Education problems deeper than language

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April 2, 2010, 12:23 a.m. | Ukraine — by Yuliya Popova

A student holds a dummy school transcript where students graded controversial Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, giving him top marks in Political Circus, Historical Mystification and Basis of Dmytrocracy.
© (Yaroslav Debelyi)

Many education experts warn that politicians are beating about the bush by trying to change the language of entry exams instead of looking at the real problems facing the education system. There is nothing odd in bilingual Ukraine to ask for a loaf of bread in Ukrainian and to be told the price in Russian. Nor is it a surprise to hear one radio host babble in Russian and another respond in Ukrainian. Both languages seem on a par with each other when it comes to daily usage. But there is a snag when politicians wade into the subject.

The most recent battleground for politicians on language issues has been Ukraine’s limp education sector. Three weeks into his appointment and three months before the end of the school year, Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk said students should have the opportunity to choose the language of exams and teaching in universities. He named seven languages, but given Ukraine’s historical preferences, Russian and Ukrainian are in spotlight. Currently, professors are allowed to teach only in Ukrainian to comply with law.

Many education experts, however, warn that politicians are beating about the bush by trying to change the language of tuition and exams, instead of looking at the problems of the education system as a whole.

“For the moment, Ukrainian education is too inward-looking, too corrupt and too poor to do a good job,” said Frances Cairncross, rector of Oxford University’s Exeter College. “There are too many small universities, the majority of which are ineffectively governed and mired in corruption. They are not able to withstand existing global challenges.”

Cairncross was appearing at a public debate organized by business tycoon Rinat Akhmetov’s think tank, the Foundation for Effective Governance, on March 29, to discuss why Ukrainian higher institutions produce noncompetitive graduates.

She said that Ukrainian schools as a rule fail to get into the top rankings of world universities. Only the National Shevchenko University and Kyiv Mohyla Academy– arguably the best schools in Ukraine – feature in the reputable Webometrics Ranking of World Universities at 1,346 and 2,055 respectively out of 8,000. Even Serbia and Peru, countries similar to Ukraine in terms of wealth, managed to squeeze their schools into the top five hundred.

One of the two top Ukrainian performers, the Kyiv Mohyla Academy is known as a pro-Ukrainian revolutionary hub of knowledge. It served as headquarters for the Orange Revolution activists. It is one of the country’s few universities with two working languages, Ukrainian and English, and internationally recognized diplomas.

“It’s transparent and is non-corrupt,” said applicant Ludmyla Hrenova, 16, explaining why she wanted to study there during an open day at KMA on March 27. Coming from Russian-speaking Donetsk, she spoke solid Ukrainian with an accent good enough for the west of the country. Rather than the language of tuition she was more concerned that university entrance rules might change in Ukraine, making it impossible for many poor, talented students to get a higher education.

“I am a patriot. I am used to Ukrainian, just like the rest of our younger generation. We are growing up hearing Ukrainian on television and in school. Changing it would be a step back to the Soviet Union,” said Hrenova.

The proponents of more Russian in the education sphere often quote the Swiss multilingual policy as a success story. However, in quadrilingual Switzerland, each of the two dozen cantons has an official language, not all four in active daily and federal use. Students from German cantons wishing to study in a French neighborhood have to pick French as their second language in school. No one would make exceptions for them.

To apply the Swiss model, Kyiv would have to give up the current administrative system, and hand more of the power down to the regions. But at this point, the state won’t even give up on deciding the tiniest things in the education sector, such as letting universities decide which courses to teach and the structure of its own management.

The Academy’s rector, Serhiy Kvit, says greater autonomy is key to better quality of education. Speaking at the FEG debate, he stressed that universities should be able to decide for themselves which language or course to teach without government interference.

“When in 1986, I wanted to pick up a history textbook by Mykhailo Hrushevsky, I was told that he was a fascist. In 1987, the policy’s changed and I was able to read it,” said Kvit drawing a parallel with current twists and turns in education. “I support radical steps. We must give universities autonomy.”

Vyacheslav Komarov, vice chancellor of the National Law Academy named after Yaroslav Mudry in Russian-speaking Kharkiv, said he generally approves of new Education Minister Tabachnyk’s reform. The minister is seeking to re-introduce entrance exams in universities to supplement the existing independent tests that for the last three years determined the potential student’s ability to enter a university.

But Komarov also agreed with Kyiv Mohyla Academy’s Kvit that the system needs more radical changes at the core. “We have 400,000 applicants all over Ukraine and 860,000 seats in universities for them. So do we need exams at all? This is a real problem.”

Ukraine currently has 881 universities, colleges and technical schools, while France, with a similar numbers of citizens, only has 80, according to former Education Minister Ivan Vakarchuk. Tabachnyk has recently said 1,600 more applicants are seeking licenses to become universities and other types of high schools.

It’s not just the number that’s the problem, however. Cairncross from Oxford University says Ukrainian universities live in a closet and have too little interaction with the outside world. “These institutions are too inward-looking. … There is nowhere near enough emphasis on English,” she said, speaking of students’ experience in universities.

But it seems that neither the government, nor teachers are ready to face them yet.

Kyiv Post staff writer Yuliya Popova can be reached at
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