Posts by Viktoriia Brezheniuk

Ukrainian Government Says NO to Western Educated Ukrainians

Ukrainians with Western education are eager to fight corruption and bureaucracy in order to improve their country’s welfare in the aftermath of recent political upheaval. According to the most recent data of the Ukrainian information agency “UNIAN,” 1.5 million professionals with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Columbia, and other leading universities are willing to work for the Ukrainian government for free. The question is: How willing and interested is the government to use their services?

The answer is an almost definite “no.” On the one hand, accepting the volunteer services offered by Western educated Ukrainian would save the Ukrainian government millions of dollars. On the other hand, the human factor will serve as a barely surmountable obstacle. How would the corrupt power benefit from the reforms by Ukrainian citizens educated into understanding the corruption as an undesirable, and, furthermore, shameful practice? To the relief of education specialists, there is hope for the Ministry of Education. Apparently, Serhiy Kvit is actively collaborating with Western education officials in order to combat corruption. However, doesn’t the anti-corruption initiative have to be uniform and target all the spheres of life to be effective? Can it cause serious change while addressing education exclusively?

Obviously, the people who have been building a kleptomaniac state for years will not easily allow the newcomers to overtake their business and implement Western anti-corrupt reforms. The system that exists in Ukraine now is so well-embedded and accepted that it will be difficult to deconstruct even for the people who truly wish to make a change. As a student who has gone through all the major levels of Ukrainian education, what concerns me the most is the reaction of the student population to the changes. Are they going to be able to face the fact that hryvnas will not be purchasing their grades anymore?

My prediction is that until the government agrees to hire qualified workforce that was not exposed to and socialized into corruption as a way of life, Kvit’s efforts to create a fair education system will not produce a radical turn that students are expecting and hoping for. Currently, every first grader in Ukraine is aware of the unfortunate reality that he/she needs to pay extra or give bribes in order to receive quality services from doctors, post office workers, and teachers. My 5-year old nephew has already heard of the prices of As and Bs in school. He is now accustomed to the idea that he is going to grow up in the corrupt state. There is a high possibility that when he grows up, he is not going to perceive giving money “for tea” (a Russian metaphor for tips) as an unacceptable practice similar to the current Ukrainian administration. It is only when he leaves the country and has an opportunity to look at it from the outside that he is going to understand the effect of this practice on the society as a whole. Western educated Ukrainians have already done that and it would be a major loss for Ukraine not to take advantage of the life-transforming ideas that they are ready to offer.

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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?

Occupy the Ministry of Education: Ukraine on the Path to European Education

Euromaidan has shown the prospect of a new life to all the Ukrainian people. We have witnessed the power of community action and a possibility of a real change. And Ukrainian students are not willing to let this chance slip! On February 21st, around 200 students occupied the Ministry of Education and Science in Kiev. It started with a peaceful protest with the demand of the resignation of the current Minister of Education Dmitro Tabachnik and his deputy Yevgen Sulima – the two government officials routinely criticized by the student protesters during the last few years.

Students’ patience wore out when Minister Tabachnik did not support them standing up for their rights on Maidan and instead commented that  “students have to attend classes in order to receive scholarships, and after 3 pm they are free to do whatever they please.”  When students entered the building of the Ministry in order to start the negotiations in regards to the new candidate for the post of the Minister of Education, the officials began leaving their work places and refused to discuss students’ demands. Irritated by such an attitude, student activists made the decision to stand up for their rights in a more radical way.

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It did not take the students long to tape the office doors, bring in enough food and water to sustain themselves inside the building, and even appoint security people around the Ministry of Education.

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Shortly after, Facebook and Youtube  featured a video in which a student reporter voiced the opinion of the protestors:

“In the past four years we have witnessed incredible increase of corruption, centralization of education, the destruction of autonomy of education institutions, academic environment of Ukrainian intellectual community and the possibility of integration into European environment of higher education and scientific research. We are systemically observing the deterioration of problems in the sphere of welfare of students and teachers. During the administration of this Ministry we have witnessed the decrease of student scholarships, an attempt to increase the GPA for student scholarships in order to not pay them. This is absolutely an anti-social and anti-student policy of the Ministry! Hence, Verkhovna Rada has to consider the resignation of Tabachnik! As of tomorrow, all students will stop giving bribes. Ukraine has to adopt a new and quality European education!”

The deputy Minister of Education Oleksiy Dniprov claimed that such destabilization of the work of the Ministry may cause a delay in paying out the scholarships and salaries of teachers. He also argued that “the demands of the activists, or the ‘students’ as they call themselves, are political, and unfortunately, are out of the competence of the Ministry.” However, the actions of the students had an almost immediate result: Verkhovna Rada has fired Tabachnik – twice. On February 23rd, 236 deputies supported the idea of removing Tabachnik from his post.  The next day, when the second voting process took place due to the suspicion of illegitimacy of the first one, the resignation was supported by 249 deputies.

