A thought-provoking Zoom meeting took place last May between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and members of the American Association of Universities (AAU), which comprises sixty-five of America’s top research universities. In attendance were presidents of Yale, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, and many other prominent American educational leaders.
While the American interlocutors highlighted the support that their institutions have offered Ukrainian students and scholars on their campuses since the Russian invasion in February, they unfortunately revealed scant understanding of the broader challenges facing Ukrainian higher education, which transcend the ongoing war, and thus failed to propose any meaningful ways that they could support Ukrainian universities directly. This is unfortunate.
President Zelenskyy should be commended for his very clear vision of the urgent need to reform Ukraine’s higher education as part of a larger postwar reconstruction. He fully understands that this effort will present an extraordinary opportunity to launch fundamental reforms that would otherwise be politically difficult. Presumably he also wants to avoid the failure by some of Ukraine’s neighbors, such as Poland or Slovakia, to reboot their higher education sectors when the transition from the Soviet system to democracy commenced in their countries in the early 1990s.
The list of ailments afflicting Ukrainian higher education is long, yet three broad categories of problems stand out. First, the sector continues to operate on an essentially Soviet model, which separates teaching from research. Accordingly, universities focus on teaching, while research activities are concentrated at the Academy of Sciences. One result of this disconnect is that no Ukrainian university ranks among the top 500 in the QS World University Rankings (the highest-ranked, number 541, is Karazin Kharkiv National University). Unfortunately, this legacy of bifurcation ails essentially the entire post-Soviet universe, including the EU member states that joined the Union in 2004 or later.
A second problem is that the salaries of university faculties are pitifully low. The overwhelming majority of professors have little choice but to hold multiple jobs, hampering their ability to devote time to either students or research. Third, the universities are plagued by rampant corruption and plagiarism. According to one author, “on average no less than 50 percent of dissertations do not meet minimum standards of academic quality, or are plagiarised, or both.” The culture of impunity for acts of academic dishonesty has fueled a robust consulting industry devoted to producing fraudulent theses and research papers.
Given these challenges, it is evident that reforming the existing system will not be easy or fast. It is also highly unlikely that a world-class research university could emerge from the existing, highly troubled landscape. For this reason, President Zelenskyy hinted in the Zoom session at the imperative of surmounting the existing system by creating de novo a world-class research university. There is no doubt that this would be a very challenging and expensive project. The good news in this regard is that Ukraine is expected to have access to $750 billion in reconstruction funding, including from Russia’s former foreign exchange reserves.
AAU could provide invaluable help in structuring such a project, in particular with recruitment of university leadership and top research faculty. A concrete next step should be the establishment of a joint committee between AAU and Ukraine’s Ministry of Education, with the mission of developing an initial feasibility study.
Oddly enough, one of Ukraine’s neighbors, Hungary, has had a similar idea. After having booted out of the country the Soros-founded Central European University, Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán has set out attracting to Budapest a branch of the Shanghai-based Fudan University, one of China’s top research universities. Despite robust local opposition to the idea of bringing to Hungary an institution that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, most observers believe the project will nevertheless proceed.
Unlike Orbán, President Zelenskyy is clearly looking to the United States for help in establishing a world-class research university in his country. Such an institution is essential to his country’s future, for at least three main reasons: First, it would set a standard of excellence that would then spearhead the general reform of Ukraine’s ailing higher education system. Second, it would integrate Ukraine into the globalized networks of collaborative research, from which the country is currently de facto excluded. Third, the new university can become an anchor for Ukraine’s transition to a knowledge-intensive economy, which Ukraine is well positioned for, having been in the past a hub for Soviet R&D and engineering excellence. AAU, together with the Ukrainian government, should seize the extraordinary opportunity that a postwar reconstruction offers to help turn Ukraine into Central Europe’s leader in higher education.
Martin Miszerak is a visiting professor at Solbridge International School of Business in Daejeon, South Korea, as well as adjunct professor at the Business School of Renmin University in Beijing. In the 1990s, he served as a privatization adviser to the Polish government and subsequently as CEO of a government-sponsored restructuring fund.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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