How Mr. X Outsmarted Mr. Kvit: The Lopsided Progress of Ukraine’s Education Reforms

Let me tell you the story of Mr. X—a student whom I had never seen in class, and who had not shown up for any of his final exams. “Oh, do not worry,” his fellow students reassured me, “it has been like this year in year out.” I could have easily forgotten this trivial episode had Mr. X not earned a university diploma and had someone answered my humble inquiry into how he managed to pull that off.

The day I learned about Mr. X’s remarkable academic achievements, the weekly magazine Vlast Deneg named Education Minister Serhiy Kvit the most successful reformer in Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s cabinet. The press praised Kvit for adopting the Higher Education Law, which broadened universities’ autonomy and brought Ukraine’s higher education systems in line with global academic standards. Kvit had quickly ended the corrupt state procurements of school textbooks and revoked the accreditation of 70 universities with low academic standards. Under ex-Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk—now a fugitive from Ukrainian justice—textbook printers allegedly paid millions of hryvnia in kickbacks, while numerous private universities easily renewed their academic licenses after paying tokens of respect to the right people.

The Ministry of Education accomplished the herculean task of evacuating sixteen universities and ten research institutes from the occupied anti-terrorist operation zones. In March, Kvit agreed to Ukraine’s accession to the Horizon 2020 program—the European Union’s €80 billion research and innovation program that offers Ukrainian academics a wide range of new opportunities. Among other things, the ministry is reforming Ukraine’s network of vocational colleges and introducing competitive grants for researchers at the Academy of Sciences. In total, Kvit has delivered on 56 percent of his reform agenda.

Numbers aside, the case of Mr. X’s rubber-stamped diploma is clear evidence that the system is still as dishonest as ever. A recent opinion poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation shows that even after the Euromaidan, 34 percent of students have personally encountered corruption. The Institute for Education Development’s recent Study on Student Academic Culture revealed that 67 percent of students cheat at final exams, while 90 percent plagiarize regularly.

The ministry’s ad hoc tactic of fighting corruption by stripping individual charlatans of their fake academic degrees cannot be a sustainable solution. For example, Petro Buryak was re-elected as Rector of the Lviv Finance Academy the day after his arrest for taking a $2,000 bribe; ninety-two of the university’s 148 professors voted in his favor despite plentiful evidence of corruption provided by local police. An Education Ministry observer endorsed the election because the newly established principle of university autonomy prohibits the ministry from imposing its will upon universities’ academic councils.

It’s increasingly evident that the new Higher Education Law—conceived as an attempt to protect universities from the ministry’s whims—is likely to trigger greater nepotism; since top university administrators have broader decision-making powers, the law has made rank-and-file professors vulnerable and fully dependent on their bosses. In times of economic hardship, professors are unlikely to challenge their rectors’ decisions or speak out against corrupt practices.

Kvit says the principle of university autonomy will eventually make the higher education system more competitive. In order to attract the best talent, universities will start developing their distinctive brands. To that end, Ukraine’s newly established National Agency for Higher Education Quality is to monitor academic performance and share best practices with other agencies. Yet the independence of this agency has become a farce. The Dmytro Firtash-led Federation of Employers of Ukraine—as if to mock the ministry’s attempts to modernize the system—has elected three of the most odious members of Tabachnyk’s clique to monitor the integrity of Ukraine’s universities. All three had been dismissed from the ministry by Kvit’s lustration decree, but legal loopholes made their unexpected return as triumphant as one of David Copperfield’s incredible reincarnations. Nearly conceding defeat, Kvit published a statement recognizing “the difficulty of introducing new democratic principles and institutions” under conditions of “[post]-totalitarian mental inertia.”

“It appears we underestimated the system’s ability to sabotage innovation,” says Olena Zaplotynska of the National Reforms Council‘s project management office. “Dr. Kvit’s attempts to introduce change threaten numerous university rectors, who are apprehensive of the unknown and who would rather preserve the existing status quo within the system. The election of nefarious ‘old guard’ personalities into the state agency, which is expected to have integrity by definition, signals a counter-revolution to Dr. Kvit’s policies.”

The last stab in Kvit’s back was the July 21 search at the Educational Quality Standardized Assessment Center by investigators from the Prosecutor General’s Office. Despite the center’s reputation for improving the integrity of secondary school teaching, the Prosecutor General’s Office claims there were numerous unauthorized entries into the system to manipulate results. As a result, the government suspended the powers of the center’s long-term director, Ihor Likarchuk, who recently complained that powerful parents had pressured him to ensure preferential academic results for their children.

The key problem, however, is not with the army of those dissatisfied or seeking revenge. It is a natural reaction to Kvit’s visionary leadership and commitment to quality. The problem is with the Cabinet of Minister’s hesitance to strongly back up Kvit’s innovation and even go one step further by clearly articulating the guiding principles upon which the post-Maidan educational system should evolve. Why don’t we finally abandon the pre-electoral social populism and honestly acknowledge that the old communist principle of free education for all has fully exhausted itself, and that under current economic conditions,

Ukraine simply cannot afford the luxury of keeping the rusty, over-bureaucratized university apparatus afloat. The government should help foreign schools open academic branches in Ukraine, since only market forces—not monitoring by some pseudo-independent state agency—can ensure competitiveness. The number of Ukrainian students who enrolled in Polish and Lithuanian universities almost doubled over the last five years, and this is a sign that Ukraine will continue to lose its top talent if teaching standards do not improve and Ukrainian university diplomas do not gain real value internationally.

The logic of Ukraine’s current education reform process is also not entirely clear. Having started with higher education, the ministry appears to have put the cart before the horse. Wouldn’t it have been logical to kick off reforms from bottom to top, starting with preschools and then moving up the educational ladder? Ukraine’s preschool enrollment level of 56 percent is one of Europe’s lowest, and corruption begins right there. With a limited number of preschools, Ukrainians pay bribes to get their children enrolled and then continue making regular “charitable donations” to preschool administrators to cover basic daycare costs, which the state has promised to provide for free. Instead of spending months and years on developing innovative academic programs for Ukrainian preschoolers, the ministry should simplify registration of private kindergartens and establish a level playing field for all institutions offering preschool. This simple reform could make thousands of Ukrainian families much happier, as per ministry statistics, there are 80,000 children on the waiting list for preschool enrollment at the moment.

The ministry should speed up work on the master plan for education reforms—the framework Law on Education— to ensure quick changes at all educational levels, while the Prime Minister should boost its focus on reforms in the humanitarian sector and underscore his readiness to eradicate corruption not only in high cabinets, but also at teachers’ desks and rectors’ offices. Otherwise, Ukrainians will never see the day when they will be able to call out Mr. X’s by their real names.

Kateryna Smagliy is the Director of the Kennan Institute’s Kyiv Office.

Image: Serhiy Kvit, Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, held a briefing on March 13 on reforming vocational education and training. One newspaper named Kvit the most successful reformer in the cabinet. But problems remain. The key problem is with the Cabinet of Minister’s hesitance to strongly back up Kvit’s innovation and even go one step further by clearly articulating the guiding principles upon which the post-Maidan educational system should evolve. Credit: Ministry of Education and Science in Ukraine