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?

Education World Forum: Constructive or Restrictive?

The forum’s global remit offers unparalleled opportunity for ministerial teams from all participating countries to address economic and educational challenges, share experiences and establish a cooperative, future-proof approach to education.”

Dominic Savage
 Director General, BESA

Just over three weeks ago, January 19-22, The Education World Forum 2014 took place in London, UK.  While this international forum has occurred annually under this name and format since 2011, its origins date back to 2002 when the British governmental organization Becta (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) founded the “Moving Young Minds” event [1].  Although retaining the same general structure, in 2009, the conference took on a new identity as the “Learning and Technology World Forum,” which also involved a shift in thematic focus to the role of technology in educational quality and success for the coming generations.  The forum took a turn in becoming what it is today, the “Education World Forum,” in 2010 when government funding to Becta was cut and the contract for the event was privatized becoming the responsibility of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) [2].

As attendance to this conference has grown over the years to the point that over eighty International Education Ministers gathered in London this year, it has come to be known was “the largest global gathering of education ministers and the internationally recognized ministerial forum for debating future practice in education[3].  Increasingly, goals for education on a global scale are shifting from simply achieving basic education for all children in the world, to achieving educational equity, focusing on quality and learning, fostering curiosity and innovation, and developing methods for life-long learning [4].  Having a forum in which education stakeholders all over the world can share successes and failures, address challenges, and debate the shape of the future of education is undoubtedly invaluable given the previously mentioned admirable goals for education that we face moving forward.

At the same time, however, it is important to look critically at the actors and stakeholders that are part of this forum and their own interests, as well as certain features of the conference itself which work to not only shape but potentially limit the scope of ideas presented and how they are discussed, and legitimize certain solutions and courses of action over others.

Looking at the position of the British Educational Suppliers Association itself is a very interesting place to start.  By definition, BESA is a trade association and works to support UK-based companies that supply equipment, materials, teaching aids, books, and technology hardware and software to members both in the United Kingdom and internationally.  They play the role of lobbyists to government on policy issues, and provide information and training to members on the basis of best practices that they, as experts, have identified [5][6].  The fact that the Education World Form is under the contract of a private entity involved in the national and international provision of educational goods and services, and is also the generator of research and knowledge about educational policies and best practices is not a trivial fact when considering what types of networking and policy prescriptions might be discussed.

Further, the “Platinum Partners” involved in sponsoring the forum are HP, Intel, Microsoft, Promethean, JP-Inspiring Knowledge, and Pearson. The first four of these partners are American multinational companies, and JP-Inspiring Knowledge is a partner company with both Intel and Microsoft.  Every single one of these partners expresses an interest in supporting the development of quality education and innovation to the ends of producing a skilled workforce in the global economy, very specifically through the application of education technology and the “return on investment” that these materials and expertise can bring.  Additionally, Pearson, a British multinational publishing and education company, self identifies as “the world’s largest learning business” and is the provider of textbooks, courses, and resources for both teachers and students all over the world [3].  The “Silver Partners” for the forum, presumably of less involvement than those previously mentioned, are almost exclusively associated with Oxford or Cambridge Universities, as well as Encyclopedia Britannica, which are all UK based sources of education knowledge and assessment material production [7].

While those behind the Education World Forum make the claim that the “event brings together minsters representing the majority of the world’s population,” we must critically realize and understand that the Ministers of Education are but one interest group within education policy networks with a certain degree of power in relation to other members of policy networks that are increasingly global in scale.

The forum has taken place every single year in London, which is not an issue by itself, however attendance to the event is by official invitation only [8].  This gives, year after year, the same essential group the power over who is able to engage in the debate over the future of education and the voices that are able to put solutions to challenges on the table.  The theme of this year’s conference was “Planning for 2014: Policy-making catalyst for a decade ahead: measurement, reach and enterprise,” and the inclusion of the terms “measurement” and “enterprise” express very specific values from the outset [9]. These values are further reflected no only in the expressed definition of education as “a crucial factor in national and global economic health; a country’s strongest resource for its future economic stability and success lies with its young people,” but also in the utilization of this forum space to discuss the OECD’s most recent PISA League Table and the World Bank’s future education plans [8].

The Education World Forum created and posted a video that is a collection of interviews with education minsters from around the world.  What struck me was that included in this video was a statement by the Minister of Education in Colombia that we must go beyond the academic achievement aspects of education and begin to take a look at education encompassing ideas of citizenship, peaceful democratic behavior, and social skills [4]. This is a stark contrast from the overtly economic emphasis put on the purpose of education in the rhetoric of the Education World Forum, from the legitimization of large scale standardized testing such as PISA, and from the goals of privatization espoused by the World Bank.

