Is the World Bank’s intervention in Ukrainian HE too little, too late?

The attempt to improve the country’s universities was stuttering even before the war broke out, says Ararat Osipian

三月 9, 2022
Students and teachers of Ivan Poddubny Olympic College protest about merge of the academic institution and the National University of Physical Education and Sport outside the Cabinet of Ministers building, Kyiv, 2020
Source: Getty

In its fight for independence, there is no doubt that Ukraine will ultimately prevail. But to strengthen its sovereignty, the country has many steps to take. These include developing world-class universities.

It is hard to find a single country globally that lacks world-class universities and yet enjoys the benefits of strong statehood. Ukraine is not going to be an exception. So in addition to financial, technical and military aid, Ukraine needs international academic help.

After many years of inaction, the World Bank finally stepped up to the plate last year, announcing a $200 million (£152 million) loan for a project entitled “Ukraine Improving Higher Education for Results”. The initiative, which began late last autumn and is scheduled to run until the end of 2026, has the objective to improve the efficiency, quality and transparency of Ukraine’s higher education system. It also aims to increase its responsiveness to the needs of the national and global labour market.

The World Bank loan will be spent on modernising teaching and research facilities and digital learning infrastructure – including for distance learning. This is in order to “ensure learning continuity through remote learning modalities and to support resilience and change management over the longer term”.

But the major focus of the project appears to be on university mergers (also described as “restructuring” and “optimisation”). Why mergers, one may ask. How will these contribute to “improving higher education for results”? After reading all the project documents, I am none the wiser about how the economy of scale principle will work in the case of Ukraine’s higher education sector.

I am led to speculate that this emphasis on mergers derives not from the World Bank but from Ukraine’s academic and political aristocracy. The project aims “to develop a stakeholder’s engagement process that gives stakeholders the opportunity to participate and influence project design and implementation”. Ukraine’s university leaders, who are in their positions largely regardless of merit, may intend to use the World Bank project to grow their own empires, leading (and de facto owning) larger universities that enjoy greater resources and modernised facilities that will ultimately be paid for by Ukrainian taxpayers.

In my view, the project would do much better to prioritise true autonomy for existing universities – and ensure that the people running them are motivated and able to use that autonomy wisely. But it is unclear whether the bank understands the true magnitude of the problems on the ground in Ukrainian higher education – even before Russian rockets began to rain down on its infrastructure. Corruption remains a serious problem in the post-Communist era, as does bureaucracy.

Thus far, the largest mergers – and the most controversial ones – have taken place in Kharkiv, which is currently under intense bombardment. V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University has absorbed two small institutes, while four other institutions in the city have been merged into the State Biotechnology University. These moves have been accompanied by allegations of corruption, hostile takeovers, political influence and electoral fraud.

In another move, Kharkiv National University of Civil Engineering and Architecture is being forced to become part of Beketov National University of Urban Economy, even though it would prefer to join the National Technical University Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute. Staff and students have staged protests, speaking freely of their dissatisfaction.

The Russian bombing has put academic life in Ukraine on hold. However, the day will come when the mergers will reappear at the forefront of academic and public debate in Ukraine. They are all highly questionable in terms of design, implementation and preliminary results. And while the World Bank may have consulted some politicians and university leaders, the continuing protests suggest that other “stakeholders” have been ignored. Clearly, there is no unity in Ukrainian academic circles on university mergers and the role of the World Bank in this process.

The fate of the World Bank’s project – and the money it has already dispensed – is now unclear. But even if it resumes after the Russian invasion is repelled, and even if it sticks to the original timetable, it is unclear that it will make a significant contribution to improving Ukrainian higher education – never mind to the consolidation of Ukrainian statehood.

It would be fair to ask whether, in the end, it amounts to too little, too late.

Ararat L. Osipian is a founding fellow at the New University in Exile Consortium, New York. He is working on a book titled The World Bank comes to Ukraine: University mergers, protests, and corruption.



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