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Dennis Soltys (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

An educational system is a product of a country’s history and social values, and of low (societal) and high (state) politics. The first purpose of this paper is to trace the inner logic and continuity of the tsarist, Soviet, and the still largely unreformed[1] general and higher educational system design in Ukraine. The pathologies that now afflict Ukraine’s education are rooted in the country’s historical legacy. The second purpose of this paper is to suggest some reform measures for universities.




Painting with a large brush, some of the most obvious things about the tsarist Russian empire were just that: It was tsarist, therefore managerial (elitist) and not a democracy; it was an empire, therefore a major concern necessarily was with the control of peoples and territories; and it was Russian, so it privileged centralizing Russian interests, techniques of governance, and values. Therefore, early in the history of Russia and its peripheries, the educational system and other major aspects of public life were removed from the competence of society. A social development and civic society aspect were never part of the tsarist educational design, while under Soviet rule civic society was directly assaulted. The important point to note here is that the educational system was designed to follow closely in the wake of the security organs and to support state power directly. That is, the educational system’s enlightening mandate was always distinctly secondary to this system’s political and propaganda functions;[2] concomitantly, society was a resource of the elite and lost the ability to govern itself on modern democratic principles.


a) Managerialism/elitism

A highly distinguishing feature of Soviet educational delivery was its managerialism by an ideological elite. A very harmful consequence of this was that society was never invited to be a partner in educational provision. There was little tradition of social pressure on the Soviet regime (and now on independent regimes) for educational expansion and improvement. It is still often not understood that the lack of a formed civic society, possessing social capital and able to lobby on behalf of educational maintenance, was a large negative feature of the Soviet governing technique.

Managerialism also had perverse pedagogical consequences, following from the fact that it privileges the intelligence of the few over that of the many. Knowledge came from on high and was to be repeated, but not questioned or extended; free-thinkers were perceived as dissidents. Overloaded students, lacking the time or training to formulate and defend their own views, simply repeated the didactic formulas of their proletarianized school and university teachers, thus passing on a conservatism and loss of intellectual dynamism from one generation to the next. The academic public failed to discharge the role of social critic, and the USSR culminated with the intellectual and economic stagnation of the Brezhnev era.


b) The vocational paradigm and myths of Soviet education

The second major distinguishing feature of Soviet education was its excessive vocationalism and technocratism, in turn over-emphasizing the natural sciences and mathematics over the social sciences. (Strikingly, this is being mimicked by Western neo-liberals, whose agenda is likewise managerial.) This was carried to the point where education became largely synonymous merely with instruction – for excellence in social sciences and the function of social criticism could not inherently be part of a hegemonic imperial state’s pedagogical design.

Further, spending on education relative to GDP began to decline from the Khrushchev era, when the government and society became complacent because of the spectacular Sputnik shot. Soviet accomplishments in the natural sciences and mathematics had the ironic effect of disguising failures in the social sciences.

Further still, school and university teaching was a low-status and underpaid occupation in the USSR, thus indicating that the “national effort” going into education was low. The economy and educational system were gripped by a vocational paradigm of development, emphasizing vocational education over general, applied research over basic, and traditional manufacturing or extractive industries over high technology. The regime employed misconceived policies designed to induce the downward occupational mobility[4] of youths from the lower social classes into labour- and intelligence-wasting traditional industries.


c) The rural-urban dividing line

The tsarist-aristocratic and Soviet-Marxist political cultures were deeply anti-rural, and the countryside was the colony of the extractive regime of the city. These features result today in the striking difference in the standard of living, educational attainment, and life-chances of rural versus urban youths. Nonetheless, there is nothing inherently “backward” about agriculture and rural life; for example, North American farmers and rural residents are economically and socially fully modern.

The consequences of the rural-urban dividing line are one of the most important issues that Ukraine needs to address. This dividing line stands at the centre of the social justice issue in funding distribution, in the need for a pedagogy of native self-esteem, and of democratic and accountable government in general. This rural-urban disparity is, of course, objectionable on ethical grounds. It is also economically sub-optimal, because the intellectual and labour resource potential of the country’s human capital goes underutilized.

In other words, a broadly-accessible and humanistic liberal education model, and not a social class-defined vocational/technocratic model in its Soviet (or Western neo-liberal) guises, offers the best combination of social justice and economic efficiency. In this regard it is notable that educational attainment in top American universities such as Harvard and Princeton was accompanied or preceded by the expansion of upper education into smaller towns and rural areas. That is, bright students from regional schools increased both the competitive pressure upon and supply of talented students for the top institutions. Therefore “educational expansion creates intelligence,”[3] and the often-posited dichotomy between access and quality is a false one. It is important to note here also that the terms of citizenship ultimately underpin a public policy, and that the quality of a country’s educational system can be no better than the quality of the civil rights that support this system.


Policy recommendations for universities

Space does not permit a longer discussion of the above; corrective measures are implicit. Instead, a few practical measures are suggested below for university reform.