By taking a closer look at the actors and agents involved in the Education World Forum, I am by no means questioning the value of engaging in dialogue about educational policies, practices, challenges, and successes.  I do, however, strongly put into question the notion that the ideas, needs, and contextual factors of a majority of the world’s population are represented.  It seems to me that this event provides a forum to discuss the future of education and all that this entails within a very particular neoliberal framework that may not be conducive for the successful realization of a variety of educational goals.  I beg the question of whether there is another way.  Will we ever be able to engage in a dialogue about education that is more open, progressive, and less ideologically structured?

[1] http://www.fenews.co.uk/fe-news/becta-launches-global-forum-to-unite-policy-makers-across-the-world

[2] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20081029165424/http://stage.localauthorities.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=gi&catcode=la_gi_o1&rid=15585&pagenum=1&NextStart=1&print=1

[3] http://www.ewf2014.org

[4] http://www.ewf2014.org/press/videos/education-world-forum-film-2014-a-global-education-conversation

[5] http://www.besa.org.uk/besa-member-benefits

[6] http://www.besa.org.uk/international-services-1

[7] http://www.ewf2014.org/partners/silver

[8] http://www.ewf2014.org/press/press-releases/education-world-forum-2014

[9] http://www.britishcouncil.org.eg/en/about/press/education-world-forum-ewf-and-bett-2014

The Unending Lithuanian Educational Reforms: Student Vouchers

Continuing the topic on Lithuania’s educational reforms from my last post, I will take a more detailed look at the student voucher policy for financing education in Lithuania. But first, some background on how the concept originated, what student vouchers are, and what are the pros and cons of the student voucher policy.

History

The origins of the student voucher idea can be traced back to 1792, when Thomas Paine, a British economist, proposed a “voucher scheme” – a special allowance of 4 pounds per year for each child up to the age of 14 – in order to finance education. The first education financing policy that most closely resembled student vouchers was implemented in the state of Vermont, in 1869. This policy allocated funding for rural families who wanted to send their kids to schools in other regions, essentially giving them school choice; a similar policy was adopted in Maine soon after, in 1873. Finally, the first one to define and describe the modern concept of student vouchers in detail was the American economist Milton Friedman, in his article on “The Role of Government in Education” in 1955. Even though the US is the biggest proponent of free market principles, and even though it has the two oldest student voucher policies in VT and MA, the policy is not widely implemented throughout the country today, with only 12 states employing a partial student voucher policy.

Concept

Despite the different definitions and implementations of student vouchers, the basic common premises behind the concept are the following:

  1. School choice – allowing parents, as the “true customers of the service of education”, to choose freely to which school to send their children.
  2. Competition between schools – introducing more effective implementation of funds, improving the quality of education, and creating a wider variety of educational options.
  3. Higher degree of parental involvement – increasing the personal interest of parents in the educational process and making them more responsible for their children.
  4. Better access to education for underprivileged and special-needs families.

The first two premises are highly influenced by free market principles, extending competition and efficiency to the realm of education. However, there are many criticisms of using economically based market principles in education, leading to controversy and debate.

Pros and Cons

The debate on student vouchers as an educational financing policy can be summarized in the list of pros and cons below.

Pros Cons
More effective allocation of funds in schools due to competition In the long term, only the popular schools benefit, while the least popular ones incur higher costs
Increased transparency of educational financing, due to the elimination of individualized subsidies and the need for lobbying Due to the need to attract as many students to a school, administrators and teachers are more willing to “give more slack” to underperforming students or even create fictitious students to maintain funding
Increased quality of education due to competition The intended increase of quality of education due to competition might backfire, especially when the options of schools to choose from are limited
Emergence of private schools and the ability of public schools to learn better practices from the private sector Underprivileged or special needs students might still not be able to choose better private schools due to their entrance requirements
Increased variety of schools in terms of informal education options Higher curricular freedom of private schools might undermine the national educational goals and strategies
School choice Increased social inequality
Increased response of school administrators to the needs and wishes of students and parents Any fluctuations in student numbers and, hence, funding, creates a feeling of instability and employment uncertainty for teachers
Higher parental involvement in the educational process of their children

Lithuania

The student voucher educational reform was introduced in Lithuania starting 2001, with a voucher of 1521 LTL (~570 USD) per student. This amount has more than doubled to 3800 LTL (~1430 USD) for the 2012-2013 school year; however, this does not reflect the dramatic decrease in the numbers of students in schools in the emigration-age of post-global-financial crisis and free migration within the EU.

