Corruption and reform in education in Ukraine

Iván Farías Pelcastre,
PhD in Political Science and International Studies,
University of Birmingham,
United Kingdom,

Alona Anokhina,
MA in Society and Politics,
Graduate School for Social Research,

Kateryna Parkhomei,
MA in International Relations,
University of Warsaw,

To this day, the government of Ukraine – from the local to the national level – is still perceived to be one of the most corrupt in the world. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Ukraine is comfortably positioned in the upper half of the table, among some of the countries with the most corrupt governments. Its rank in the 60th place, out of 180 countries evaluated, puts it closer to far-away Pakistan, than to its geographical neighbour, Poland. For a country which is territorially larger than France, almost as populous as Spain, and nominally as rich as Hungary, this is hardly an achievement. Quite the opposite: the continued prevalence of corruption in Ukrainian society, both in the public and private sectors, imposes a heavy burden in the country by hindering economic growth, increasing socioeconomic inequalities, and diminishing the quality and accessibility of public services –including the provision of education.

In Ukraine, as in other countries, the most visible cases of corruption are those involving high-level government officials. While corruption is also visible in the lower levels of the public administration structure, in the eyes of most Ukrainians, addressing high-profile cases is amongst the most pressing issues for the country. Yet, a more pervasive phenomenon, which is closer to the lives of ordinary citizens, is the involvement of mid- and low-level local education authorities in corruption schemes, which will likely never be addressed. In these low-profile cases, even where there might be evidence of the authorities’ participation in illicit activities, those involved will probably not be prosecuted for their actions.

In Ukraine, corruption in public education can be observed at various levels in the school system, ranging from pre-school to upper secondary and postgraduate education. Sadly, even the very foundations of the system are affected by it. At pre-school level, for instance, this phenomenon is generated and perpetuated by various factors: the limited number of places available for pupils at municipal kindergartens, coupled with the high demand for pre-school education services; the problems experienced by parents when using the current electronic enrolment system; the misuse of parental financial contributions to kindergartens and schools –due to the lack of control mechanisms; and the lack of transparency in the allocation of school budgets. While addressing all these issues would require the implementation of complex, multi-tiered solutions, it is possible to start by making very simple changes to the system. For example, making the publication of budgets and financial statements of educational institutions, both compulsory and legally binding. As small as it might appear, this would be a good first step in the right direction for improving the educational system in Ukraine.

A more comprehensive change, however, would require the full implementation of the reforms – which started with the passing of the laws for Higher Education in 2014, for Research and Scientific Activity in 2015, and on Education in 2017, but that are now long overdue. The new law, which the Ministry of Education deputies and experts are said to have been preparing for almost three years, would replace the current one, which has been in force since 1991. Although pupils, teachers, parents, and the general public had positive views and held high hopes about this and other fundamental changes in the system, not new laws about it have been passed.

Moreover, while it is often said that all levels of government are committed to the reform, the overall system still faces a chronic problem: underfunding. Undoubtedly, the successful implementation of reform also requires the making of a great number of capital investments. In this regard, the biggest concern appears to be reaching an adequate balance in the allocation of the state budget for the educational sector. According to budget projections, in 2020, in absolute terms, 136.4 billion Ukrainian Hryvnias (UAH) will be allocated for investment in the sector. This is about 7.7 billion more than the budget allocated in 2019. In relative terms, however, this is more significant. In 2016, only 5% of Ukraine’s GDP was allocated to education. From now on, every year at least 7% of it will be allocated to the sector. Even by Western European standards, the share of the budget that will be now allocated to education is substantial. Whether these financial resources are enough to fully implement the long-promised educational reform, however, remains an open question.

Lastly, the effects of all these changes are not expected to be visible in earlier than three to five years. Considering that there is already, great dissatisfaction with the pace of the reforms which should have been implemented in the country, President Volodymyr Zelensky should prioritise the implementation of educational reform. While his victory in the presidential election of 2019 brought hope to the people – by making it seem possible to implement fundamental changes in the way in which their society is run and governed – the patience of Ukrainians is wearing thin. Since the events of Euromaidan in 2013, Ukrainians been eagerly awaiting the implementation of such crucial government reforms. Hence, if Zelensky is serious about taking action against corruption and inefficiency in the Ukrainian government, he does not have to go farther than ensuring the full implementation of educational reform.

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