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This is only the first step. Only one of the demands of the students has been satisfied and they are not willing to give up. Who is going to take Tabachnik’s post?  The students are demanding that the people who will become heads of the Ministry of Education in the new government have to be experts in their professional area, be respected in the academic world both in Ukraine and in Europe, and initiate a reform plan that will be agreed upon by all the interested parties in the Ukrainian system of education.  In addition, activists proposed three candidates for the position of the Education Minister: the president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Serhiy Kvita, the rector of Kyiv Politechnical Institute Mihailo Zgurtovskiy, and a deputy Liliya Grunevich.

The students are not content with the current development of the situation, since the Cabinet of Ministers proposed a new candidate on February 24th – a deputy of the fraction “Svoboda” (eng. “Freedom”) Irina Farion. The students refused to give up the building of the Ministry of Education to Farion because “she has absolutely no skills for or experience in education policy-making and during her work in the Committee on Science and Education she has not taken on any leadership role.”

Now the power to shape the direction in which the Ukrainian education is going to develop belongs to the student activists who will only open the doors of the Ministry to the person who deserves it and who will lead Ukrainian education towards the European standards. Thousands of students are impatient to know who it is going to be.

“Bolonka for Sovok:” Panacea or Catastrophe?

“Russian Gambit,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “From Mirror-World,” “Irrelevant Offer,” “Creativity or Cretinism,” “Bologna Sauce,” “Bologna Mafia,” “Bologna creates puppets,” “ “Caste system,” and, finally, “Bolonka for Sovok” (“Bolonka” is a Russian slang for Bologna and “Sovok” is a slang term for the USSR)…  These titles crowded the Internet in 2003 when the Russian higher education system lost to the Anglo-Saxon one as a result of the imposed “panacea” from the “more civilized” systems—the well-known Bologna system.  The question is: was this widest and most comprehensive reform in European Higher Education history in fact a panacea or a catastrophe for the post-Soviet countries?

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The blindfolded teachers thrown into the pit of the unknown after decades of well-functioning Soviet education system and the students unaware of the meaning of dozens of new terms and notions were expected to rapidly get a grasp of the reform, but many failed to embrace it. School administrators who were used to preach collective values were now forced to adjust to individualized learning and the promotion of commercial values. They did not turn out to be the strongest supporters of the reform either.  Being a witness (and fortunately not a victim) of the Bologna reform myself, I would gladly hold a poster “Rich parents-for everyone” together with hundreds of students across Europe protesting against detrimental consequences of the Bologna system in 2005.

The European Integration to Higher Education (2005) reports three major reasons for post-Soviet countries joining the Bologna process: international academic mobility, emerging knowledge economy, and changing patterns of power and influence.

By all means, international academic mobility is critical. Post-Soviet nations cannot exist outside of the information age. The Soviet Union has been participating in international exchanges since the 1960s. In 1991, there were more than 102 thousand foreign students in Soviet universities, and the number of international students coming from former Soviet Union countries grew by 40% in the year 1993 alone. Currently, there number of post-Soviet students studying abroad is rapidly growing. The opportunity to receive a foreign diploma is primarily granted to them by various exchange programs, such as FLEX, Global UGRAD, Muskie, Fulbright, and others.

When the Bologna declaration was initially signed by 29 European ministers in 1999, one of the core declared objectives was to remove the obstacles to student mobility across Europe, and more broadly support the mobility of students, teachers, and researchers. Without offering “a full ride” like the above exchange programs, Bologna pushed national education systems of post-Soviet countries from equality to elitism. Now, the unique opportunity to have one’s degree recognized by European institutions is accompanied by the need for the students to cover the cost of education on their own.  I wonder how many post-Soviet students can afford European education considering that the average PPP per capita in post-Soviet states is US$10,450 as of the year 2012. Moreover, how many of them will actually travel to Europe to study and not choose their itinerary for touristic purposes? Sociologists are pessimistic in their assessment.

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The second reason for joining the Bologna process was the fact that knowledge has become the major factor of production giving the highest return for investment. According to the policy-makers, a different (neoliberal) approach promises to give a “common European answer to common European problems.” There is little doubt that the Bologna system can meet the challenges that Europe is facing. However, projected on the post-Soviet space, it can only result in the degradation of education rather than progress. The famous “Sputnik moment” of 1957 showed the strength of the Soviet education, which the whole world recognized.  Before the beginning of the 21st century, the Soviet values in education that brought the Union to the highest level of success remained stable: collective work, relatively distant relationships between a student and a teacher, thorough approach to the selection of material.

