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“Education is the last thing on the government’s mind,” says former Ukrainian minister

The appointment of a new education minister has caused public controversy in Ukraine. Hanna Novosad, the previous holder of this post, talks to openDemocracy about the fate of education reforms in Ukraine, plagiarism and academic feudalism in the country.

Marharyta Tulup
16 July 2020, 12.00am
Hanna Novosad
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Source: Facebook

At the end of June, Ukraine’s ministry of education and science got a new boss – Serhiy Shkarlet, rector of Chernihiv Technological University. Shkaret’s appointment was met with public controversy and protests. A former member of the Party of Regions, which was pushed out of power in Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, Shkarlet has not hidden his sympathy for former president Viktor Yanukovych in previous press interviews. The day after Shkarlet’s candidacy was announced, activists found signs of plagiarism in his academic papers - an accusation he denies.

Shkarlet has now been appointed acting education minister, after the parliamentary committee on education chose not to support his candidacy. This appointment was also publicly opposed by ex-education minister Hanna Novosad, who claims that Ukraine could now expect an attack against post-Maidan reforms in education and science, and a return to the rhetoric of Yanukovych-era education minister Dmytro Tabachnik.

Hanna Novosad began working at the ministry of education in 2017 as head of its directorate of strategic planning and euro-integration, and became ninister of education and science in August 2019. She held this post for six months, until the resignation of PM Oleksiy Goncharuk in March 2020.

Marharyta Tulup spoke to the former minister about plagiarism in Ukrainian science, corruption, academic feudalism and the future of Ukrainian education under quarantine. This is an abridged version of a full interview in Russian.

Who was so keen to appoint Serhiy Shkarlet to head the ministry of education?

I’m of the opinion that Shkarlet’s candidacy was put forward by a group of rectors - there’s more than 20 of them - at a meeting with the president. Interestingly enough, no one from the ministry of education was invited to the meeting, although it had the relevant deputy minister.

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Serhiy Shkarlet | Wikimedia Commons

I felt that this was a sign that the meeting had been called to allow individual rectors to put forward their complaints.

After all, many of the things that we began didn’t please the rectors: applying for masters’ programmes via external independent appraisal, introduction of key performance indicators, a ban on opening branches of the largest universities in the regions, introducing indicators on cost of teaching for universities - that is, a limit on the minimum cost of education (university fees are incredibly low, but there is nothing positive about that – it means that the level of education is shamefully low).

When everyone began to say that Shkarlet’s candidacy reflected the rectors’ general opinion, the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University declared that this was untrue: the matter hadn’t been discussed and he didn’t support Shkarlet. This [new appointment] represented a lobby of a separate group of rectors who are determined to limit the changes in higher education and wish to preserve the status quo.

According to the president, you also had an offer to head Ukraine’s education ministry, but you refused. Why?

The last time I spoke to the president was on the day I resigned. I told him that I needed to know the rules of the game and the new government’s priorities. Here it wasn’t so much the president who should have answered, but the prime minister, but I didn’t have that conversation with him.

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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | c) Pustovit Serhii/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

When I took a post in Oleksiy Goncharuk’s government, I knew what I was in for. I spent several hours with the president, discussing a strategy for education and science: key issues, salaries, the network of institutions and further development of a new generation of Ukrainian schools. When, three hours before I resigned, they asked me whether I wanted to be part of a government that I knew nothing about, that felt totally irresponsible.

On the day of Shkarlet's appointment you wrote that now “from now on, we may expect a total offensive against the post-Maidan reforms in education and science and a return to the rhetoric of Tabachnik” [education minister under Viktor Yanukovych - ed]. What do you think this will mean in practice?

Higher education was the first sector to be reformed after Maidan. It gave autonomy to universities and a new system for monitoring the quality of education, and legalised the concept of “academic bad faith”.

So now our education ministry is headed by a man who can call himself anything he likes, but not someone who follows these principles. This may not be such an important development for society in general, but for education and science, plagiarism is equivalent to theft on a fairly large scale.

"Academics don’t have to worry so much about a knock on the door from the SBU, but rather the prospect of no further changes for Ukrainian science"

There haven’t been many reports so far, but from what I’ve heard at the [parliamentary] education committee and his interview, Shkarlet is happy to abolish external testing for extra-mural education. I, for example, don’t see much difference between entering higher education at 20 or 40: requirements should be equally high for all entrants. He has also frequently mentioned that he would be happy to return to a ten-year school course (existing legislation states that from 2027, children and young people must be in education for a minimum of twelve years). Many of his statements reflect Tabachnik’s changes.

On 18 June, academic and educational staff held a rally outside parliament to protest Shkarlet’s appointment as education minister. Later, one of the protesters, Anton Senenko, a senior physics lecturer at Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physics, wrote that he had been approached by an officer from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) “for a chat” about the rally. Could these kind of visits to people who state their own views become more common?

This development was indeed unexpected. The people who held a peaceful protest were simply exercising their constitutional rights. Anton Senenko, for example, was formally breaking no rules when he took a day’s leave [to attend the protest]. For me, this is an anomalous situation.

