Is political bias a problem at universities?

Ukraine analyzes

In March 2008, Minister Ivan Wakarchuk announced that the new law on higher education would have to be developed by June 1st and submitted to parliament. Five years later it has still not been adopted, but it has given rise to discussions that are unique to date, in which parliamentarians, members of the government, political experts, student groups and, to a lesser extent, university presidents took part. During these five-year discussions, numerous bills were developed, with the focus of the discussions shifting time and again.

The National Vasyl Karasin University of Kharkiv in Ukraine (& copy picture alliance, RIA Novosti)

University Policy in Process: Actors and Events

The discussion begins: 2010/11

The first beginnings of the discussion developed in 2008/09 under Minister Wakarchuk, but were only noticed by a small group of experts. Instead, the general public continued to focus on discussions about the new Higher Education Admissions Act, which came into force in 2008. New university legislation was not on the agenda at the time. Nonetheless, these early designs introduced the idea of ​​giving higher education institutions different attributes depending on the number of their students. The introduction of this law would have meant that the Kiev-Mohyla Academy with its 3,000 students would have lost university status, because a university would then have had to have at least 10,000 students. Active criticism of political innovations of this kind did not begin to be loud until 2010, when the highly controversial Dmytro Tabachnyk was appointed Minister of Education. His inauguration provoked a general interest in education policy under the sign of negative bias from the minister's personality. The shortcomings of the first bill were largely attributed to Tabachnyk, who presented the bill, but it was mainly developed by his predecessor. Criticism was primarily directed against student numbers as the main indicator for granting a certain status, but it was also aimed at other points. Expert commissions, consisting mainly of former members of the government, but also of NGO employees and employees of the National University of the Kiev-Mohyla Academy, drew attention to the lack of guarantee of university autonomy and the ongoing leadership role of the Ministry of Education and Science in everyday work of universities. Student groups launched a nationwide campaign against rulings that allowed universities to raise tuition fees while studying. As discussions about a new higher education law began, politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties began to work out alternative higher education laws. At the end of 2011, three drafts were presented to Parliament: a version by the Minister, which was the most conservative; a bill by Yuri Myroschnychenko, which the very democratic politician of the Party of Regions had developed together with the Association of Private Universities; a draft submitted by the opposition, which was developed by the pro-Western Lilija Hrynewytsch, who was responsible for the introduction of the independent test procedure in the early 2000s.

Political maneuvers and broader public engagement: 2012/13

In view of the fierce criticism from student groups and expert circles, the government tried to postpone the final decision. Therefore, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov set up an independent working group in January 2012 to "improve" the ministry's draft. Azarov asked Mychajlo Sgurowsky, the president of the Kiev Technical University, to lead the group. In January 2012 the Sgurowsky group started its work. The group was - unique for Ukrainian politics - actually open to the participation of all interested parties and created an open platform for discussing the future of Ukrainian universities. In fact, the work was mainly done by some representatives from the Technical University and the Kiev-Mohyla Academy, as well as by a number of student groups and some experts. Many universities submitted proposals for the bill, but did not participate in meetings or discussions. Although the group was convened personally by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers never submitted the law it had drawn up to parliament. However, the government did not develop any activities to pass the minister’s draft, which turned out to be unpopular in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in October 2012. Legislation stipulates that bills that have not been adopted must be removed from the parliamentary agenda so that new ones can be registered instead. Shortly after the elections, the issue of university reform came up again and three more drafts were submitted: the Party of Regions submitted the minister's draft; the opposition registered the draft developed under Liliya Hrynewytsch; the design of the "Sgurowsky Group".

