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Ukrainian universities: war, challenges and necessary reforms

What is the future of Ukrainian universities? In recent years, they have faced tremendous pressure. First, COVID-19, and then the full-scale invasion right afterward.

Despite this, they continue to operate and even find new opportunities in this harsh environment. What are these opportunities? What reforms need to be implemented right away? How do universities manage to find funding? And how good are their graduates?

Ukrainian universities: war, challenges and necessary reforms

Brian Bonner: So I start today. This is Brian Bonner, host of Hromadske Radio’s Radio’s Ukraine Calling program. We have a great one today. We have a living legend in the educational establishment, Serhiy Kvit. He is the longtime president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and former education minister of Ukraine. Welcome to the studio.

Serhiy Kvit: Thank you, Brian. I’m glad to see you.

Brian Bonner: He is the author of the book, “Media, History, and Education,” which I just finished reading this week. I highly recommend it. It’s a riveting romp through Ukrainian history in all of its facets, from the beginning to the present day.

The effect of war on education

Brian Bonner: So here we are, the third year of a full-scale war. How has that affected and damaged education generally, aside from buildings?

Serhiy Kvit: It damages Ukrainian education. You know that the full-scale war started just after the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why, we actually have a lot of years, about five or six years of damage to our education system, particularly high education.

We have many problems and challenges. Our community and many Ukrainian universities are scattered across the world. But at the same time, at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, we try to look at such challenges as new opportunities. For instance, from the very beginning of the full-scale war, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy established a special international project, which we call “Kyiv-Mohyla Global Academy.”

We established our international campuses in Northern America and Western Europe. Of course, we don’t have any property in those countries, but we collaborate very closely with some universities, particularly in North America. These include the University of Toronto, two German universities, the University of Glasgow, some universities in France, and more.

We have many new friends and international partners, and we have many new opportunities, too. There are exchange programs for teachers and students and common research groups. Finally, we try to publish the results of their research activities. The first book of such results will be published by Toronto University Press next year.

Fighting Russian imperialism from childhood

Brian Bonner: You have so many interesting experiences. And for those who may not know, he opposed Soviet and Russian imperialism pretty much from childhood. He sees nothing good in Russian culture and nothing to emulate. I don’t know if he helped destroy one of the first statues of Vladimir Lenin, but it was an early one.

Serhiy Kvit: Yes, it happened when I was a student of the Faculty of Journalism of Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. It was in 1989 or 1990. I destroyed the statue of Lenin, which we had inside our building.

Brian Bonner: And your accomplice was your dean, right?

Serhiy Kvit: Yes, deputy dean. The story about the deputy dean is interesting. He hated communists and was a member of the Communist Party. This was quite common in the Soviet era, and it was an opportunity for him to show his attitude to communists and Russian imperialism.

He asked me to bring the statue to the basement. I didn’t know why I should do this, but he asked me. I was an activist at that time. We, as active students, established all the first organizations on the faculty and within the university. And finally, we destroyed the statues, yeah.

Brian Bonner: Thank God. You gave the excuse that you were taking it out for washing, but they never returned.

Breaking from the Soviet past in education

Brian Bonner: That crystallizes what you’ve tried to do as an education minister and throughout your career. You wrote about it in the book: to make a complete break from the Soviet past regarding education or a near complete break. You want us to have academic quality and independence, so a degree here matters. So that it is respected as the Bologna process is.

Serhiy Kvit: The core idea was the comprehensive university autonomy, which includes at least financial autonomy, academic autonomy, and organizational autonomy. Unfortunately, until now, we don’t have financial autonomy, but all our universities have full academic autonomy, like American universities. But they can’t capitalize on their achievements because they still don’t have financial autonomy. It means our state still controls the financial life of our universities. And it’s ridiculous.

Brian Bonner: And you could not push through that change when you were education minister. By the way, the Kyiv Post named you the best reformer for your efforts and time.

Financially, it can’t be good now for education because all or most of our available money is going to war.

Serhiy Kvit: We mustn’t grumble, you know. Because of the circumstances of this full-scale war. My point is that we faced new problems related to the war. But at the same time, there are no new problems (in education – ed.). All of them were borrowed from post-Soviet times, from the very beginning of our independence.

We didn’t change our system completely, as I mentioned about the financial life of our universities. Currently, we can organize the educational process; we do this. We have research, and we have great new projects. But we don’t have financial autonomy. It’s ridiculous.