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Anton Senenko at protest against Shkarlet's appointment | Source: Hromadske

If things continue like this, and not just in regard to people in education but also to activists in various spheres, we can talk about a return of censorship on individual opinions and public standpoints, which can easily turn into repressive actions. This event could have been ignored, but 30 well-known Ukrainian scientists and academics wrote a letter of disapproval to the president, the head of the SBU and the PM.

Academics don’t have to worry so much about a knock on the door from the SBU, rather the prospect of no further changes for Ukrainian science, as the authorities’ energy will be channelled into intimidation and pressure.

In the Times Education World University Ranking, Ukraine’s universities come in the 800s, and in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, previously known as the Shanghai Ranking, they don’t figure at all. More than half of the assessments in this ranking refer to scientific work, which Ukrainian universities have a real problem with. Many university publications don’t exactly contain plagiarism, but simply have very low academic standards. The scandal with Shkarlet, whose monograph was found to have signs of plagiarism, is another example of the low quality of publications. What is the procedure for the removal of academic honours, and how difficult is it to do in practice? How many people have lost honours during the time you headed your ministry?

In Ukraine, the final word on academic honours lies with the ministry of education. This is not the usual situation with most countries, where universities themselves hand out degrees. Here, students defend their work before a specialised academic board, and from there it passes to the ministry of education, where it is assessed by an attestation panel chaired by the minister. The make-up of the panel, comprising a few dozen people, is in the Minister’s hands, and we have considerably renewed its members and retained as many honest ones as possible.

"We wanted to create a single network of colleges, give them some finance and then put the negative stereotypes of vocational education behind us, like a bad dream"

There are attestation panels that spend weeks burning the midnight oil and reading hundreds of theses, in some of which there is an element of plagiarism. But even then, the panel can’t throw out their work. In my term, there were several such cases: I, as minister, couldn’t take a decision on whether a scientific paper should have been rejected. Procedure demanded that I had to send it to another institute, university or academic panel for review.

But specialists in a given area frequently spent their time covering one another’s backs. They would see white and insist it was black. There was no way you could refuse to award an academic title – there could be no professional conclusion that the work wasn’t good enough. There was, however, one demonstrative situation, when an attestation panel refused to give an academic honour to Petro Yushchenko [the brother of Ukraine’s third president Viktor Yushchenko – ed.].

From June 2021, academic titles will be awarded by a national agency for the safeguarding of quality in higher education. It has to develop a new system and take it to the ministry, after which the cabinet of ministers will ratify it. I hope the minister of education will do so.

Between 2014 and 2016, there were five cases of academic titles being withdrawn. But since 2016, after some legal changes, the ministry has no longer any right to withdraw an existing honour: only the national agency can do that and there are still no rules for doing it. The ministry and the national agency have together been drawing up a list, but given the government’s resignation it has been returned to us. The new minister’s policy on this should be very interesting: he is, after all about to pass an act that potentially concerns himself.

This year, almost five billion hryvnya [£146m] have been withdrawn from the education budget, in order to stabilise funding for fighting coronavirus, and education and science haven’t been awarded any cash from that fund for working in pandemic conditions, despite the fact that 2.7 billion hryvnya [£78.9m] was allocated to extra funding for the ministry of internal affairs. What does this situation say to you?

It says only one thing: that education is the last thing on the Shmygal government’s mind. The 2020 budget included an allocation of 360 million hryvnya for the professional development of teachers. The money was taken away, and won’t be returned. They also withdrew an extra 159 million hrvynya designated for the acquisition of equipment for vocational schools and colleges. Then there was the billion hryvnya for refurbishing schools. When someone’s roof is going to leak, it will be Mr Shmygal who has to answer the question of: “why, with a separate budget for refurbishment for the first time in years, did they then go and take it away?”

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A school in Melitopol, southern Ukraine | Wikimedia Commons / Oleg Dovgal. Some rights reserved

The stabilising fund has produced nothing for education. I have nothing against the police and the National Guard (well, hopefully not the members who rape people) getting bonuses. But I find it incredible that instructors in external independent testing, often elderly members of a higher risk group, are not getting similar extra cash. The price of this would be around 30-40m hryvnya [£11m - ed.]

The fund provided nothing to buy masks or thermometers, or to create safe conditions. They were all provided by donors in other countries. The start of the school year on 1 September is not very far off. The deputy minister has said that there will be no distance learning, but hasn’t explained what kind will there be instead. British schools, for example, are splitting up classes, and its government provided an extra one billion pounds out of its budget. What is Shmygal’s government doing for Ukraine’s teachers? The answer is: nothing. This is its exemplary attitude to education.

Independent external assessment has been obligatory for entrance exams for Ukraine’s colleges and universities since 2008. There are also paid test courses, where candidates can practice how to take the exam. This year, pilot assessments were dropped two days before the date allocated for them to take place. This was a surprise to both school leavers and even the centre for the assessment of educational quality (the organising institution). In other words, a decision was taken by the government. There was also a discussion about whether to abandon assessment completely in the future, although they continued with it this year. How likely do you think the abolition of independent external assessment will be in the future, and who has an interest in the issue? Did you feel pressure on you to abolish it when you headed your ministry?