The different visions of university reform

The Party's draft, officially supported by the Ministry of Education and Science, differs conceptually and ideologically from the other two projects. It is very conservative and foresees little change in the universities, although the changes it makes would strengthen the centralization of university management and the opportunity for corruption and diminish existing social guarantees. The other two bills contain broader improvements to decentralize and democratize the university system. They also provide for more transparent funding agreements for universities, even if the quality of the funding model is debatable. The government or Party of the Regions draft was the most widely criticized publicly for claiming that the approval process it proposed would bring about a return to corruption. Since 2008, admission to universities has been regulated almost exclusively through corruption-free independent tests. Maintaining this system is widely recognized as the only anti-corruption mechanism. Still, the Party of Regions' draft suggests that students applying for fee-based programs (around 40 percent of students) can be admitted without passing the tests via university exams (as was previously the case). However, the examination of the drafts shows that there are considerably more differences between the three approaches.

Students and professors: different strategies and results

The demands of the students have changed in the course of their protests against the different versions of the higher education law. In 2010/11 student groups organized campaigns against the passage that would have allowed universities to change the level of tuition fees within an ongoing course. Current legislation provides that fees are set at the time the student is admitted to the university (if enrolled in a paid program) and then cannot be increased more than the rate of inflation. Since in 2010 40 percent of the students at Ukrainian universities studied for a fee (the remaining 60 percent free of charge), this change affected a high proportion of the student body. As a result of the massive campaign, which involved street rallies, open letters and media events, the relevant passage was deleted from the ministry's draft law. In the meantime, however, the student groups had developed some new demands. Above all, it should be ensured that the publicly funded students receive a scholarship that is above the subsistence level. Extensive campaigns led to this demand being recognized in public discourse, which was ultimately included in all three bills. In contrast to the student groups, who made their positions heard in regular protests, the university staff were largely silent during these discussions. Neither individual universities nor the national trade union ever spoke out to secure the rights of university employees in the new law. That doesn't mean the academic staff doesn't have problems. Rather, the stagnating social and economic situation of the professorships is a main reason for corruption and the declining quality of teaching. A recent survey by the Center for Society Research shows that university employees feel oppressed about their pay and academic freedoms. Teaching at Ukrainian universities is severely underpaid (43 percent of respondents said their monthly income is less than 300 euros) and at the same time very labor-intensive (an average university employee teaches 16 hours per week), which makes any research impossible, the quality of the Teaching deteriorates and corruption opens up wide fields. Although the working conditions of university employees are crucial for the quality of teaching, they did not become the subject of discussion. The drafts of the minister and the Sgurowsky group even want to abolish the upper limit of the workload (which is currently 900 teaching hours per year). Only the opposition bill proposes regulating this area by lowering the upper limit to 600 teaching hours per year. Very typical of Ukrainian politics is the way in which the professors' workload became briefly prominent shortly after the president's scandalous proposal in his 2013 annual work plan: in it, he proposed increasing the number of students per professor from eleven to eighteen . This would have resulted in mass layoffs and an even higher workload for the remaining academic staff. For the moment the initiative has been suspended; due to a lack of finances, however, it can be assumed that the topic will become topical again. Another point largely neglected in the discussion is the connection between the workload of professors and students. Because, similar to the professors, the number of weekly lessons is also very high with the students. There are no exact statistical data on this, but a general view shows that students take ten to 15 courses per semester, many of which are compulsory (for all students at the university, regardless of their subjects). Concentration suffers from this workload and students often complain that they feel torn between too many courses taking place at the same time. None of the bills deals with this problem, which is at the heart of the study process

