Three bills on higher education submitted to the Ukrainian parliament have become the objects of a fierce battle. This comes as no surprise considering that one of them, Bill 1187 sponsored by Party of Regions members Serhiy Kivalov, Hryhoriy Kaletnik and Mykola Soroka, perpetuates the current inefficient system of education, according to experts, public activists and a large number of Ukraine’s students. The other two bills – one sponsored by opposition members (Bill 1187-1) and the other by MP Viktor Baloha (Bill 1187-2) – propose methods for integrating Ukraine’s higher education system with the European education space.
However, several Ukrainian university rectors are constructing a veritable fortress against bills 1187-1 and 1187-2. Most are surprisingly unanimous: parliament must support the Party of Regions’ bill. What is the motivation for this “principled” opposition? There are at least six answers to this question.
The average age of Ukrainian rectors whose universities made up the top 30 in the Kompas-2012 ranking of Ukrainian universities is 62, and the average term in office is 14 years. Some have led their institutions for more than two or three decades, which is outside the limits of propriety by European and world standards.
The situation is very much like the late Brezhnev era in terms of both the age group and the essence of a rector’s job. A Ukrainian university rector is a person of special stature. At one point, the rector lobby succeeded in having the Constitutional Court cancel the legislative age limit of 65 specifically for them. Instead, a different regulation was introduced: if a rector has served two subsequent terms and has been fired, he can be appointed as lifelong counsellor to the new rector and keep his old office and salary. Bill 1187 leaves this norm virtually intact. Thus, if it is made law, rectorship may become lifelong… and lucrative.
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The second reason why Ukrainian rectors are opposing bills 1187-1 and 1187-2 is that a rector’s office is beneficial to its holder. Take, for example, the salary. It is impossible to obtain this information from public universities using the procedure prescribed by the law on access to public information, even though data on budget spending should be public. So a different source was found, namely income declarations submitted by rectors running for parliamentary seats prior to the 2012 election and published on the website of the Central Election Commission. It turns out that the lowest monthly salary among rectors is, on average, UAH 16,000 and the highest UAH 64,000. The data is obviously incomplete. Some rectors are paid more than UAH 100,000 a month. But the problem is not so much the outrageously high pay as its incongruence with the realities of Ukraine’s educational system. Ukrainian universities have, in essence, failed to implement the main aspects of the Bologna process. University-based research has been neglected, and the education process in many colleges has turned into a cheap opera – teachers fake teaching and students fake learning. Universities generate nearly 90-95 per cent of their income by selling education services of dubious quality.
A rector’s office also offers a number of advantages and privileges. For some unknown reason, rectors more frequently win elections to national academies of sciences in different areas. Among other things, these academic titles entitle them to lifelong pensions that are much higher than the average pension received by associate professors that have worked for dozens of years. Rectors have a particular craze – the pursuit of the official title “Hero of Ukraine”. The top 30 Ukrainian universities mentioned above already have six such “heroes”.
CONTROL IS AT STAKE
Could Ukrainian rectors take at least some steps to truly reform higher education in Ukraine, even under current conditions? The Law “On Higher Education” and other regulatory acts offer some space to manoeuvre, but only a handful of rectors have taken advantage. The rest, it turns out, find it more convenient and less stressful to maintain good relationships with top officials in the Ministry of Education and Science, avoid major cadre reshuffles, neglect innovations and not bother selling licenses to patents, conserving energy or introducing masters-level programmes taught in foreign languages. This approach guarantees rewards, honorary titles, bonuses and other privileges in exchange for loyalty to dubious bureaucratic “innovations” imposed by the ministry. This is why rectors are so obsequious before even low-ranking ministerial bureaucrats.
