Kiev's Mohyla Academy is both the newest and oldest university in Ukraine. Symbolic of Ukraine's rebirth in 1991 as an independent state, the academy, which was re-established six years ago, nearly two centuries after it closed, is rapidly becoming the country's most dynamic centre for academic excellence and international cultural exchange.
The British Council, the United Kingdom's international network for education, culture and development services, is to move its Ukrainian headquarters to the academy by the end of the year. The Know How Fund, donations from the Ukrainian diaspora and international foundation grants have helped fund legal, social work and other centres at the academy.
The academy, which is one of half a dozen national universities that bypass the education ministry and answer directly to the council of ministers, has risen phoenix-like from the grip of centuries of Russian domination of Ukrainian arts and culture.
An endowment by a prominent noblewoman, Hlashka Hulevichyvna, enabled the academy to be established in the early 17th century, and it became the training ground for generations of Ukrainian intellectuals, military leaders, artists and politicians.
The first 16 rectors of Moscow University were graduates of the academy, before increasing Russification brought about its closure in 1817. The seamless transition of 19th-century Russian domination and cultural suppression in the Ukraine after the Bolshevik revolution all but obliterated the academy from the national consciousness, and the 20th century saw a Soviet naval college for the training of political commissars, more than 300 miles from the nearest seaport, established on its site.
Today, all that has changed and the vision of a small group of leading academics to recreate the academy as a centre of excellence in liberal arts education is beginning to emerge.
Rector Serhiy Ivanyuk, a former professor at the Ukrainian Academy of Science's Institute of Literature, said the emergence of the anti-communist Rukh Popular Movement in the late 1980s offered a historic opportunity to re-establish the country's oldest university.
With future academy president Vyacheslav Bryukhovetsky and three other colleagues, they began pressing their case. "We were just five adventurers without office space or telephones, but Bryukhovetsky is a good organiser and politician and he got the Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, who realised its potential, behind the project," said Professor Ivanyuk.
Dislodging the naval academy from 18th and 19th-century buildings on the banks of the River Dnieper was the biggest challenge. As tension rose between Russia and the Ukraine over the division of the Soviet fleet in the early 1990s, old ethnic differences surfaced in the academy, by now sharing space with the navy commissars.
"The graffiti told the story: 'We shall wave the red flag over the walls of our dear political school'; 'Fleet forgive us'; and 'Ukrainian pigs die'. It was an awful period, they stole everything and destroyed all the classrooms when they left. Our students christened one block 'Chechnya' when they saw the state it had been left in," Professor Ivanyuk said.
But with the help of defence minister Konstantin Morozov, who was learning Ukrainian at the academy, the navy finally left in 1996 and the academy's vision gathered pace. The academy is organised into three faculties - humanities and social science; natural sciences and law, along with departments of economics, computer science and sociology/ social work. It offers flexible programmes to 2,400 undergraduates in Ukrainian and English at the Kiev site and two satellite colleges outside the city.
A journalism school, in collaboration with the BBC World Service training division, is planned for next year. Medical and ecological faculties will be added when finances permit.
Entrance by confidential tests circumvents the widespread problem of using bribes to gain university entrance and all students pay $200 a year towards tuition. Ten per cent of places are reserved for those who can buy their way in for $2,000 a year, but they have to make the grade.
A policy of avoiding the narrow specialisms of the Soviet diploma system gives flexibility and offers students a broad career base. Visiting professors from Britain, the United States and Europe contribute to an international flavour.
The ethos of the academy as an institution that combines a strong Ukrainian identity within an international context is very important. "For more than 400 years the Ukraine was suppressed - science and arts were taught in Russian," said Professor Ivanyuk. "Our purpose is to create an alternative model for higher education in Ukraine, to offer a choice for students."
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