Brian Bonner: But how do you get that? How do you finance? Because we’re a poor nation, as we all know. I know the American educational system has many achievements. But to be good, education needs to be universal and accessible to most of the public. We have Vanderbilt making headlines, the first university that charges $100,000 annually.

You know it, you’ve studied in America, too, and are a postgraduate. People are coming out of there with debt, huge, life-crippling debt. On the other hand, I still hear from students that “my degree is not∆ worth anything wherever I am.” Is that true? What is the right mix? Are we starting to get respect internationally for our education, or is it still mixed?

Serhiy Kvit: First, a better example for Ukraine is not an American system of higher education but a Canadian one. All Canadian universities are public. In Ukraine, we have public and private higher education institutions. Unfortunately, private companies are not competitive with the public for different reasons. However, in Canada, all universities are financially independent, and the state doesn’t try to manage these universities manually.

Brian Bonner: So, they get public funds, but they’re allowed to manage them.

Serhiy Kvit: Not only public funds encourage their activity, but they have different sources of funds. But they don’t manage them manually. That is why we will not have good universities with enough quality in the international arena until they are financially independent. That’s the main point.

I believe we will reach this goal after the war. We are on the right path. But until now, our universities are not financially independent. It’s a core point of how we can develop our higher education system. At the same time, we have done a lot concerning the development of our higher education institutions. And I think we have many universities that are quite successful, even on the international level.

It’s kind of a paradox that we currently have weak institutions, for different reasons, but we have strong graduates. It’s interesting because our graduates, not only from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy but from all Ukrainian universities, are quite competitive when they continue their education abroad or when they start their careers as researchers. It’s very promising, but we need to change a lot.

The second point besides financial independence. We need to develop our research system within the universities. We need to combine the system of the National Academy of Sciences and the system of higher education. Because it was divided conceptually, I believe, from the middle of the 1920s. It was the Soviet concept to control both systems. And so they divided it. According to the Soviets, the purpose of university activity is education itself. But research is for another system. For the system of the Academy of Sciences.

Financing of Ukrainian education

Brian Bonner: And you were not a National Academy of Sciences fan. You had said in the book that, unfortunately, after independence, too many governments saw education as an expenditure to get whatever is left over from the budget. Not an investment. Has that changed?

Serhiy Kvit: To be honest, it’s not changed. It’s not changed because of the war. But we already have some politicians who understand the importance. They have a change of mind concerning the purpose and the goal of the educational system in Ukraine. Some of them understand that it’s an investment. All the money that we have for the educational system, it’s an investment for the future.

I think it is changing. We can speak about the new generation of politicians. We have a very strong civil society in Ukraine. But on the other hand, we still don’t have an effective state. But I believe that it’s a time when everything is changing, and I’m very optimistic.

Quality of education. Do we need less universities?

Brian Bonner: Is there one world ranking you trust that everybody says is perfect?

Serhiy Kvit: These are some of the so-called most powerful rankings. Like Shanghai ranking, QS ranking, and more. But what is the problem for us? The most important criterion within such rankings is the result of research. However, our universities have such a structure that a very small percentage of the activity of any university is devoted to research.

For instance, it should be changed from 2 or 5 percent to 60 percent. At the same time, we need to create some new types of universities. I can compare what I mean with liberal arts colleges in the United States. They don’t have any research, but they pay attention to the personal development of the students. It’s another kind of higher education institution. And we need to create similar institutions.

Brian Bonner: Hopefully, you won’t charge as much for tuition as Americans.

Serhiy Kvit: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we still require universities from all of them research results. But very often, it’s just an imitation of research, with publications in some strange journals and so on. That is why we need to establish new types of higher education institutions for a variety, of different purposes. I think it will strengthen the whole system. And, of course, we need to cut the number and increase the quality of our universities.

Brian Bonner: You started doing that as education minister, cutting the number and increasing the quality. Do we still have too many?

Serhiy Kvit: We still have too many. For instance, when I worked as a minister, we closed down about 100 institutions. But we still have a lot of them. In the time of the full-scale war, we had additional problems with universities that had been moved from occupied territories.

Brian Bonner: You had to relocate many of them.

Serhiy Kvit: We started to work with them in 2014, and we relocated, I believe, 18 universities. All of them found a new place and their niche in different parts of Ukraine. But currently, we have a huge number of such institutions. All of them were completely destroyed; we have cities, towns, and villages in Ukraine that are completely destroyed. That is why they don’t have any infrastructure for education and research; they don’t have teachers.

