Ukraine: Fixing Past Problems, Causing New Ones

fixing past problemsKyiv | Seventh-grade student Karina Ilyasheva is on her way home from school. It is already after 8 pm and she is very tired, having sat through six regular lessons and two optional remedial classes. Karina says she hates school because it doesn’t leave her any time for a personal life.

Karina is no exception. Many parents, teachers, and officials feel that the Ukrainian education system overloads children but, in spite of the long hours spent in the classroom, still does not instill adequate knowledge and skills in its students.

The Ukrainian Center for the Evaluation of the Quality of Education (UCOKO) recently released a report on the graduating class of 2009, noting unsatisfactory knowledge especially in the realms of mathematics and Ukrainian history. Only 38 percent of the students were able to correctly answer questions asking when the promulgation of the Ukrainian constitution or the country’s declaration of sovereignty took place, or even when independence from the Soviet Union occurred. Moreover, 71 percent did not know when Ukraine was liberated from Nazi occupation in the Second World War, 18 percent believed that Ukraine was a member of the European Union, and 10 percent thought that the country was a member of NATO.

More or Less Time in School?

The situation may only get worse, according to widespread public opinion, when Ukraine switches to a 12-year system of compulsory education, as of 1 September 2010. A poll conducted in late October by the Institute of Social and Political Psychology of the Academy of Political Sciences of Ukraine revealed that 65.4 percent of the respondents were against the new system, while only 13.2 percent approved. A total of 71.4 percent of the pupils in the tenth and eleventh grades were against it.

“I don’t agree with my daughter finishing school when she is 18 years old. They already have too many subjects and classes as it is, what do they need an additional year for?” asked Olga Nevroda, the mother of a schoolgirl in Kiev.

The introduction of the 12-year system has met with resistance across Ukrainian society, but particularly in the autonomous Crimean region. The minister of education and science of the Crimea, Valery Lavrov, says that the last several years have seen too many changes in Ukraine’s educational system, including burdening students with too many subjects and too much class time. At a press conference last September, he declared “It’s high time to say: ‘enough experimenting on schoolchildren’.” Anatoliy Gricenko, a deputy in the national parliament and head of the Crimean parliament, has proposed a draft bill to cut the number of years of education from 12 to only 10 years, and enrol students in primary school from the age of seven instead of six.

Those who support the 12-year system say the extra year will help to reduce the burden on students and raise the quality of Ukrainian education to international standards. Twelve-year certificates are also thought to be more advantageous when Ukrainian students wish to apply to foreign universities. At present, middle school students put in around 40 hours of class time – a standard workweek for adults, but many feel it leaves little time for children to engage in extracurricular activities, do their homework, and participate in family life.

“Ukraine is under the obligation to modernize its education system,” argued Igor Ivanenko, head of European Direction, a non-governmental organization. “We have to switch to a European system. And if we do not want to be pushed aside, this needs to begin in middle school. This modern program can’t fit into a 10-year system.”

The 12-year system was initiated in 2001 (meaning there will be no graduating class in 2012 and a double cohort of university applicants that year) by the former minister of education, Vasiliy Kremen, who now heads the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of Ukraine. His successors, Stanislav Nikolaenko and the present minister Ivan Vakarchuk, also strongly support the innovation.

Creative Corruption

Other issues will also top the Ministry of Education’s agenda in 2010, especially fixing problems that have arisen indirectly with the introduction of independent external testing.

As of the 2008-2009 school year, graduating students have taken standardized tests administered by the Ukrainian Center for Educational Quality Assessment, a state institution, on optional subjects such as history and mathematics, in addition to mandatory tests on the Ukrainian language and literature. The test results are considered in the admissions process for entering higher education institutions. The ministry reported in August that it was pleased with the results of the first round of testing, and did not receive any bribery complaints.

Minister Vakarchuk says the tests discipline graduating students and better prepare them for entering universities. He stresses that the standardized exams are meant to judge not only a student’s measurable knowledge, but also his or her capabilities. However, he cautions that one should not read too much into them. “If we simply tell a student that he is not capable, we will achieve nothing but demoralizing him,” Vakarchuk told TOL.

However, the tests unintentionally revealed a different type of capability in many students – in the realm of fraud. Initially conceived as a measure to diminish graft and promote higher standards in the admissions process, the external tests have instead led to widespread exploitation of “privileges”. The term refers to the preferential treatment given to children affected by the Chernobyl blast, those with physical disabilities, orphans, and winners of academic Olympiads, for example, which renders a student’s scores on the tests more or less irrelevant and guarantees admission.