The effects of the student voucher policy in Lithuania are seen to be more negative, or insignificant, than positive. The main critics of the policy are teachers and teachers unions, who experience chaotic and unstable working conditions with the decline in student numbers, especially in rural areas. In small towns and villages, there are not enough schools that could benefit from competition, causing the disappearance of small schools and firing of teachers.

Moreover, the actual distribution of student voucher funds is questioned, as school administrators use the funds not for professional teacher training, but for general expenses, such as remodeling facilities or paying utilities. The current main allocation of student voucher funds – 95% for teacher salaries – is also questioned, with some political attitudes to completely abolish the student voucher policy.

All in all, it is very important to consider the specific context of a country when trying to implement such policies as student vouchers. It is reassuring that the policymakers of Lithuania are aware of all the pros and cons of student vouchers and that a critical debate on the issue is present.

A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Youth Unemployment and Labor Market Expectations

Youth-unemp-pic

While writing a thesis on the current labor market expectations in the 21st  century’s knowledge-based economy, I had the chance to thoroughly examine recent and prospective developments in the labor market. This blog story will focus on the employers’ labor market expectations and explain underlying reasons behind increasing overall unemployment rate.

Labor market expectations have been in a state of flux. In today’s global market, having a broad range of skills in addition to having solid educational credentials is of vital importance. Therefore, a more powerful and sustainable economy depends on equipping employees, particularly young generations, with these skills. When looking at the statistical data and research done by both national and international institutions worldwide, it seems that unemployment rate globally is somewhat on the increase, particularly in developing countries. While unemployment rates and labor market expectations take place at an accelerating pace, research shows that younger generations are badly affected insofar as they fall behind to meet these expectations. So, let’s take a look at some of these data and research and get a better understanding of the causes of increasing unemployment rate.

‘Youth Unemployment Visualization 2013’, which is prepared by ‘World Economic Forum’, provides detailed information about unemployment rate globally based on some descriptive statistics. According to this visualization, “Youth make up 40% of the world’s unemployed and a youth’s risk of being unemployed was three times higher than that of an adult in 2011”. While youth in developing countries are more likely to be unemployed, youth in developed countries have also been struggling to find jobs and have being forced into part-time jobs. The graph below, which is designed by ‘International Labor Organization’, also shows global youth unemployment rate.

unemployment

Figure. Global youth unemployment and unemployment rate, 1991–2012

So, what are the underlying causes behind this increasing unemployment rate? In his article entitled ‘Addressing the Youth Unemployment Crisis in the Middle East’, Jamie Mcauliffe mapped out the reasons behind increasing unemployment rate. Although the article particularly focuses on the Middle East, research results shed light on current global unemployment issue as well. According to Mcauliffe, one of the main reasons stem from “the dearth of work-relevant education and skills”. Many college graduates have a hard time upon their graduation since most of them cannot gain practical skills essential for getting a job in the market. This may result from the fact that college education mostly provides theoretical information rather than focusing on practical applications. Hence, gaining practical skills for college graduates may be difficult.

While the lack of practical skills has a detrimental effect on getting jobs, the lack of soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication also has a negative effect on getting employed. Thus, having both soft skills and practical skills is equally important in the labor market.

A growing consensus is emerging among policy makers who claim that “not only more but better education and training is needed in developing economies”. As International Labor Organization’s report “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012” highlights, it is necessary to address these challenges and take necessary steps in areas such as ‘Macroeconomic and Growth Policies; Active Labor Market Policies and Programmes; Labour Standards and Social Protection for Young People; Social Dialogue and Partnerships for Youth Employment; Supporting Strong Labour Market Information and Analysis Systems’. Active labor market policies such as strengthening close relations between employers and educational institutions, providing skills development programs for younger generations, and addressing skill mismatches can help alleviate unemployment rate to some extent. Besides, only generating jobs would not be enough for a better economy and coping with an increasing unemployment rate. There is also a need to ensure appropriate working conditions for employees and to create a continuous dialogue and partnerships between government and both employers and unions. By contextualizing global youth unemployment in light of these policies, we are more likely to come up with multiple viable solutions for ensuring better labor market prospects.

Getting into Harvard. The American dream, and other things you need millions for

college_consulting

You can’t ignore the increasing crossover and interconnectedness of Academics and Economics. The relationship between these two are becoming increasingly publicized as mirror images or exclusively linked, but not in the ways you’d think.