There were never any conversations about cancelling the assessment. And even if there had been, I was sure of what I wanted: this is the reform that people have trusted most since our country’s declaration of independence.

This year, the government’s position on the assessment issue stunned everyone, but also showed that society was inclined to protect it. I think that after this reaction, the matter will be dropped. However, as well as the school-leaving independent assessment, the independent external assessment is also essential for numerous subjects at Master’s level. It’s also essential for going to university after college. I think, however, that independent external assessment after a Master’s, a college or medical school is under serious doubt. Rectors and certain students (those who don’t work) also don’t like it. Heads of educational establishments, however, are fond of it. So I’m not worried about it.

Do you support the recent law abandoning independent external assessment for school leavers from the temporarily occupied areas? How many people will be able to use this right this year?

The hatred towards children living in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions outside Ukrainian control reminds me of the Novye Sanzhary case [a settlement in the Poltava region where residents protested against an influx of people evacuated from China – ed.]: Ukrainians have been united in showing what they feel about their fellow-citizens. I see these kids as Ukrainian citizens; they need to have the chance to get out of there. This approach should be a single, humanitarian policy from our government in relation to these territories. But the situation is attracting a lot of fake news.

Children from the temporarily occupied areas, just like children from Crimea, have been able to go to Ukrainian universities for a long time without passing an independent external assessment. In 2019, 1,600 school leavers from Donetsk and Luhansk entered universities in mainstream Ukraine, as did 265 young people from Crimea. And the number of those has been rising year on year since 2014. The law has now offered a quota entry to all universities without external assessment. The list of universities that would take them used to be limited. The only question now is whether there will be an extra state demand.

“If you have money to spare, don’t immediately run to a car dealer – support teachers first”

In fact, school leavers need to do a number of things to get entry to a Ukrainian university. For example, despite a lack of access to Ukrainian-language courses, they need to have a Ukrainian school-leaving certificate and pass Ukrainian language and history exams in Ukraine before they can take entrance exams to universities. This year, 1,000 young people signed up for the independent external assessment, all of them wanting to study in Ukraine. It’s hard to imagine what kind of emotions they are experiencing. They need a period of adaptation to get used to their environment and school programmes, and possibly improve their Ukrainian too. And all this has to be financed by the state.

In January, a new system of university financing came into force, based on educational, scientific and international activity, rather than student and personnel numbers. As a result, some universities received an increased budget. The then rector of Chernihiv Technological University, who is now head of the ministry of education, bought a $60,000 car on the proceeds. This is not the first expenditure of its kind at a Ukrainian university. Could such things be of interest to the law enforcement agencies, and could this be the reason for terminating the rector’s contract?

When the new university finance system came into force, we re-estimated their budget and discovered that many had been given more money. We then asked university rectors to use the extra funds to increase lecturers’ salaries, since it was they who brought cash into the university. The car purchase is not in itself a reason for calling law enforcement. The rector had the right to do it, but it was an ethical misunderstanding. If you need a truck, you can probably get a cheaper one. And I feel that it’s worth buying such things once you have covered your basic needs, such as decent working conditions for teachers.

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Lviv University | Wikimedia Commons / Alex Zelenko. Some rights reserved

What happened is also not a reason to terminate the Rector’s contract. These days, terminating a contract is pretty difficult. It says in the higher education law that it can be done if the rector were to infringe labour law, the conditions of his contract or a university statute. Until recently, rectors’ contracts were framed in such general terms that they were difficult to infringe. Which is why we introduced key performance indicators for rectors and created a standard form of contract for them. The moral is: if you have money to spare, don’t immediately run to a car dealer – support teachers first.

Are there things that you didn’t manage to do while minister, and that you doubt will happen now you have left?

We enjoyed almost absolute political support, including that of Oksana Markarova [Ukraine’s ex-finance minister – ed.], without which nothing could succeed. The changing principles around finance, indicative cost prices, the higher education law – these tools won’t work without financial support. We have developed a whole package of changes in the law, codices to make universities free financially. Now the ministry has to promote this before the committee and put it forward to parliament.

I also believe that a professional education is an unjustly belittled sphere with great potential for students and the economy. To revive it, we need new legislation. The education committee and I have developed a draft law on professional education. We wanted to create a single network of colleges, give them some finance and then put the negative stereotypes of vocational education behind us, like a bad dream. I don’t know whether the new minister will promote this law now, as it will be politically sensitive.

We have also developed a high-quality state standard for a new kind of Ukrainian school for Years 5-9, but the government hasn’t had time to give assent to it yet. We have 140 schools piloting it and next year it will go into Year 5 classrooms. We can’t hold back, this train will run, no matter who the education minister is in the country. But I really want to believe that, due in part to help from the Education Committee, our groundwork won’t have been in vain.

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