“It’s a bit embarrassing when staff in shops ask if I want the student discount,” says Inna Sovsun, the 29-year-old Ukrainian first deputy minister for education and science.
Sovsun – who could easily pass for a graduate student – is Ukraine’s youngest minister ever. She was a shock appointment after the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s government in February.
She was a politics lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy when Serhiy Kvit, her rector, took over the country’s education ministry. He asked her to become his second-in-command.
Lack of political experience has not held her back. At the end of their first 100 days in office, Kvit and Sovsun published a comprehensive plan of action and helped to secure passage of a new higher education law (the first since 2002) on 1 July.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sovsun says she is keen to go further to reform Ukraine’s archaic higher education system.
One big priority is promoting research in universities rather than Soviet-style national research centres.
“Only 6 to 7 per cent of research funding goes to universities,” she says. “The government spends 0.29 per cent of gross domestic product on research. That is very little for a country that should have a strong research-driven agenda.”
Ukraine’s research centres are “very conservative” and resistant to change, which stifles innovation and creativity, Sovsun says.
“The president of the National Academy of Sciences has held that position since 1962. He is a very well-known researcher, but he is 95 years old.”
There are similar examples of those in power holding on for too long thanks to their contacts and alliances rather than their suitability for the post, Sovsun continues.
“Someone who is 65 years old would be considered young,” she says of the academy.
Other radical plans envisaged by Sovsun include merging or closing many of Ukraine’s 365 public higher education institutions – far too many for a population of 46 million, she thinks. “Some have only 500 students and 30 academics. You can’t have a university with these numbers.”
She is also keen to end Ukraine’s “two-track” university system, which allows applicants denied a publicly funded place on a course to fund their own studies on that same programme. Because universities rely on these paying students for funds, entry requirements are often dropped to accommodate them, and almost no students fail, she says.
“You also get too many lawyers because students would rather pay to study law than do chemistry where there are [publicly funded] spaces available,” she says.
Sovsun also has the small matter of helping universities affected by the Russian-backed insurgency on Ukraine’s eastern border.
“Some university buildings have been captured by terrorists, so universities in some cities have been shut down,” she says. “Laboratories have been destroyed, and some vice-chancellors have fled because their families have been threatened.
“Students are also running away from the area because they are afraid. We have some money to help universities here, but there is only so much we can do.”