Ukraine: Education reforms and demand for study abroad continuing to take shape

The Ukrainian government passed an ambitious higher education reform package into law on 1 July 2014, marking a major turning point for an education system that, as the British Council has pointed out, has gone “largely unreformed since Soviet times.

The reforms are wide-ranging and include provisions that will bring Ukrainian universities into alignment with the Bologna Process – that is, with common European standards for higher education – and also for the recognition of foreign degrees and faculty.

The new law is a distinct break from what has been a highly centralised system of higher education in the Ukraine. It provides for a simpler, more decentralised bureaucracy, and greater administrative and financial autonomy for higher education institutions. The reforms will also see the creation of a new national agency for quality assurance that will enforce ministry-approved standards for higher education and have authority to approve the opening of all new degree programmes.

In one of the more dramatic (and immediate) signs of reform, in the year since the new legislation was passed, the Ukraine has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of universities operating within the country. The total number of universities has fallen from 802 to 317, with some having been closed and others converted to vocational education colleges. Still more are expected to close over the course of 2015, particularly as the government withdraws the operating licences of low-quality institutions.

Further reports late last year indicate that the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science has developed a draft strategy to further reform the content and focus of higher education in the country. The draft plan, “A Strategy for the Reform of Higher Education to 2020”, calls for a reduction in the number of disciplines or specialisations taught at Ukrainian institutions, from roughly 150 today to between 60 and 80 by 2020.

This appears to be an attempt on the part of the ministry to achieve some efficiencies across the system and to bring academic programmes into better alignment with labour market requirements.

In a further reflection of the strong current of internationalisation running through many of the government’s reforms, the draft plan also calls for at least one foreign faculty member in every university department by 2020.

Education in conflict

Ukraine’s planned reforms are ambitious indeed. However, as University World News pointed out recently, “Ultimately, the reforms (including those in the fields of education and science) are being carried out in a climate of undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine – and at a time of economic recession and falling gross domestic product, or GDP.”

Both have placed obvious pressures on the government’s reform agenda, in terms of political focus and budget resources. They have also forced the Ukrainian government – to say nothing of individual institutions, students, and families – to quickly adapt to a situation where part of the country is effectively under foreign control.

In early 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to Crimea and to the Donbas region of Ukraine. On 18 March 2014, Russia formally annexed Crimea following a secession referendum, arguing that this was a rightful return of previously Russian territory to Russia. In spite of a series of cease-fire agreements, fighting continues to this day in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The crisis has led the Ukrainian government to move or close a number of higher education institutions in the occupied or annexed regions. As of March 2015, roughly 26 academic institutions, including 16 universities, had been evacuated from combat-affected areas.

Following annexation, Crimean secondary education now falls under the purview of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science. Senior students are permitted to take the Russian Unified State Examination for admission to Russian higher education institutions, and a new university, Crimea Federal University, has been established in the region following the 2014 merger of seven formerly separate institutions and research centres. The new university is recognised by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science.

For its part, Ukraine refuses to recognise the Russian Certificate for Complete General Secondary Education awarded to students in Crimea, although the same credential is recognised for students applying from other Russian territories.

Similarly, the Ukrainian government does not recognise the secondary school credentials from the separatist-controlled Donbas region. Students from the region who wish to apply for university admission in Ukraine must travel outside the Donbas and sit the Certificate of Complete General Secondary Education exams at a government-approved secondary school. Most higher education institutions, particularly those in separatist-controlled cities in the region (notably Donetsk and Luhansk), have now either been closed or moved. Those that continue to operate do so without any formal recognition from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science.

This schism in the formerly unified higher education system within Ukraine has led to some additional student movement from the Crimea. University World News reports that 600 Crimean high school graduates took advantage of a special provision last year that allowed them to apply to Ukrainian universities without sitting the national entrance exam, the EIT (External Independent Testing). Another 1,700 students transferred last year from Crimean institutions to universities elsewhere in the Ukraine.

Ukrainians studying abroad

We last reported on the Ukrainian study abroad market in 2013. UNESCO indicates that as many as 39,670 students from Ukraine studied abroad in 2012, the majority in Russia, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, and the US. Aside from the obvious impact that the current Russian-Ukraine conflict will have had on bilateral mobility, it appears that student demand may also have shifted in other respects over the last two years.

The Ukrainian Association of International Education and Exchanges Agencies (AIEEA) reports that from 2012 to 2014 student demand was on the increase for higher education abroad, marking a notable change from the traditional emphasis on shorter-term camp, study tour, and exchange programmes for Ukrainian students.

The AIEEA notes as well that, in terms of referrals by its 15 member agencies, the current leading destinations for Ukrainian students are Poland, Canada, the UK, and the US – with association members reporting greater interest as well in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and France. Key areas of demand include business, computing science, and tourism.

With these emerging trends with respect to study abroad, and profound changes in higher education at home, the Ukrainian market is clearly on the edge of further, significant change. Its education system is becoming more open and aligned with international standards and perspectives, and this growing internationalisation will no doubt contribute further to student and faculty mobility in and out of the country in the years ahead.



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