Ukraine's Outdated Educational System Translates into Lagging Economy

Op-ed in the Kyiv Post

October 4, 2012

If Ukraine is to catch up economically with the outside world, it needs good education. In many ways, Ukraine's education sector is its strongest part of the economy, but the best parts of the Ukrainian education system are dwindling remnants of the Soviet system, notably basic education in mathematics, and science.

The worst is the quality of doctoral education. For management training, the World Economic Forum ranks Ukraine 116 out of 142 nations. The situation is similarly bad in economics, law, and languages, as is evident from the excellent public debate in Zerkalo Nedeli and a report by CASE.

Depressingly, Education Minister Dmitry Tabachnik could hardly care less about the real problems in Ukrainian education—corruption, over-regulation, waste, and poor quality. His endeavor to sovietize Ukrainian historiography and promote russification attracts most attention. His greatest “reform” has been to reduce ordinary school from the European standard of 12 years to 11 years, seemingly inspired by the destruction instigated by the late Turkmenbashi.

As everybody knows, the greatest problem in the Ukrainian education system is corruption. Students, or their parents, pay for entry into institutions of higher education, and if necessary, also for exams and degrees. The Orange government of ex-President Viktor Yushchenko and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymosheno introduced independent national tests for university entry.

Instead of correcting some anomalies in these tests, Tabachnik has amended the university admittance rules, allowing additional tests and demanding social preferences, notably for children of miners from Donetsk. In Zerkalo Nedeli, Lidiya Surzhik rightly complains that this leads to negative selection. Moreover, rectors and professors may indulge in their old corrupt ways. Laudably, the government promotes electronic applications, but the ultimate issue is the acceptance practices.

The best universities in the world, the top US universities, are private non-profit foundations, and the next best, the foremost British universities, Oxford and Cambridge, are public but they enjoy great autonomy. Ukraine should transform its universities into independent foundations with proper governance in the form of boards of trustees. Then education, research policy, appointments, and finance could be decentralized to the universities. Instead, the old detailed centralized Soviet financing system persists. Not surprisingly, none of Ukraine's 501 institutions of higher learning qualifies among the 500 top universities in the world ranked on the Shanghai University list.

International integration is vital for the development of education. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education promotes foreign studies on a massive scale, claiming that 18,000-20,000 students go abroad for studies each year. This is the best part of the Ukrainian education policy.

Ukraine should do its utmost also to attract good foreign partners and support private institutions, but the state dominates and suffocates the education sector. International education ventures can consider themselves lucky if they are not being closed down by the Ukrainian bureaucracy and the state offers them no assistance. Kazakhstan, by contrast, has established an elite state university in cooperation with 10 outstanding foreign universities. Even Russia has made such an attempt with its Skolkovo Business School together with Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For years, President Leonid Kuchma was committed to the so-called Bologna process of the European unification of university degrees, but one of Tabachnik's first decisions as minister was to take Ukraine out of this process. As a consequence, a PhD who has graduated from a major Western university is not recognized as competent to teach at any substandard Ukrainian institute. This is a reliable method for preserving incompetence. Ironically, Tabachnik has sovietized the Ukrainian education system, while Russia has pursued Europeanization, adopting and accepting foreign degrees.

The required qualifications of a rector of a Ukrainian university are Ukrainian citizenship, a Soviet-style degree of doctor of science and teaching experience at a Ukrainian university for a decade. A person with such qualifications can hardly contribute to the major renewal that is needed. For the time being, Ukrainians with ambitions of doctorates can only be advised to study abroad.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the Ukrainian education system is well-financed. Public expenditures on education amounted to 7.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, more than in most European countries, but much of the funds are being wasted on real estate and overstaffing.

Because of low birth rates and emigration the number of school children in Ukraine has fallen by 40 percent from 7.1 million in 1991 to 4.3 million at present. The real estate and staff of the education system should be trimmed accordingly.

Yet, during these two decades the number of schools has declined by only 9 percent, which means that an increasing share of the education budget goes to the maintenance of redundant real estate. Tabachnik boasts that he has only closed 300 schools, while Tymoshenko closed 650 in two years. Instead, he should prepare to close the excess of 6,800 schools. Superfluous real estate should be sold off and the funds used for the improvement of education.

The lingering Soviet budget norms force schools to maintain large unnecessary bureaucratic staff. Presumably, half of them would be laid off in a decentralized budget system. There are too many teachers as well. In the last two decades, the number of school teachers has remained almost constant at just over half a million. As a consequence, the student-to-teacher ratio has fallen from a reasonable 13.3 in 1991 to 8.4, which is uneconomically low. The number of teachers could be reduced by 40 percent. The most qualified teachers should be retained, and their salaries could rise by 80 percent. In that way, Latvia economized very successfully during the financial crisis.

After these elementary steps, much else needs to be done. State financing should be tied to students rather than institutions; good international textbooks need to be translated and adopted; computerization should advance; syllabuses always need evolution; and resources should be concentrated to the best institutions.

This article was first published in Forbes (Ukraine).