University autonomy

While the complex of rights of university employees is mostly missing in the reform debate, university autonomy has become a catchphrase used by all sides. Ukraine inherited a highly centralized system of university governance that was not challenged during the independence period. The universities remained under state control, although the state withdrew from financial obligations (in 2012 only 67 percent of university funds were public funds). Accordingly, increasing university autonomy is one of the main demands placed on the new law. The currently valid Higher Education Act neither mentions academic freedom nor the right of universities to award degrees or to recognize degrees obtained abroad. The state develops compulsory standards for teaching, resulting in compulsory courses that must be taken by all students regardless of their subjects. Universities in Ukraine are not allowed to have their own bank accounts; they are administered through a highly detailed budget approved by the Ministry of Education and Science. The state also awards the academic degrees "Candidate of Science" and "Doctor of Science", although dissertations are prepared and defended in scientific committees at universities or institutes of the "National Academy of Sciences". All three bills registered with Parliament provide for greater financial autonomy for universities. Currently, the ministry has to approve the budget of every single university. In addition, it can determine not only the use of public funds by the university, but also the use of funds received from tuition fees and other sources. Because of the high level of corruption in all areas of higher education, universities still manage to misuse funds in practice - despite strict spending controls by various local and national authorities. This proves that tight controls cannot enforce more efficient spending. In any case, they ensure more administrative work at the universities in order to be able to meet all requirements. With regard to other types of autonomy, the designs take different approaches. In contrast to the Party of Regions' draft, those of the opposition and the "Sgurowsky Group" envisage greater academic and institutional autonomy. Both want to create new institutions independent of the Ministry of Education and Science, which should be responsible for the development of educational standards. At the same time, it can be said that even the most advanced designs have a strong Soviet legacy within them. For example, the opposition draft, which advocates greater autonomy, provides that the educational standards should include a list of compulsory courses that are approved at national level.

New financing model

The system of financial distribution to Ukrainian universities has not changed much since the Soviet era. Most of the money is tied to a "State Treaty" that finances study places at special universities that have been allocated to them. The idea of ​​the State Treaty is based on the principle of planning work. The government gathers very detailed information in the regions about the need for specialists, compares it with state priorities and then develops the general "contract" which contains very detailed information about the number of specialists who need to be trained in order to make the list to cover required professions. The university can only use the funds of the State Treaty to finance the number of study places and allow the number of students that it stipulates. However, it can admit additional students who pay the fees as long as they do not make up more than 49 percent of the total student body. The interstate treaty system is widely criticized for its lack of transparency and accountability in the allocation of study places to the various universities. It is considered prone to corruption and nepotism. There is therefore a strong consensus that the funding model needs to be changed. So the question arises as to an alternative model that could replace it. While the Party of Regions wants to keep the current funding model, the two alternative bills propose new models based on the idea that "money follows the student". Disaffected by the strict state financial controls, they plead that in the future the "customer" (in this case the students) will decide where the money will go. Such a radical change from the state to the market is evident not only in education policy, but also in other areas. "The market", usually understood as a synonym for "western", is often seen as the only viable option. Accordingly, criticism of market-based approaches is often equated with anti-Western. Accordingly, the customer-based financial distribution model proposed for universities is rarely criticized, either in theory or in practice. In doing so, its main problems are quite obvious. First of all, it is impossible to calculate a student's tuition costs. In addition, students tend to enroll in popular subjects (such as law and economics), which would undoubtedly lead to a highly distorted labor market. However, these problems are mostly ignored in the current disputes.


In the spring of 2013, the opposition announced that it supported the Sgurowsky Group's bill. Up to now, November 2013, the bill has not even been discussed in parliament and the prospects for it are rather vague at the moment.Given the current focus on European integration and other political issues, educational reform is likely to be postponed. This certainly means the opportunity for further improvement and a renewal of the discussion. However, the longer the dispute over the law continues, the more it appears that a law could change the system very little. Most problems at Ukrainian universities are so deeply rooted in everyday practice that they cannot simply be changed by law. The high tolerance of plagiarism, corruption and poor quality in research and teaching must be called into question in the universities themselves. The law can introduce higher penalties for plagiarism, but can it induce professors to publicly address plagiarism in the work of their colleagues? The law can develop a new model of quality inspection, but who will apply it? Better quality education can only be achieved through a real movement for change from within the academic community itself. For the moment, however, the university remains motionless.

About the author:

Inna Sovsun is Director of the Think Tanks Center for Society Research and Senior Lecturer at the National University of the Kiev-Mohyla Academy. She conducts research on education policy in Ukraine and the role of global trends in this context.