT (legacy of Ivan Vakarchuk, father of popular Ukrainian singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk). Education Minister of the Yanukovych era Dmytro Tabachnyk pointed out the absence of appropriate quality standards, but decided to ‘roll back’ to the old system by ‘de-Ukrainizing’ the higher education.

Current Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych (successor to the nationalist Serhiy Kvit) holds strong positions in various Ukrainian rankings (e. g. as the 7th among the TOP-20 most influential women of Ukraine), but her efforts at ‘re-Ukrainization’ still pace ahead of other important problems, such as female labor in the sector, where 80% of teachers are women, whose positions and average salaries are lower than those of men, while the workload is usually higher. Access to high positions is another issue: only 10% of all university rectors are women (although they make up 60% of school heads). Ministry of Education-based project ‘Education: gender dimension – 2020’ begun to be discussed only this year, although several ‘anti-discrimination’ laws had been signed in 2016.

The new National Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education of Ukraine (not fully operating yet) was initially established to assess the quality and ensure the ‘European’ direction of Ukrainian higher education. But accusations of corruption have led to loss of trust and suspicions concerning the purposes of the whole institution. Some tend to think is an offshoot of Education Ministry unburdening it of responsibility and harboring corruption. For instance, the wife of Vyacheslav Kyrylenko (Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine) was involved in a plagiarism scandal around her doctoral thesis. If the agency starts working, its Ethics Committee will be obliged to investigate the scandal’s details, but this may lead to her being stripped of her title and even imprisoned. Thus, the cost of education quality can be too high for certain political circles.

Once implemented, the new reform will first of all redistribute the funds: each university will receive 80% of its last year’s budget, but the rest 20% will be allocated according to various progress indicators, such as number of students and academic publication, graduates’ employment and engagement of other funding sources. They will also be encouraged to establish their own endowment funds (but this may result in corruption and ‘shadow schemes’). Best students (according to EIT) will be funded by the state in case they choose to study in private universities. Government will also create special funds to support people from certain unprivileged categories of society.

The law ‘On scientific and technical activities’ (2015) elucidates the status of researchers and scientists, officially setting their social guarantees and determining their rights. Western universities receive a significant part of their income from their scientific research, while universities in Ukraine feed mostly on students paying their contractual fees. While 0,4% of Ukrainian GDP is spent on science (comparable to some Easter European countries), corruption and cronyism keep stealing a lot of precious resources and destroying many promising careers (cutting this amount more than by half).

Ukrainian reformists are looking up to Europe trying to emulate the outlook of what they think is the Western and progressive society. But what is largely omitted here is the cultural and historical background of the Western world, which has little to nothing in common with the post-Soviet reality, where foreign patches are mostly inapplicable, especially if they are used to conceal a corrupted political structure.

Main source: (article, article)