That is why I think we currently need a special government policy concerning the number of institutions—it’s really huge. And I think it should be a policy. It requires not just the decisions of the minister of education and sciences. It should be a policy of the government.

Brian Bonner: You want to close them because they’re not delivering quality education? Are they just delivering diplomas?

Serhiy Kvit: Just diploma mills, very small and very strange, without any quality, without teachers, and so on.

Brian Bonner: I can name many, and I know you can name many more, I believe, good-quality universities in Ukraine. But the last time I checked, we didn’t show up anywhere in the international rankings very high. Is that fair or not fair?

International ranking of Ukrainian universities

Serhiy Kvit: Interesting question about participation in international rankings. I personally like the European approach. They don’t have the ranking “from the best to the worst.” It’s more close to the idea of marketing or something when you try to sell something: the best, the worst.

However, Europeans try to develop their own ranking with different ideas of how you can show yourself as the best university with different requirements. For instance, it could be your attitude to students. It’s not only about research but also the quality of teaching. It’s a different criterion.

You could be the best in one type, one part of this ranking, and could occupy the worst position in another part of the same ranking. There are a lot of different, you know, requirements to the same universities: uniqueness of the university, how you fulfill the strategy, what is your relations and how you are useful for the local community. And you can show up as the best in some of the approaches.

This idea is related to the representation of high education institutions from the point of quality assurance. In this case, you should remember the different requirements and different ideas: why are you the best? It’s not only research.

The main idea of the biggest rankings is research. In fact, such universities as Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard are huge international enterprises. It’s an ecosystem of research, an ecosystem for the development of industry, an ecosystem for new ideas, and so on.

On graduates of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Brian Bonner: One test is how your graduates get jobs. From my own experience, the answer is yes. At any time when I was the chief editor of the Kyiv Post, up to half of our staff were Kyiv-Mohyla graduates or students. And they were great for the most part, really fantastic, well-educated.

I didn’t point out that Kyiv-Mohyla Academy has led basically all the innovations in education in Ukraine. The problem is, I couldn’t afford to keep them. I mean, the salaries were very low in journalism, as you might guess. Do you have that same problem with attracting talented professors?

Serhiy Kvit: Yes, of course, we have some problems, particularly with salaries. But coming back to your mention of our graduates, of course, we are proud of them. For instance, currently, we have many Ukrainian ambassadors to different countries.

At the same time, we didn’t prepare for international relations. For instance, Oksana Markarova is the ambassador of Ukraine to the United States. She’s a graduate of our ecology program. We have a Ukrainian ambassador to Canada who is a graduate of ours.

Brian Bonner: (Andriy) Shevchenko?

Serhiy Kvit: No, Shevchenko was my student, a journalist. But the current ambassador is Yulia Kovalev. And she’s also our graduate, she’s an economist. One more is an ambassador of Ukraine to some Latin American countries like Peru, Columbia, and others. Also, our graduate, who is a historian, belongs to the top 10 researchers of Mayan culture. That is why we are proud of our graduates.

At the same time, of course, salaries in Ukrainian universities, particularly in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, are quite low. Of course, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy is the most expensive Ukrainian university because some of our students pay tuition fees just for their education.

We also encourage our teachers and our PhD students to participate in different international projects, and they are very active. We encourage our teachers and students to establish their own research centers at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. We try to involve some additional finances from different sources, particularly international sources. Because, as I mentioned, our relations with the state are quite, you know.

What is the future of education?

Brian Bonner: Yes, he covered that. And one of the reasons we have a strong civil society is that we’ve not always had the strong state we need. What is the future of education? Because in America, they’re starting to debate do I really need a college education? Because we have AI now. You can find a catalog of knowledge online, anywhere. I know we’ll always need universities, thank God. But where do you see this going in the future, given the explosion of knowledge that keeps happening?

Serhiy Kvit: For Ukrainian higher education institutions, of course, we need to do a lot and borrow some of the ideas. First of all, from the United States, because obtaining financial autonomy means comprehensive university autonomy. An American example is very good for us, of course. And it’s our way to develop our research and knowledge in different spheres.

At the same time, I think universities’ social responsibility is very important. I believe our universities will play a greater role in the future as agents of change, social change.

Brian Bonner: Well, you certainly played that role at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Serhiy Kvit: Yeah, we do this. Like an independent tribune for freedom of speech. And a university must become part of the community. And this role will grow.