University autonomy. Dynamic Western universities are funded in the preponderant number of cases out of the public budget; however, state and governmental tutelage ends essentially with financing and building of infrastructure. Universities are “community trusts” and do not “belong” to the government – especially, neither are knowledge and intellectual processes considered to belong to the government. Governmental bureaucracies are inherently incapable of micro-managing universities, for in this they encounter a “control paradox.”[5]

Dignified profession. University faculty members should be accorded the status of a “dignified profession.” That is, their salaries and independence should be increased and workloads reduced; and they should be given the legal protections, practical supports, and incentives for research and course improvements that dignified status implies. An empowered and dignified faculty is a precondition for educational reform and effective partnerships among academic communities, the civic sector, and ministries of education.[6]

Academic freedom. Dignified faculty need support for and the freedom to conduct research and to teach. This is essential for updating knowledge and for relevant teaching itself. Faculty also need academic freedom because knowledge is locally and internationally “socially distributed”[7], in a process that state bureaucracies cannot comprehend. Likewise, ministries of education cannot presume to “codify”[8] knowledge (prescribe curricula, teaching methods, faculty hiring, etc.). Ministry intervention into intellectual content reduces teaching relevance and quality.

A possible model. The Bologna Process contains several useful prescriptions – notably the presumption of university autonomy; a call for academic freedom; a “social dimension” (for social justice and civic participation); and an “external dimension” that should facilitate international academic collaboration.

However, though the Bologna Process was intended to empower academic communities, in practice the post-socialist countries have confused the Process with stultifying state-bureaucratic controls.[9] There is neither an easy nor effective way for university reforms to be implemented bureaucratically from the top down; therefore Ukraine’s people and government must understand that reforms in education require deep changes in culture, institutional functioning, and politics.

A red herring. Finally, local calls to preserve the “best national features” of Ukraine’s education manifest essentially a conservative neo-Soviet position. Ukraine’s education has little surviving history of national features; there should be no illusions about this. At the same time, the tsarist and Soviet legacy is ill-fitting and should be cast off, for there can be few redeeming features in structures, pedagogies, and habits that de-professionalize educators and dis-empower communities. Modernization and fundamental reform on multiple levels are essential if Ukraine is to have a viable educational system.



  1. For cogent descriptions of colonial education see Oba F. Nwanosike and Liverpool Eboh Onyije (2011) Colonialism and Education, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 2, No. 4, 41-47 and George G. Grabowicz, The Soviet and Post-Soviet Discourses of Contemporary Ukraine: Literary Scholarship, the Humanities and the Russian-Ukrainian Interface, available at http://www.postcolonial-europe.eu/en/studies/69--the-soviet-and-the-post-soviet-discourses.

  2. Peter Kenez (1985) The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929 (New York: Cambridge University Press).

  3. Geraldine Joncich Clifford (1975) The Shape of American Education (Englewood cliffs: Prentice Hall), p. 103-111.

  4. David Lane and Felicity O’Dell (1978) The Soviet Industrial Worker – Social Class, Education, and Control (Oxford: Martin Robinson), p. 92-107.

  5. See Dennis Soltys and John Dixon (2013) Leading the Way: The Challenges Facing University Leadership, in Dixon and Soltys, op. cit., p. 183-192.

  6. Dennis Soltys (2013) Achieving University Autonomy: The Options in a De-regulated Environment, in John Dixon and Dennis Soltys, Eds., Implementing Bologna in Kazakhstan: A Guide for Universities (Almaty: Academpress), p. 174-182. (Forthcoming in electronic format in September, 2013.)

  7. Michael Gibbons (1998) Speech delivered at the World Conference on Higher Education, UNESCO, Paris, October.

  8. David A. Wolfe (2005) The Role of Universities in Regional Development and Cluster Formation. In Glen A. Jones, Patricia L. McCarney, and Michael Skolnik, Eds., Creating Knowledge, Strengthening Nations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), p. 167-194).

  9. Dennis Soltys (2013) Progress in Implementing Bologna: Tendencies and Implications. In Dixon and Soltys, op. cit., p. 62-76.

Additional works by the author:

  1. Dixon, John and Dennis Soltys, Eds., Implementing Bologna in Kazakhstan: A Guide for Universities, (Almaty: Academpress). (Forthcoming in electronic format, September, 2013.)

  2. Солтис, Денніс (2004) Політична економія і системна діяльність середьної і вищої освіти в Україні. Ред. Всеволод Ісаїв, Українське суспільство на шляху перетворень: західна інтерпретація (Київ: КМ Академія) с. 234-246.

  3. Солтис, Деніс (1998) Громадянські засади і управління американською, канадською та українською народною освітою: макроісторичне порівняння, Вісник Української Академії державного управління при Президентові України, Nо. 2, с. 123-135.

  4. Soltys, Dennis (1997) Education for Decline: Soviet Vocational and Technical Schooling from Khrushchev to Gorbachev (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

  5. Солтис, Денніс (1994) Управління освітою: досвід Канади і проблеми України, Економіка України, Nо. 7, с. 74-80.