New reforms changed the core of the process of knowledge acquisition. They promoted deep individualization of student learning supported by the credit system and the ability of a student to calculate credit hours and shape his or her schedule on an individual basis. In this context, every student’s “knowledge database” started to look like a puzzle where the pieces having no logical connection were not chosen by a professional educator. Since the new aim of education became score accumulation, most students would happily follow the path of least resistance with class choice. The credit in the section “Ancient history” could easily be satisfied with a class “Coins of Khan Dynasty” and nothing outside of it. Exciting? Yes, but one might argue the practical significance of the choice. What students also witnessed was impersonalization of educational services that fit into the scheme “buy-sell” and were completely alien for post-Soviet mentality.

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Finally, post-Soviet countries are expected to react to the shift from “hard power” (territory, military, natural resources) to “soft power” (competitive economy and pro-active diplomacy.) Bologna presented a chance to capitalize on “the countries’ most precious national resource – human capital.  The existence of competitive economy is based on the principles of transparency, decentralization, and accountability. None of the above components currently exist in the majority of post-Soviet states. Education at all levels is plagued with bribery (only in Russia citizens pay up to US$520 million in bribes annually, according to International Higher Education journal). Centralized management and ineffective bureaucratic practices added to the massive corruption do not represent a favorable environment to the success of the offered shift.

I am not writing this blog to argue for preserving the Soviet education system intact. Nor am I denying the presence of positive aspects of the Bologna reform, such as the possibility granted to the “chosen ones” to receive quality European education. However, many problems persist.  Reforms are indeed due, but they have to be realistic, meaningful, timely, and well-planned. Post-Soviet space should not jeopardize national educational traditions in the interest of modernization. The last thing that post-Soviet students and educators need is a fairy tale of academic success that is not only outside of their reach, but also outside of their value system.

 

The Future of Public Education in Kazakhstan

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Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan began to reform its education system in order to meet the needs of the market economy. Recently, new educational development strategy for the years of 2011-2020 was introduced to further reform the education system in order to meet the needs of the growing economy and European standards in education. Overall, the program relies heavily on the experience of  “developed” countries by diversifying education financing and promoting world standards measured by tests such as TIMMS, PISA, and PIRLS.

The main goal of the program is to develop human capital for sustainable growth of the economy by providing access to quality education. The program states that education should be considered as an investment in knowledge economy. According to the program, growing evidence shows that investments in education have impact on the economic growth of the country. Creating Public Private Partnerships  (PPPs) and new schemes of financing are listed as top goals in order to develop equal access to education for all. Let us take a closer look at the new schemes of financing of public education.

By 2015, per capita funding will be introduced in all educational establishments, which means that funding of schools will depend on the number of students that attend a respective school. What about village schools? Does it mean that some of them might be closed because there will be not enough students?

A proposed new educational savings plan system would supposedly enable families of different socioeconomic backgrounds to afford postsecondary education by letting them save money ahead of time. However, this system builds on the assumption that postsecondary education will be so expensive that you will have to start saving money up to 20 years ahead of time!  While the Minister of Education states that the number of scholarships in universities will increase, the creation of an educational savings plan system raises concerns over the price of higher and professional education in the country.

Attracting private investors in education is said to be of an utmost importance for the future of education and science. It is expected to increase funding of universities by 10 percent by 2014 through PPPs and to integrate education and science through commercialization of science. For the purposes of lifelong learning, employers will be responsible for co-financing education of the employees. The expected outcome of the program is that by 2025 financing of education in Kazakhstan will be similar to the models in the “developed” countries.

The biggest concern is that “Western” education is grossly generalized and overly idealized. There is no evidence that a simple injection of private funds into the public education system would improve the quality of education. Furthermore, privatization of public education is likely to intensify socioeconomic inequities. According to Businessinsider.com, USA is one of the world leaders in spending money on education and its schools are ranked as “average” by international assessment organizations. Moreover, education privatization trends in some “developed” countries also reveal that people with more money may have access to higher quality education. Furthermore, individual private funders – and not necessarily the broader education stakeholder community – have a bigger say in shaping the educational policy as we learnt from the involvement of Melinda and Gates Foundation and Zuckerberg initiatives in New Jersey.

Unfortunately, the strategic plan 2011-2020 did not involve careful critical analysis of “western” educational systems. The content of the program is shockingly similar to the neoliberal policies promoted by the World Bank: education, human capital, and knowledge economy. However, it is not possible to simply borrow educational practices from the US or any other “developed” country and implement them in Kazakhstan due to different political, socio-economic, and cultural contexts. In Education plc: understanding private sector participation in public sector education, Stephen Ball provides an extensive analysis of harmful effects of privatization trends in education that take place in the “developed” world. Moreover, Ball criticizes that the “means/end” logic of education for economic competitiveness is negatively transforming previously complex processes of teaching and learning into a “set of standardised and measurable products.” Education should support students to become responsible citizens, persons with high ethical standards and multifaceted personalities, rather than creating a generation of “test-takers” for the purposes of questionable economic growth.