The stronger your financial position, the higher the chances you’ll get into an ‘elite’ education institution. The more ‘elite’ institution, the greater the chance you’ll really achieve wealth/status. Many writers have explored this phenomenon; however, none more influential than Ron Unz’s latest article “The Myth of American Meritocracy.”

The article reveals the incredible extent that socio-economical strength dictates ‘success’ under the facade of elite academics to drive the now perceived illusion of work effect and the American Dream. Ron Unz exposes, however frightfully, that it’s not meritocracy being rewarded by seemingly high levels of education and therefore social success, but simple politics and economics. Admissions into universities is not a race for premier student selection of the brightest, most highly trained, and highly disciplined students on the planet, but rather a hand-picked demographic unbelievably slanted toward finances and political background.

This current covert system and policies only perpetuate and further establish what is a modern day cast system furthering the economic divide and perpetuating the social elitism. Distribution of wealth and its perpetuation links universities to further lope-siding the status quo while hiding behind the idea of a ‘well rounded individual.’

‘The Myth of American Meritocracy’ reveals prejudices in methodology of following trends, mountains, and valleys of the discriminated minorities of their time.

Harvard’s endowment is now over 30 billion dollars and the Admissions Department that gives such huge support to squash, rowing, and legacy members does nothing but perpetuate the ‘education’ of the best to keep investing in their future. The higher the social capital the better!

Private tutoring, entry fees in sports clubs, prep testing, entrance into private boarding schools, and high end resources go a long way in supplying a better advantage for admissions. Unz also says “its nice if your dad plays polo with the Admissions Director.”

I’ve always thought America truly has a university for everyone. But unfortunately it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that each individual should only strive to small measures higher than their current social status.

To me, the article and the American education system has a mix of ‘the death of the American Dream,’ the rise of neo-liberalism, and the illusion of how this all makes sense. Ivy Leagues seemingly deal in capital. Initially, Unz describes that Harvard dealt purely in academic capital but this obviously has drastically shifted. It now reflects less importance on academics and more on human, social, and economic capital than ever. ‘Does wealth dictate education or education dictate wealth?’ It seems that Unz isn’t confused.

A further example of this is seen in Mike Russel’s Massive Open Online Revenue Generating Entities, which talks about how elite colleges prioritize status over economics and as admissions reveal this isn’t done through academics.

Elite colleges are ultimately in the business of maximizing status, not revenue. Spending a lot of money on things that return a lot of status isn’t just feasible for these institutions—it’s their basic operating principle.”

American society has similarly made the dream of achieving these institutions beyond the reach of ‘us’ mere peasants.

Who Stole the American Dream? “Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Hedrick Smith reveals a series of events and decisions that have contributed to today’s disparity in wealth and political power. The country is divided sharply and extremely by money, by political power, and by ideology. We have enormous, gaping inequalities of income. And along with that, we have exaggerated and unequal political power exercised by corporate America and by the wealthy, particularly between elections, through masses of lobbyists working in Washington.”

–U.S. News.

Common Core Standards

commoncore
For the past few decades public education in the United States has been the subject of major political debates and ideological revisions. One of the most controversial, a product of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is called the Common Core Standards. The Common Core Standards (CSS) cover K-12 language arts & math. The proponents of the Common Core claim that mastery of these standards ensures that graduating high school students are ready to enter college and the workforce. But there are more things at stake with the common core standards than student success. Introduced in June 2010, the Obama Administration made the adoption of the Common Core Standards a requirement by August 2010 for states competing for a share of the dwindling federal funding for education. Why the rush to implement them?
The answer: it’s not about the students. It’s about the money to be made. David Coleman, one of the architects of the new standards, co-founded a non-profit called Student Achievement Partners to specifically promote the CCS. He’s also the head of the College Board and its cash cows, the SATS and AP program. The vastly profitable standardized testing industry receives multi-million dollar support from a variety of sources—chief among them the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A staunch supporter of measures and programs that attack teacher unions and promote charter schools, the Gates Foundation also advocates for an increased role for standardized testing.
The Gates Foundation (along with other private foundations) has funded David Coleman’s College Board to the tune of 31 million dollars. It also has granted over six million to promoting the Common Core Standards. Its partner in the venture, General Electric, has donated a generous 18 million. What these groups have in common is a privatizing agenda that seeks to funnel public money into corporate hands.
But while advocates of the Common Core standards claim they will ensure student success, they don’t seem to care much about students at all. In his presentation at the New York State Education Building in April 2011, David Coleman declared that teachers must tell students: “When you grow up in this world you realize people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” With an education system geared toward teaching to standard-driven tests, there’s no need for children to learn to think critically or creatively. Is this healthy for a democracy?
Notwithstanding substantial financial backing, the Common Core Standards have come under fire. Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU and former US Assistant Secretary of Education, states:

President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true. They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states…standards are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

Stephen Krashen, an emeritus professor of education at USC says, “The mediocre performance of American students on international tests seems to show that our schools are doing poorly. But students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools rank among the best in the world on these tests, which means that teaching is not the problem. The problem is poverty.”
Journalist Valerie Strauss has also spoken against CCS. She writes in the Washington Post that when it comes to Common Core Standards, early childhood education experts and educators were not part of the process.

