UKRAINE'S ORANGE BLUES - WHO NEEDS EDUCATION?

20.12.10


WORLD AFFAIRS:  Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science is now the Ministry of Education, Science, Youth, and — no kidding, honest — Sports. This bizarre transformation took place on December 10, when President Viktor Yanukovich announced an administrative reform abolishing a bunch of ministries and reorganized a few others. Youth and sports were attached to education and science in a move that testifies either to the president’s improbable belief in mens sana in corpore sano or to the sorry state of Ukraine’s educational system.

Soviet education was always faulted — correctly — for failing to inculcate critical thinking in students, but it excelled in the natural sciences, which could be pursued without pressure from the Communist Party’s ideological machine. Ukraine traditionally produced outstanding physicists and mathematicians and, in the 1960s, was even a leader in the emerging field of cybernetics. Translating the theoretical achievements of scientists into workable technology was another failing of the Soviet Union, but the scientists themselves were world-class, and those who emigrated to the West often found top jobs in the IT sector.

Everything changed after the USSR’s collapse. Independent Ukraine’s economy went into steep decline, state financing dried up, state institutions — and all universities were state-run — withered, corruption became rampant, and education in general and higher education in particular fell into disrepair. At present, university administrators and professors are overworked and underpaid, bribe-taking is rampant, standards have crashed, and plagiarism is commonplace. Reform, while imperative, has been resisted. Too many state bureaucrats and too many university administrators have a stake in the system as it currently exists.

Unsurprisingly, alternatives to Soviet institutions have multiplied, but their quality is usually substandard. One notable exception is the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, whose rector is a Harvard-educated, Ukrainian-American priest, Boris Gudziak. Another is the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, established in 1632 by the Kiev Metropolitan Petro Mohyla, shut down in 1817 by Czar Alexander I, and reestablished in 1991 as a formally state-run institution with an exceptional degree of autonomy. That autonomy — and the academy’s commitment to Western standards, openness to visiting professors from throughout the world, refusal to engage in bribe-taking, insistence on English-language instruction, and support of the Orange Revolution’s democratic values — has made Mohyla (as it’s known) one of Ukraine’s leading universities and its students the equals of the very best the United States has to offer.

Autonomy, openness, and critical thinking are, of course, anathema to the Yanukovich administration and, in particular, to Minister of Education, Science, Youth, and Sports Dmytro Tabachnik, said to be Moscow’s point man in Kiev (where, by the way, he’s reputed to be a real estate wheeler-dealer with sizable holdings). Ukrainian democrats generally append the modifier “odious” to Tabachnik, viewing him — and his unabashed endorsement of discriminatory policies toward Ukrainian language, culture, history, and identity — as Ukraine’s equivalent of an anti-Semitic education minister in Israel.

Tabachnik’s appointment back in March 2010 led to countrywide protests by students (many of whom were subsequently expelled) and to public criticism by Mohyla’s outspoken rector, Serhiy Kvit. Tabachnik shrugged off the attacks, but  he must have secretly begun sharpening his knives. He has now prepared a draft law on higher education that envisions curtailments of university autonomy and contains language forbidding universities — read: Mohyla — from making knowledge of English a requirement of admission. If the law is adopted in its current form, Mohyla’s special status — and excellence — would end.

Kvit recently issued an open letter to Yanukovich urging him to junk Tabachnik’s proposal. Democratic intellectuals have sided with Kvit, as they understand that Mohyla could become their Thermopylae (here is a petition in defense of Mohyla), while Mohyla graduates have issued an appeal in which they decry the law as “leading to Ukraine’s self-isolation and the further degradation of science and education in our state.”

Yanukovich has also signaled his views of the matter. His administrative reform not only expanded Tabachnik’s powers, but it also increased his opportunities for self-enrichment by including sports within his portfolio. The Union of European Football Associations’ soccer championship will be held in four Ukrainian cities in 2012: that means billions will be poured into hotels, infrastructure, and tourism in the next two years. Surely a bit of that filthy lucre will end up in Tabachnik’s ministry. No one’s betting that the money will go to critical thinking.

When asked by the press to explain Tabachnik’s hostility to Mohyla, Kvit stated: “Obviously, he doesn’t care for an effective university without corruption. Obviously, he doesn’t care for an autonomous university. In reality, there is no autonomy in Ukraine. The state exerts authoritarian control over universities in all their activities. We are in spirit a free university.”

Still.

Alexander J Motyl



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