I am Accepted to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. What is Next?

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Imagine you are one of the “supposedly” smartest, most hardworking, and not less importantly luckiest people who were accepted to an elite university in either the United Kingdom or the United States of America. You received an acceptance letter to a masters program of your dream. What’s next? The next step is to find funding in case you were not awarded a rare scholarship or financial aid.

Recently, my friend from Ecuador was accepted to a masters program in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He posted this news on Facebook and “likes” started to exponentially increase and the words of congratulations quickly filled up his wall. In one of the comments he voiced a concern that the cost of the program coupled with college fees and living expenses is $72,000 and he is looking for funding opportunities.

According to the UN, the average GDP per capita in Ecuador is $4,205. Roughly calculated, it would take more than 17 years for an average Ecuadorian to earn enough money to afford Oxford education if that person will not eat and will live on the streets for 17 years. One might think that those prices are for citizens of the UK, well, according to UN data, GDP per capita in the UK is $35,422. For a superhuman in the UK who does not eat and have no other life goals other than saving for an elite education, it would take 2,5 years to save money to attend Oxbridge. For the sake of comparison, a citizen of Somalia would need 327 years to earn enough money to study at Oxford.

One might disagree with my usage of GDP per capita and roughly generalized conclusions. Well, I do not necessarily draw any conclusions. I simply want to raise several questions: Why do those masters-level degrees cost so much? Who can afford going to those universities? What does it say about values in our society? Does education provide opportunities for a better life for all or reproduces social inequalities and class division that exist today?

An article published in the Guardian shows a clear picture of the divide between the predominantly “white” upper and middle class applicants accepted to Oxbridge over the poor “black” (see the graph below).  In fact, Oxford’s student body consists of 89% upper and middle class while in Cambridge 87.6% represent top three socio-economic groups.

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In “Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites,” Mitchell L. Stevens raises important questions about the ways in which prestigious colleges in the United States increasingly accept students based on their ability to pay.

Attending elite universities somehow gives you a mark of quality. You join crème de la crème of the academia or society in general. It somehow validates your opinion and makes your voice heard. While growing up, I always thought of elite universities as the places where talented and smart students study. I did not know that in many cases your purchasing power defines whether you are talented or smart. It is not hard to see how elite universities “create” or “recreate” social structures that favor elitism, which is exactly the opposite to true purposes of education.

I am sorry Mr. Zuckerberg, Startup: Education will improve your reputation but not necessarily the lives of children

These days we hear a lot about Zuckerberg’s $100 million foundation Startup: Education, which was established in cooperation with the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker in order to improve student educational success and “champion great teachers.” In fact, this ambitious project aims to reform public education in the United States if testing New Jersey’s waters proves successful.

At its core, the idea is simple. In order to reform public education one can use a simple formula, which will embrace one billionaire and the support of local authorities. Supposedly, by implementing an entrepreneurial approach to education, it is possible to make schools accountable, transform low performing students into high achievers, and improve teachers’ performance. Wait a second. Does it mean that public education cannot be improved from within? Without private investors? What do teachers think about this initiative? What does education research have to offer? Does it imply that if you can donate $100 million, you actually have a say in shaping public education policy? Why is it so?

There is not much transparency about the operation of Startup: Education. In an interview to NJ.com, the Teacher Union President Joe Del Grosso says that he is troubled by the ongoing secrecy surrounding the Facebook donation: “We don’t know what the foundation is doing or how they intend to spend the other money.” Del Grosso insists that “with that money comes a responsibility to the public to be clear about its use.” Yet, many teachers, parents, and broader members of the community continue to raise their concerns about the murky conditions under which Startup: Education operates.

Startup: Education is another privatization effort in public education, reflecting the logic of running schools like businesses.  In 2011, for example, a $500,000 grant from the Facebook money was used to attract high-quality principals to the district who were given the authority to staff their schools as they see fit.  According to NJ.com, teachers who did not make the cut were demoted to teacher’s aide jobs or other supporting roles. The funding also went to support the establishment of charter schools and the introduction of merit pay schemes. Not surprisingly, the foundation became quickly implicated in the closure of some public schools and many teacher layoffs on the pretext of ‘low performance delivered.’

However, public education is not a business and should not be managed like a company. While there is no clear answer to the question whether private donations lead to student higher academic achievements, it is crystal clear that in a democratic society, all players – think students, parents, teachers, and local communities – should be involved in the decision-making process regarding public education.

Feel free to like the idea of the Startup: Education, “surprisingly”, on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/startupeducation.