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Paying for a Free Education

Contrary to the official version, Ukraine’s schools and universities are in effect being privatized – through corruption. [Also in Russian.] by Abel Polese 7 August 2006 Ukraine’s public-sector services are constantly under attack for being inadequate, out-of-date, and, mainly, corrupt. Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, ranks Ukraine 107th out of 158 countries it analyzed in its Corruption Perception Index for 2005, together with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Palestine.

Public education is a key area where bribes are paid routinely. Sooner or later, most foreigners who come to Ukraine to teach are confronted with the widespread corruption in education. A colleague teaching in Odessa was given money by one of her students as a thank-you from the class. For the student, this was absolutely normal: he added that the whole class had pitched in to supplement the teacher’s stipend and ease the examination process.

Stories of students who passed an exam thanks to a box of chocolate or a bottle of brandy, or of candidates admitted to a university thanks to a donation, are extremely common. But the simplistic label of “corruption” is not always appropriate and often obscures our view of the root causes.

There can be no doubt that a dean demanding several thousand dollars to admit a student or a professor passing students only after receiving a “present” are corrupt. But when a university accepts money under the table to improve teaching conditions, this is better understood as the creeping privatization of the education system.


The problem of under-funding in higher education is not unique to Ukraine. Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe are facing the same challenge: the growing demand for graduates is not matched by a sufficient number of universities able to produce them. As a result, existing universities see higher numbers applying for a place every year.

Because competition from private universities is still weak, public universities are free to offer lower standards such as crumbling facilities or incompetent teachers. Because the universities receive insufficient funding from the state budget, both faculty and faculties look for alternative sources of income: students might be charged extra to pass an exam or for entering the university; instead of a direct payment, students might offer a service, like finding a small job for their teacher or hiring the teacher for private lessons.

A colleague admitted to receiving presents sporadically. He mentioned that he would sometimes pass a student, on a case-by-case basis, when that student’s future career depended on earning a degree. He saw no reason to refuse if the student offered a bottle of brandy in return.

The result is a de-facto privatization of most public universities in Ukraine. The official enrolment fees are a fiction since hidden fees have to be added. Some of the best students will be allowed to pay only the official enrolment fee or may be granted a scholarship that covers tuition costs, while the majority will pay official fees and supplement them by hiring their professors for private lessons or by offering services, goods, or money.


Most reports blame “the system” by defining it as corrupted and rotten. Ukrainians often blame it on a historical predisposition to corruption or on the “Slavic mentality.” In fact, corruption is a rational answer to objective conditions that can easily be assessed by inquiring why universities have so little money and why there is such a gap between the demand and supply of education in certain fields.

Public university budgets in Ukraine are set by the government, which strives to minimize expenses: almost no research is financed, it is extremely hard to get money for facilities, and teachers are underpaid.

Public primary or secondary schools and hospitals follow a similar pattern. Public schools set up a reserve fund, varying according to the prestige of the school, to which parents are expected to contribute. Hospitals are the quintessence of the Ukrainian paradox: health care is free of charge by constitutional right; hospitals are thought to be the place where most under-the-table transactions occur. Those transactions are sometimes referred to as bribes, sometimes as charity, since customers recognize that doctors, with their responsibility over life and death, cannot live on $100 or $200 a month. The poor can still get some assistance for free, but generally, in a Ukrainian hospital you will be expected to supplement the state budget: every doctor has an “unofficial” fee priced according to his or her prestige and skills.

The Ukrainian government had failed its students, its universities, and its labor market.

It has failed to respond to the increasing demand for graduates, which has heightened the competition to enroll in most universities.

It has failed to provide the enrolled students with decent conditions to study and thrive, and teaching staff with an environment in which they can focus on teaching.

It has also failed to create the conditions for employment of people who for whatever reason cannot or would not go to university. As a result, people with no degree will compete against university graduates for a job in a call center or a shop – even those whose degrees are completely irrelevant to the job.

Along with most foreign teachers in Ukraine, I used to consider the situation disastrous and was surprised to find that even some “corrupt” teachers and “corrupt” departments were actually as good as their Western counterparts.

Corruption in the universities is more likely to be found in teaching than research. If you want extra money, you try to teach as much as possible since funding for research needs to be identified by the prospective researcher and research is not compulsory, while teaching is.

As for the quality of teaching, there are good and bad teachers in Ukraine as anywhere else. There are also good and bad students – with the difference that bad students outnumber good ones many times over.

Students can be divided into three categories: good students who are willing and love to learn and would emerge on top in any educational system; decent students who sometimes suffer under the system but are still good enough to take some advantage from their education; and “accidental” students, who are often enrolled because they will do anything in order to get the piece of paper they need to survive in a competitive workplace.

Most of the time corruption is generated by the encounter of accidental students with those teachers who are unable to find alternative sources of income, or who are simply greedy.

This situation is of course not sustainable. Take the admission exam as an illustration. If the choice is between admitting a brilliant student, who might bring prestige to the university in the medium term, and a weak student willing to offer money, short-term gain will dictate admitting the weak student. Good students will suffer, as will good universities.

Although good research is still produced in Ukraine, a number of excellent colleagues have already left the public sector or simply have had to abandon research because they are overloaded with paid work to secure a decent income for their family.

The system is heading toward breaking point.


Who benefits from this situation? Most students are paying extra money while only some teachers are securing extra incomes; but the overall conditions for universities, teachers, and students are bleak.

Students do not get extra benefits for the money paid informally, teachers are still underpaid, and universities have a hard time trying to secure better facilities. In addition, the state is unable to collect taxes on informal donations, which translates into still less funding available from the budget.

The peak of irony is touched when Ukrainian students learn that their colleagues studying in France, Germany, or the United Kingdom are in fact paying much less than they do.

The higher education system in Ukraine is nominally public but in practice it might as well be private. The system of double tuition fees (some official, some informal) makes most universities unbelievably expensive. Some students get what in the West would be called a scholarship and pay little or no fees, while the rest pay an amount that, in relation to the average income in Ukraine, is horrendous. Worst of all, this money will typically not be reinvested into the university since teachers and managers won’t share the spoils with their institution.

While true reform is tough, the moment has come when the authorities need to open their eyes to the reality of the situation.

Once that happens, there are two basic options: either make the privatization official by giving official blessing to teachers earning extra money and facilitating investment of the earned money into staff wages, research projects, and departmental facilities; or, alternatively, use some of the state budget to finance universities, acknowledging that teachers might need to eat every day.

The choice between the two options is a matter for politicians. The task for social scientists is to inform them, and the public, that this choice exists, and to remind the decision makers that it is in their hands.
Abel Polese is a research fellow at the Hannah Arendt Institute in Dresden and a doctoral candidate at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris. He was a visiting lecturer and researcher in Ukraine from 2002 until 2006.
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