On the minister for education under Yanukovych

Brian Bonner: I have to tell you that you took over from Dmytro Tabachnik (minister for education under Yanukovych—ed.). Ideologically, this is like whiplash because these are two opposite people. You wrote that he’s a Kremlin agent; that’s basically saying he did a lot of damage.

Serhiy Kvit: He was a danger ideologically; he spread Russian imperial narratives and so on. That there are no Ukrainian people, no Ukrainian history, and no language. It’s absolutely ridiculous. At the same time, we have such a centralized system, borrowed from the Soviet period, that he, as a minister, couldn’t do anything worse for the educational system by himself. The Ministry of Education and Sciences needs support from the minister of Finances, Ministry of Economy, and Minister of Justice.

Brian Bonner: So there were ways to stop him.

Serhiy Kvit: Yeah, all of them needed support from the government. That is why he was not so dangerous for us.

Brian Bonner: Did you have a conflict or just avoid him?

Serhiy Kvit: I believe that we had three cases in the court. And finally, we became winners in all cases. against Tabachnik, you know. Also, when he was appointed to this position, I published my public appeal against Dmitriy Tabachnik in the academic community. He was ridiculous, even among the people who belonged to the ruling party. At that time, some of them hated Tabachnik. But what was the most interesting thing about such a situation? The Russian Orthodox Church supported him. It’s really interesting for me.

Brian Bonner: Which are Kremlin agents?

Serhiy Kvit: Yeah.

Brian Bonner: And in the end, he served the president who was guilty of plagiarism in his degree.

Serhiy Kvit: Not only a degree but in some publications too. We knew such publications as publications of the president, but of course, it was prepared.

Plagiarism in Ukrainian education

Brian Bonner: It was interesting to read that you said Soviet education was not so bad in some areas, like research. But you said there was more plagiarism in independent Ukraine in the 1990s than in Soviet Ukraine.

Serhiy Kvit: Absolutely. Plagiarism was not a tool for developing a professional career in the Soviet period; you’re right. Because it was a kind of conspiracy between the Communist Party.

Brian Bonner: Where you wrote, the planes have to fly, the bombs have to explode.

Serhiy Kvit: But at the same time, ghostwriting was very popular in the Soviet Union. Like today, but in a different way. It’s very dangerous even for the Western system. The British were the most successful. They changed their legislation against ghostwriting. But I think that in the Soviet period, they stole everything that they could.

Brian Bonner: Are we long gone? Is plagiarism not a big problem? And do we have universal external admission standards across the country? Academic quality? Is everything generally rising?

Because they’re connected, higher education and lower education. You won’t get good students if you have a bad lower education.

Serhiy Kvit: We still have plagiarism as a problem in Ukraine, but it has decreased in the last few years. Because of a big activity of our public persons, who are activists in this sphere, because of some government decisions, the activity of the National Agency for Higher Education and Quality Assurance. By the way, our parliament is considering a special law on academic integrity. That is why it is going down.

Brian Bonner: So we’re going in the right direction?

Serhiy Kvit: Yeah. However, ghostwriting and other problems are still very dangerous and damaging to the system.

Remarks on Russian invasion

Brian Bonner: You said that you saw this invasion coming; you wrote that.

Serhiy Kvit: From childhood.

Brian Bonner: You made it clear. We have plenty of history and plenty of values, and plenty of culture. It gets ignored sometimes by the West and drowned out by Russian and imperial narratives. Do you see any reasons to believe that we will not emerge from this stronger and will not win? Do you have any doubts?

Serhiy Kvit: During the war, we had many achievements, formal achievements, with what our government or our Ministry of Education and Sciences did. But the most important thing is that our society is changing.

Brian Bonner: We’re going to make a clean break. You referred to your grandmother saying about World War Two. That war clarifies everything. Yeah, we will never have a pro-Russian narrative here.

Serhiy Kvit: It’s not only about narratives because they sound strange to you, but Russian narratives were much more successful for the West than for Ukraine. For most Ukrainians, Putin was a completely ridiculous person with his narratives.

There are additional important questions, like issues related to the Ukrainian language. For instance, we had a big percentage of books on Russian literature. Why Russian literature? We need to know more about Ukrainian literature in some European or American countries. It is changing, but the issue of the language is very important.

Brian Bonner: Of course. And you made it very clear. Are we going to win this war eventually?

Serhiy Kvit: Yeah, we will win this war and regain all of our territories. I am convinced.


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