Ukraine: Unfair Advantages

unfair advantagesKYIV | Two girls cry with happiness on the steps of a nationally renowned university. Both have been offered free places at the university, but for very different reasons.

Valentina received top scores (596.5 out of 600) on her exams but, as of only the day before, she was still on a waiting list. Iryna, on the other hand, received an average score (457) but, since her parents are from the Chernobyl-affected zone, she benefited from a preferential admissions policy even though she was born five years after the disaster.

Many applicants complain that so-called ‘disadvantaged applicants’ take the majority of the state-funded places in this university. Standing behind Valentina and Iryna, many other rejected applicants are grumbling – several were only a few points below the maximum score, but could not secure a spot with free tuition. “I hate this system!” someone shouts. “And I love it,” Iryna whispers.

Unintended Consequences

In 2008, external assessment of graduating high school students became mandatory in Ukraine, an initiative designed to ‘level the playing field’ in access to higher education. One of the main goals was to improve the baseline knowledge of students entering post-secondary education. Perhaps more importantly, the externally evaluated exams aim to eliminate widespread corruption in the admissions process, as well as bring about a decrease in expensive private tutoring, and increase pupils’ motivation to study.

But the system has had at least one unintended consequence. Some top-ranking applicants have been unable to obtain state-funded spots in universities because of a rapidly multiplying number of applicants with lower scores, but with ‘admission benefits’ that work in their favor during the admissions process.

One of the most flagrant examples was at Kyiv’s National Taras Shevchenko University, where 52 disadvantaged students with admissions benefits applied for a specialization in international relations. The university offered 50 state-funded spots. Vladimir, who received a perfect score of 600 on his exam, only managed to make it to 53rd on the waiting list and, as a result, will be asked to pay tuition.

The university has asked the ministry of education and science to increase the number of free spots for applicants in Vladimir’s situation. The university then offered half of the spots to disadvantaged students and half to its top applicants.

Traditionally, students with admission benefits – ranging between 40-60 percent of all state-funded places – have been given priority status in the admissions process and a state stipend. Some of the spots are merit-based while others are to support students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. In the first category, many are winners of national and international academic Olympiads. The second category is much larger and includes orphans, disabled students, veterans, and victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

There are no explicit benefits for students from low-income families, but a small admissions quota is reserved for students from rural and mountainous areas.

This quota is linked to serious gaps in the quality of education countrywide: the percentage of students from rural areas who obtained between 195 and 200 points (out of a maximum of 200) during a math exam in 2008 was six times lower than that of pupils in urban areas. Corruption is not the main factor working against equal access to higher education for rural and urban students; rather, the main culprit is unequal opportunities. Therefore, the ministry sees no better solution than to continue granting admission privileges for applicants from rural regions.

Fraudulent Claims

Many have questioned the authenticity of a large number of applicants’ claims to disadvantaged status during the admissions process. At least a few prospective students have managed to obtain fake documents stating that they are orphans or disabled. And, since admission committees do not have enough time or the authority to check every piece of information they receive, a student has a better chance of being admitted with fake documents than with diligent work and high grades. The Ukrainian press has reported that some urban students have even faked transfers to rural high schools in order to get admissions privileges.

The ministry, for its part, has been slow to react to the shortcomings of the policy. In a recent investigation, experts from the Lviv-based non-governmental organization “The Center of Civic Advocacy” found that there are 600 different privileges under the law (disadvantages that make a person eligible for social benefits), and about 20 of them relate to higher education admissions policy.

Rather than leveling the playing field, many feel they add an unfair hurdle for hardworking students. “The existing privileges are evil. The state should not stretch the social welfare system to include admission privileges,” argued Sergiy Kvit, president of the Mohyla Academy.

On the other hand, Yaroslav Bolybash, director of the higher education department of the ministry of education and science, insists this opinion is misguided. “The issue is exaggerated. There are only 6,000 privileged pupils for 150,000 student places.”

System Breakdown

Applicants are free to send out as many applications to as many institutions as they want, without any extra payment. While the average number of applications a student submits is 15, some of have submitted up to 70.

Unfortunately, this has caused chaos in many admissions committees because, within the computerized statewide admissions system, a ‘privileged’ applicant can automatically receive a spot from nearly every university, thereby decreasing the number of spots and increasing the competition for students with high scores. It also causes many students to doubt that their academic achievements will improve their chances of being admitted to the higher education institution of their choice.

Admissions standards in Ukraine sorely need improvement, and the ministry needs to find a way to grant state-supported places to at least a significant number of top applicants without compromising the rights of truly disadvantaged students. However, amendments to the Law on Education, which would clarify whether the number of privileged categories can be decreased, await approval by policymakers since 2008.


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