Changing the Rules of the Game in Ukrainian Education: Democratization, Autonomy, Transparency
Serhiy Kvit, the newly appointed Minister of Education in Ukraine, is committed to creating a new model of Ukrainian education. Having signed the Association agreement with the European Union (EU), Ukraine is writing its history on a blank slate. The state is on the edge of implementing a European education system, which is expected to transform the society. The no-longer-Soviet model will be born in the next 100 days of the operation of the new Ministry.
According to Kvit, the first step of the administration will be to regain trust of the people to the Ministry. In order to fight corruption, the financial audit will be completed and all Ministry’s transactions will automatically appear on the Internet to be accessible to the general public. The role of the state as a guarantor of the quality of education is going to change too. The state is willing to give up all “controlling and repressing” functions and will become the partner of universities. In such a way, the responsibility for education quality will be delegated to the universities by providing them with an autonomous status. All the Ukrainian students that initiated the campaign “Against Degradation of Education” in 2009-2011 and the activists that occupied the Ministry of Education four weeks ago must be enjoying a great sense of accomplishment because one of their main requests – university autonomy – is going to be granted.
The new Ministry officials plan to initiate many more reforms in education. In one of his recent interviews, Kvit argued that “we are living in the global world and there is nothing internal, no internal criteria for education quality, there is only the global market.” According to him, the only thing that matters is whether “we are competitive or not.” This trend is going to change the way the state sees the criteria for the success of universities. The new main criteria of quality will be “the results of scholarly research” as opposed to teaching only. Changing the structure of universities by providing them autonomy will be the first step that will “allow universities to be leaders in global ratings.”
The second step of new reforms is the facilitation of the procedures of recognition and legalization of foreign educational certificates. Today, Ukrainian students with Western education suffer from a humiliating process of recognition that discourages them from coming back home upon completion of programs. As Kvit stated, “if you have a Harvard degree and you come back with it to Ukraine, this is your problem.” Brain drain has been tremendously troubling for the Ukrainian nation.
Now the new Minister has given the students hope. No, he is not going to try and keep talented youth at home. On the contrary, he argued that Ukrainian students should travel more! In order to encourage them to do so, the government will make an emphasis on English language learning. The latter is critical since Ukraine is changing its role model. With the Soviet Union being long gone and “Russian standards of education being doubtful,” from now on Ukraine will compare itself to Western and US universities and strive to achieve Western standards. Kvit does not see student mobility as a threat. Nor does he see Europe or the West as such. He sees them as partners that can provide “a successful model of development” and can teach Ukraine valuable lessons.
The first lesson to be learned from the West is the encouragement of private investments in education by well-off private investors. Once again, Kvit is being realistic when he sees this goal as over-ambitious due to distrust of private contributions reigning in the political culture of the Ukrainian society. In any case, he is willing to take a risk with this long-term agenda.
Ukraine is at the stage of a major political conflict and until it is not solved, education will not be put on the national agenda. However, it is clear that once the political situation stabilizes, the reforms this time will be radical and will mirror multiple globalization trends. What is important now is that having tremendous power to revitalize Ukrainian education, the new administration is running the risk of neglecting the Ukrainian local context when borrowing features of Western education. It seems as if the quality of Western education goes unquestioned by the newly appointed officials. The rhetoric of university autonomy, private investments, English as the compulsory language of instruction, and global ratings sounds like a step forward in the eyes of the proponents of neoliberal reforms.
What about the ones that do not agree with the trends? Is their opinion going to be considered? Are their suggestions going to be dismissed as old-fashioned communist remnants of the past? At this point Kvit is claiming that education is not a business, but the reforms he is suggesting require serious investment that the state does not have. English as the second language is only one example. When asked how children from rural areas are going be taught English in the conditions where the only foreign language taught is Russian, Kvit gives a politically correct response that he is aware of the issue and the state will take care of it. Obviously, he is not expected to provide all the answers. However, the agenda he is setting seems to be dictated by the modern capitalist market economy which Ukraine has not adopted.
Moreover, the proposed plan is so alien to the Ukrainian national context that its implementation may seriously endanger the Ukrainian national education. Some may argue that there is no such thing as “traditional” Ukrainian education in the first place since the latter is equated to the Soviet system. This argument might be reasonable, but it is difficult to question the value of national education that has truly redefined the sense of Ukrainian identity since 1991. With the new market-oriented reforms on the agenda, these achievements would be lost. The citizens brought up by the new system will be global, competitive, and market-oriented. Is this going to be achieved at the cost of losing Ukrainian national identity?