By Lyudmila Tatsenko

19 June 2014 - 12:32

'The education minister recommends reducing the number of universities from 800 to 40.' Photo (c) Photo by Sergey Galyonkin, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'The education minister recommends reducing the number of universities from 800 to 40.' Photo ©

Photo by Sergey Galyonkin, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Ukraine is preparing for sweeping changes to its higher education system, largely unreformed since Soviet times. Lyudmila Tatsenko of the British Council in Ukraine surveys the scene, as the Ministry of Education and Science in Ukraine prepares for a UK visit next week.

Ukraine has too many universities

Ukraine has no fewer than 800 higher education institutions, 200 of them fully fledged universities. No-one disputes that this is far too many for a country with 46 million people, but grasping the nettle of reform is not easy. The new education minister, Serhiy Kvit, formerly head of the respected Kyiv-Mohila Academy in Kyiv, has just published a report based on his first 100 days in office since the February revolution. In it, he recommends reducing the number of Ukrainian universities to 40.

Legislation is before the country’s parliament to bring the old highly centralised system of control over universities to an end -- to introduce concepts such as financial, academic and administrative autonomy for rectors, a national qualifications framework and improved quality assurance.

The new education minister plans to give universities more autonomy

The minister, in his 100 days report, has highlighted higher education reform and stronger levels of English in the university system as priorities. But paradoxically, as financial autonomy becomes possible, the university sector will most likely suffer a period of retrenchment, as economic austerity and a shift towards defence spending kicks in.

Ukraine's higher education system suffers from a division between research -- which is conducted by academies and focuses on theoretical research -- and teaching, which is undertaken by universities. The country's education ministry has started to give accreditation for research to some universities, but it is likely to be a while before there is wholesale reform. This division is one of the factors impeding the hopes of Ukrainian universities from entering world league tables -- so far only one, Kyiv National University Taras Shevchenko, is in the top 500.

Ukrainian students aren't studying the subjects their country needs

Most Ukrainians attend university (up to 70 per cent) but there is little relationship between the degrees they study for and the country’s economic needs. Although theoretically there is strength in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, dating back to Ukraine’s role in the Soviet aerospace industry, there is still an imbalance, with large numbers of students studying law and economics.

With the signing of an Association Agreement with Brussels, most universities in Ukraine are keen to link with their counterparts in the European Union. European harmonisation (i.e., common standards being applied throughout the EU), and greater recognition of why international partnerships are valuable, will encourage UK universities to team up with Ukraine's main players.

Now is the time for UK universities to develop partnerships with Ukraine -- here's why

So what's the advantage of linking with Ukrainian universities for the UK? Building partnerships now will help position UK universities for access to EU funding through Horizons 2020, the EU's research and innovation funding programme, when these funds start to flow through. Ukraine is a long-term growth area, and investment now will pay off in the longer term.

Another benefit, specific to Ukraine, is that the country has had a government-funded scheme for international scholarships, of which the UK had the largest single share in 2013. However, with pressures on the Ukrainian budget, it is not yet clear whether and when this scheme will continue.

While Ukrainian students overseas have a high reputation for assiduous study and application, the numbers studying in the UK and elsewhere are below 1,000. There are scholarships at individual UK universities, which students from Ukraine can apply for.

The British Council has awarded a series of partnership-building grants in the field of oil and gas exploration twinning UK and Ukrainian institutions, which will be completed in 2014/15.

The British Council is further working with Ukraine's education ministry to improve understanding of how modern universities work, and help Ukrainian universities position themselves for effective international collaboration. As the system reforms, there will be a window of opportunity for UK universities to forge long-term links and partnerships.

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