The promoters of the standards claim they are based in research. They are not. There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school. Two recent studies show that direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning. At best, the standards reflect guesswork, not cognitive or developmental science.

Standards for public education are a fine idea. But when they serve as a Trojan horse to hide a profit-making agenda, we should beware of bureaucracies and private foundations bearing gifts. The common core standards demand a vast increase in testing—and testing isn’t free: school districts must now provide funds for new computers, new software, trainings, teacher hours, and grading services. Students who could be learning new things are instead only learning how to take a series of tests. The question is who will pay for this testing—and who benefits—our children or corporations?

The New Culture of Education Privatization: Reflections on the American Graduation Ceremony

Graduation

Yes, privatization of education affects our chances of getting or not getting high-quality education. Yes, it contributes to social inequality and destroys the myth of education as equalizer of the society. Yes, the rules of the game are not fair: if you are from a wealthy family – you are in; if you are not, then, well, you are probably out…somewhere out there doing blue  collar jobs, struggling to pay for the utilities and struggling to make a living. What a game. However, privatization and commercialization of public education go far beyond the concerns  “about” or “of” the quality of education. They create a new culture, shape our values and affect our behavior.

In a couple of months I will be graduating from an American university, proudly holding my M.A. degree. Since I received my bachelor’s degree in Russia, I had no idea what to expect from the preparations leading up to the graduation event. First, I received a promotional brochure, advertising graduation packages (caps and gowns, diploma frames, certificates, etc.). The packages varied from $160 up to $500 and even higher with an option of purchasing a golden ring with a university logo and my name on it. “Hmm…what a robbery!”, I thought. I shared the prices with my sister who works for the university in Kyrgyzstan. She was surprised and explained that, in their case, the university buys caps and gowns and rents them for free to students during the graduation. “Lucky you,” I said, “commercialization has not yet overtaken Central Asian universities.”

A couple of days after the conversation with my sister, I attended the graduation fair itself. Calling it a very ‘unusual’ life experience is an understatement – it was a real show! I entered a room with about 50-60 students who were waiting in line. Some were openly mad, complaining about a huge line; others were happy, perhaps, thinking about upcoming graduation. Some students came with their parents; others were accompanied by friends. After five minutes of waiting, an enthusiastic lady came trying to convince us to “give back to university” by pressuring all of us to donate. I looked at people around me to see their reactions: many were embarrassed, some donated right away, only a few openly said that they are not going to “buy it.” I was thinking, well… some students have already paid thousands of dollars for their tuition and did not have a chance to earn money yet… Have  they not paid enough to the university, so far? Others have struggled to afford education by taking out many loans… Wouldn’t it make sense to repay their loans first? More importantly, shouldn’t donations be a matter of a personal will rather than a result of peer pressure and public shame?

The show did not stop there. As the line moved up, we were approached by more enthusiastic students who seemed to pop up every 10 minutes asking for a donation. And, as we were moving along, other people approached us advertising graduation packages – frames…then, rings…then more “donations”…then, personal announcements and envelopes…then, more “donations” again. From time to time, “donation” agents were actively rewarding those who donated and shaming those who did not. When one student openly protested the pressure to donate, the agents’ response was loud and clear: “If you are not going to donate now, you will be bombarded with tons of emails asking for donations later. It is a shame not to give back.”

The graduation fair was like a pure clash of socialism, communism, and capitalism – all in a university setting. Socialism, because we had to wait in a line (I stayed for an hour); communism, since we were expected to donate collectively; and capitalism…I guess, it is not hard to guess why capitalism.

At one moment, I asked myself whether I am at a UNIVERSITY or in a supermarket, where merchants are constantly trying to sell stuff and beggars are asking for money. Perhaps, if one is raised in the context of capitalism, such a graduation fair would seem normal and natural. And, indeed, it is becoming increasingly natural to view people as “walking dollars,” to ask students for donations before their graduation, and to constantly advertise to students in order to sell more “stuff.” I believe the impact of commercialization of education on the broader culture is strikingly disturbing, but has anything been done to assess its impact?