The third reason why Ukrainian rectors are throwing their support behind Bill 1187 is a fear of university autonomy. Bills 1187-1 (to a greater extent) and 1187-2 (in a more limited way) declare institutional autonomy to be one of the cornerstones of the future law. If this norm is passed, particularly as formulated in Bill 1187-1, rectors will no longer be the overlords of their feudal kingdoms, as is the case in many Ukrainian universities today. Instead, communities and influential supervisory boards will manage universities, which is an established practice worldwide. The opposition-sponsored bill grants a university community the right to pass a vote of no confidence in the rector, and the owner of the institution in question must then fire him. Bill 1187 also delegates the right of recall to a university’s public self-government body but makes its decision only advisory to the owner.
Under bill 1187, the rector is the only person in a university who “decides on financial-economic matters”. In doing so, he is monitored by an academic council which he appoints, heads and hence controls. Thus, all leverage in the university’s triangle of money, property and profits will usually be held by rectors. In contrast, the opposition’s bill would greatly limit rectors’ authority in managing finances and property through the function of supervisory boards which may not involve any employees of the institution in question, including the rector.
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The fourth reason is that Bill 1187 preserves the current model of rector appointment. Under the bill, this office cannot be taken by an “outsider” because its prerequisites include an academic degree and title and a period of research and instruction. These criteria are laughable to those who know how such things are obtained in Ukraine and how competitions to fill university positions are held. Ironically, rectors will have to be doing something totally different – managing a large organization and being an efficient manager. The selection and appointment procedures proposed in bills 1187 and 1187-2 would deal another blow to university autonomy. Under bill 1187-1, however, university communities would be responsible for establishing selection criteria and election procedures for rector appointments.
The fifth reason that Ukrainian rectors are opposed to bills 1187-1 and 1187-2 is that bill 1187, which they support, preserves the autocracy of rectors, granting them virtually unlimited power in their universities and failing to institute any system of accountability before public governance or self-government bodies. In most countries of the world, university presidents report to supervisory boards, but under Bill 1187, a supervisory board is merely a club of people “useful” to the university, while real authority is vested in rector-controlled academic councils.
INDEPENDENT TESTING: A THORN IN THE RECTOR’S SIDE
One of the quintessential differences between the three competing bills is the way they distribute authority between rectors and the owners/founders of educational institutions. The relationships between the two sides in private institutions have a different basis, so the bills apply, in this part, primarily to public universities and the Ministry of Education and Science, which acts as their owner. The Kivalov-Kaletnik-Soroka bill essentially maintains the current system of subordination and relationships to which rectors are well accustomed and with which they are fully content. Bill 1187-2 gives rectors much more authority by taking it away from the ministry, but in fact it is more concerned with carving up the “power pie” in a new way or, most likely, making rectors “autonomous”. Bill 1187-1 eliminates any such autonomy and rules out authoritarianism: educational institutions independently establish rector appointment procedures and the functions of rectors are limited to operational management. The rest is the provenance of supervisory boards and academic councils, as well as student self-government bodies. In other words, rectors will be nothing more than efficient managers tasked with developing their universities. It is easy to see how unappealing this is to those who are in charge of universities today and have built monuments to themselves, in a figurative and sometimes literal sense.
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Finally, the Party of Regions bill introduces entrance examinations and rejects external testing for tuition-paying students. Envisioning rivers flowing with milk and honey, the rectors are undoubtedly relishing the thought of this becoming a reality. Add to this the “financial autonomy” of universities mandated by Bill 1187. This proposal flies in the face of public support for external testing. The latest opinion poll surveys carried out by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in October 2012 showed that 62 per cent of respondents favoured university admission based on external test scores. As one of their key requirements, protesting students demanded keeping external testing as part of the admissions procedures. Research points to a very strong correlation between test scores and first-year student performance. Pro-government forces are ignoring all of this. They are not concerned with the interests of students or consumers of education services, but with those of the odious rectors, faculty representatives and bureaucrats in the education sector who have been running universities into the ground for many years.
It’s no surprise that Ukrainian rectors have launched a fierce campaign against bills 1187-1 and 1187-2, which would truly reform higher education rather than merely giving it a facelift. Does Ukraine’s education system really need such managers?