Regardless of a student’s knowledge or capabilities, getting in to the most prestigious specialities was nearly impossible in 2009, unless one belonged to the category of “privileged applicant”. For example, at Kiev’s Taras Shevchenko National University, economic specializations received more ‘privileged’ applications than their total seating capacity, leaving no spaces at all for mainstream applicants.

In 2010, the government plans to alleviate this situation by conducting additional checks on the authenticity of documents proving a student’s privileged status in order to weed out and punish those who submit fraudulent ‘privileged’ applications.  They plan to set new quotas for privileged applicants and create more state-funded spots for students with high test scores, many of whom were forced to pay for tuition in spite of their exceptional performance – if they managed to secure a place in the program of their choice at all.

Vakarchuk considers the exploitation of admissions privileges “impermissible” and, as a partial solution, suggests that universities should increase the number of students admitted, especially to the more popular faculties such economics, languages, and international relations.

However, this solution may run up against another ministry initiative in 2010: inspecting and closing down institutions of higher education that are deemed to offer substandard instruction. “It doesn’t matter if it is a state or private establishment. The only criterion is the quality of education, and we will check up on it,” Vakarchuk said.

Urgent measures are needed to stem the influx of undeserving students into prestigious universities, and those who attempt to pervert the admissions process should be held criminally responsible, says the chairman of the Education and Science Committee of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Polokhalo.

“Often, talented students, who receive marks of 395 out of 600 on their exams do not get in, while those with marks of 300 are accepted [with privileges]. It is nonsense that the ministry does nothing about this,” he said. He believes changes at the level of legislation are necessary, taking into consideration the opinions of teachers and university applicants.

Language Troubles

Admissions policies are not the only subject of controversy. From 2010, external independent testing is now conducted in Ukrainian only. National minority students will be allowed to bring in dictionaries of basic terms for the purposes of translation, but their answers must be written in Ukrainian. Under pressure from officials in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, between 2008 and 2010 the ministry of education allowed minority schools to conduct the tests in minority languages, with the condition that they must be conducted in Ukrainian as of 2010.

Crimean authorities are trying to forestall the policy. The presidium of the Crimean parliament wrote a statement to the Cabinet of Ministries of Ukraine, expressing its hostility to mandatory external testing in Ukrainian and calling the policy’s legality into question.

“We have to take into account the real linguistic situation in multinational Crimea, where, according to the data of the last census, 58.5 percent of the population are Russian, 77 percent of inhabitants consider themselves native Russian speakers, and for the majority of the population, it is the language of everyday speech,” the Crimean parliament wrote.

According to Crimean government data, about 90 percent of students in the Crimea study in Russian. In 2008, 98 percent of graduating students chose to take their leaving exams in Russian, and in 2009, 96.8 percent chose to do so.

“Executing test tasks in Ukrainian, taking into account the specific terminology and the necessity of working with dictionaries, will require additional time, affect the quality of students’ answers, and will not allow students to accurately demonstrate their aptitude. Their competitiveness in applying to universities will be diminished,” read the Crimean parliament’s statement. “Thus, students of educational establishments studying in their mother tongue will be put at a disadvantage entering higher education institutions, which is a violation of their constitutional right to be provided with equal access to higher education and discriminates against them on a linguistic basis.”

In an intervew, the head of the Crimean parliament, Anatoliy Gricenko, stated that external testing must be conducted “taking into account the national composition of the population that lives on that or another territory.”

Positive Signs

Outgoing Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko promised that the computerization of schools in Ukraine will be fully completed in 2010. Beginning this year, Ukrainian schools are also now able to manage their own financial resources and set their budgets independently. Each school will have its own bank account and will be able to decide what to buy and from whom to order services, a reform that has necessitated adding school accountants to employee rosters.

But the former minister of education, Stanislav Nikolaenko, says the Ukrainian education system still has a long way to go to achieve modernization and improve schools’ economic efficiency. “We suggest increasing the autonomy of educational establishments; not the autonomy of rectors [to make financial decisions], but the autonomy of educational establishments, themselves,” he underlined. He also proposed the possibility of deriving new funds by redirecting a portion of sales taxes toward education.


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