Education in Ukraine – what to do with a large number of universities in the country

It is believed that there are a lot of higher education institutions in Ukraine; that the limited resource of state funding for education and science has been scattered; that “excessive” quantity is a sign of poor quality. How did it happen that so many institutions of higher education have sprung up in our country, and what will happen next with this cumbersome system? Is it possible in this variety of institutions to find a place for liberal arts education, which, in fact, is more aimed at developing a worldview than preparing for a profession, and at the same time – for dual education, which aims to bring the student’s audience closer to his future place of work? How will online education develop after the end of the pandemic? These questions need reflection and discussion.

I’m not sure that I have the answers to all the questions posed, but without understanding them, the answers cannot be found.

So, in Ukraine now there are more than 280 institutions of higher education – public and private. They receive higher education at all three levels: bachelor’s, master’s, doctor of philosophy. If we add here colleges (institutions of special education), which also have bachelor’s programs (but no master’s), and research institutes, where there are postgraduate programs (but no lower levels), the number of subjects offering higher education will exceed 1200. Obviously this is a lot.

But this figure is unlikely to decrease sharply in the near future. Although the World Bank recently adopted a $ 200 million program to optimize the network of higher education institutions in Ukraine, there is no local demand for such a reduction (on the contrary!). The unification of institutions “from above”, using administrative levers, requires political will to take unpopular steps, which is quite dangerous for any head of the Ministry of Education and Science. Moreover, our ministers of education are predominantly chosen from among the rectors, and it is somehow “not comme il faut” to unite institutions led by colleagues by force.

Ukraine inherited the current number of subjects of educational activity.

From the industrial age, we have received a huge network of colleges and colleges today striving to survive in a society that values ​​only higher education after high school. In Ukraine, a paradoxical situation has formed, when almost 75% of school graduates take VNO and enter institutions of higher education (and not in vocational schools), and at the same time, only the lazy does not complain about the quality of this same “higher education”.

In the turbulent 1990s, the transformation of higher education from a public good into a “service” and a way of earning money (publicly or not) was established and became the norm. As a result, for many applicants, the goal of admission to a university was to “obtain a diploma” (not competencies or worldview), and the universities themselves, forgetting about their essence of the “academic community”, turned into a service provider. The quality of these “services” is often measured either by the personal income of the organizers of the process of providing them (at worst), or (at best) by the level of satisfaction of the “clients” (students).

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And also – from the USSR we received a network of specialized institutes, created at one time for the training of personnel in one or another branch of the planned economy: aviation, construction, forestry, trade, educational, agricultural, artistic, etc. The planned economy no longer exists, and the industries are often significantly reduced, but the specialized institutions remain.

Since the past (from Skoropadsky), we have received a network of research institutes of the National Academy of Sciences, which are physically, financially, essentially separated from the sphere of higher education. This “heterosexuality” is holding back the emergence of real research universities in Ukraine – such that they could get into the top positions of world rankings. In each of our research institutes, postgraduate studies are open, and each is given the right to award an educational and scientific degree of Doctor of Philosophy, therefore each (according to statistics) is considered a separate institution of higher education.

Is there a chance to overcome this legacy? Immediately – I doubt it. Systemic changes from above are unlikely. Academic communities of institutions must transform from the bottom up. In some cases, this will mean a “rebellion” against the local “feudal lord”. In others, the teacher is aware of the cost of his own reputation and the reputation of his institution. Still in some – understanding the benefits of the agglomeration of scattered resources and the search for compromises leading to their unification. Over the next few years, this will probably happen through the evolutionary development of the system, namely:

Sectoral institutions will (finally!) Find a common language with employers and become institutions of “professional higher education”. Or they will die. A prerequisite for survival should be the introduction of high-quality dual education in cooperation with a cluster of employers. I emphasize: a high-quality dual education is not something that is created for a specific employing company. High-quality dual education requires cooperation with a cluster of companies in the same industry. This is not a corporate university, but an opportunity for a student to acquire practical skills in many companies in a particular industry during the course of study. Such a system should provide for competition between cluster companies for the best student-trainee; a clear and understandable distribution of functions between the university and the employer, according to which the former provides theoretical (academic) education, and the latter provides practical.

Classical universities will gradually turn into research universities, with the involvement of individual institutes of the NAS and branch academies of sciences in their structures. The most optimal way for this is the formation of general postgraduate programs and specialized “doctoral schools” (as in France), where educational and scientific cooperation between universities and academic institutions is institutionalized precisely at the level of general guidance of graduate students and promoting high-quality training of young research teachers.

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Polytechnic institutes (universities) will continue the already begun self-transformation in applied training for the field of mechanical engineering to centers for the practical training of specialists for IT and high-tech industries. In this area, the process has already begun, and, thanks to the great demand of the Ukrainian IT sector for qualified specialists, one can expect that it will continue.

Small prestigious universities, established already in the days of independence (for example, Mohylanka, UCU, Ostroh Academy …), will finally find an opportunity to implement “liberal education”, forming a personality rather than a specialist; giving preference, rather, to ideological development in the community than to preparation for a profession. In this sense, last year’s amendments to the Law “On Higher Education” and the recently approved amendments to the Licensing Conditions can be very useful: in Ukraine, for the first time, it became possible to create intersectoral two-year “junior bachelor’s” programs, after which students (theoretically) could to enter the third year of study in a specific specialty. Consequently, the need to choose a specialty immediately after school will disappear, because it will be possible to enroll in a two-year university program of general development, after which choose a specialty. It remains for the next year to launch such programs in practice.

Mass specialized institutions, specifically agricultural and pedagogical universities, will go through very difficult times. Now there are a lot of such institutions in Ukraine, their bachelor’s programs often duplicate those offered by other universities nearby. It is in vain to expect that each of the former pedagogical institutes will turn into a classical university or each agrarian one will become a polytechnic university. Therefore, either the number of these institutions will decrease naturally, or they will turn into centers for advanced training and education for adults. It is education throughout life that is extremely necessary for both agrarians and teachers of all levels, but so far this demand does not find institutional supply from institutions. There is great hope for the emergence of professional master’s programs for applicants whose average age is 30-40 years.

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It should be noted that at the system level, almost everything that had to be done from above (MES, CMU, VRU) for the possibility of the aforementioned transformations has actually been done. The financial autonomy of higher education institutions can be considered an exception: it has not yet been fully introduced. And even here there are already shifts associated with the transition to state funding according to the formula, and other changes can be expected soon. Further transformations will depend on the activity and initiative of educators and academic communities of the institutions themselves.

Given the quarantine restrictions that have shaken the educational industry (and the entire society) over the past year, one should not expect significant local transformational initiatives. But the risks of a pandemic seem to be gradually diminishing. At the same time, during this past year, we have learned to organize the educational process differently; the advantages and disadvantages of online education became apparent and manifested themselves at all levels.

In the future, the following issues will be updated: Should you lecture live if you can online? If the lectures are translated into an online format, will there be a resource opportunity to increase the contact hours for seminars, face-to-face interactive discussions? Will the awareness of the value of education change among students (and parents), who will stop striving to “get a diploma” that can actually be bought on the Internet; and will there be an understanding of the value of education as a good, and not as “pieces of paper”?

The answer to all these questions is open. Definitely, the transformation will not be quick and will depend on each participant in the process (teachers, heads of institutions, students, graduate students, employers …). But the last year of the pandemic has shown that higher education can be different and that the evolutionary transformation of practices from the bottom up can lead to incredible results. Therefore, I continue to be optimistic and believe in the quality of higher education in its various manifestations.

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