Ukraine’s students are no different from those in other countries: they want to attend world-class universities. But world-class universities are only possible when they unite top-notch research and education. And Ukraine currently has neither.
Research in the country is largely confined to the 174 research institutes of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). A plan to merge these with Ukraine’s 200 or so public universities was one of the results of the people’s uprising that has become known as Euromaidan, culminating in the overthrow of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2014. Students took part in the confrontations with riot police and claimed the right to a better education and better future in a new, reformed country.
However, no mergers involving academy institutes have yet occurred. Reasons include the unusual level of autonomy enjoyed by the NAS and its sense of being under siege from budget cuts and officials and businessmen intent on acquiring some of its prime assets, estimated to be worth a total of $40 billion (£28 billion), an astronomical figure for Ukraine. Although it is less than half the size it was at the end of the Soviet era, the academy still has about 40,000 employees, and its own financial survival has become its raison d’être.
Last year, for instance, was marked by battles for land, fisheries and natural reservations belonging to the academy. Its president, Borys Paton, had to intervene personally in order to prevent a hostile takeover of the land by raiders of all kinds, including local authorities, businessmen and even poachers. The Kiev premises of the research institute that studies the safety of nuclear power stations and deals with radioactive materials was taken over and held for several months by armed men who belong to one of Ukraine’s paramilitary nationalist battalions. Even social activists got in on the act, demanding that a luxury Kiev furniture store that they attacked, which turned out to be rented from an academy institute, be given to the Museum of the Euromaidan.
Such renting out of academy land is not unusual. With a shrinking state budget allocation, directors of research institutes were quick to offer their premises – especially their ground floors – to nightclubs, pizzerias, dentists, lawyers and all manner of other small businesses. Such activities are not legal, but are far from the only financial irregularities in which academy institutes have been involved. For instance, last year the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics in Kiev was accused of being involved in embezzlement, fraud, money laundering, nepotism and illegally renting out state property. Later in the same year, state security services and police raided the premises of the Paton Institute of Electric Welding, also located in the capital, and seized 200 computers that had allegedly been used for illegal Bitcoin mining and were found in a derelict swimming pool. The institute was formerly run by the academy president and was founded by his father.
In a 2015 interview, Ukraine’s minister of education and science at the time, Serhiy Kvit, described the NAS as “a state within a state”, which has had “a special kind of autonomy since the days of Stalin. In the Soviet era, the Communist Party controlled all of our research activities, but now the Communist Party has disappeared and the state does not know what the National Academy does.” The academy’s numerous specialised units were established to serve different branches of Soviet industry, but Ukrainian industry has been dying for the past quarter of a century, so the institutes have lost their purpose.
Yet instead of trying to revive and repurpose the academy, the government introduces further budget cuts and layoffs – all while demanding to know when it will produce a Nobel prize for Ukraine. As things stand, there is little point merging dysfunctional research institutes with corrupt teaching-focused universities that are more akin to US community colleges than Humboldtian research universities. Until decisive measures are taken to reform both sectors, the hope for a better future that inspired the Euromaidan revolution will not be fulfilled.
Ararat L. Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education in New York and an honorary associate in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He spent the past four years studying academic corruption in Ukraine.