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Long, Hot, Uncertain Summer for Ukraine’s Next Freshmen

Thousands of fresh Ukrainian high school graduates spend much of their summer trying to cut through a thicket of new university admissions procedures.

русская версия


by Christine Demkowych 2 August 2010

KYIV| Thousands of students and parents flooded Ukrainian university campuses in a panic on the first day in mid-July that schools were to begin accepting admissions applications for the fall 2010 semester.


In Kharkiv, one school had close to 7,000 students lining up to submit documents in one day, a university rector said. At Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv about 5,000 students applying to master’s programs showed up to take entrance exams, an admissions employee said.


The crush was on this year, as the Education Ministry had cut from three to two weeks the period for submitting documents in person.


Despite the long lines, people waited patiently in scorching temperatures. Those who were planning to apply to multiple universities – a maximum of five is allowed – believed that starting early would help them submit paperwork to all the schools on their list within the designated time frame.


Image 15847Young people on a street in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Creative Commons photo.


Students will learn by 15 August whether they have been accepted at any of their chosen schools. The new academic year begins on 1 September.


Students waiting in line commiserated over the frequent changes in the government-mandated admissions process: also new this year is a requirement that universities take high school grades into account rather than relying solely on standardized exams.


Vitaliy Yanyuk, an official with the Ukrainian Standardized External Testing Alliance Initiative (USETI), said people had overreacted to the changes in the submissions period, as handing in applications early would not affect admissions decisions. “There’s no rational reason for so many people to have shown up on the first day to submit their documents. It’s just part of the Ukrainian mentality,” he said.  USETI is a USAID-funded project that was set up to help implement standardized testing and now promotes the primacy of standardized tests in university admissions decisions. 


But a university administrator in the southern city of Zaporizhia blamed the long lines on a recent spate of changes announced by government that she said have “caused a lot of confusion, frustration, and disagreement.” “The ministry frequently creates some new programs or requirements that we have to implement within very short time frames. Then the rules change and everything starts all over again. Under these conditions it’s impossible to develop long-term plans because everything changes all the time,” she said, noting it was no surprise that the ministry issued yet another directive and extended the admissions period by five more days after roughly one week went by.


Some university admissions workers said complaints from parents put pressure on the ministry to extend the admissions period. 


At a conference with university presidents and educators in Kyiv last month, ministry officials said that next year students will be allowed to submit their admissions applications electronically, a move that will save students time and reduce the number of seasonal workers typically needed for the application process. At Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv, pro-rector Volodymyr Buhrov said his school hired 693 seasonal employees this year to process admissions paperwork during the peak period. 


According to Buhrov, waiting times were “minimal” this year. He said that one department at Shevchenko University has already implemented an electronic submissions procedure and that no lines were evident there.


The electronic applications process should make it easier for students to apply to multiple universities across a wider area. Students without computers at home will have Internet access at libraries across the country thanks to a $25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is part of the Global Libraries initiative administered by the International Research and Exchange Board. 


While most universities are keen to switch to electronic applications, some administrators wonder about the technicality of digital signatures and whether the new system will be ready for in time for next year.


Another twist for prospective university students this year was the decision by the Education Ministry to give more weight in the admissions process to applicants’ high school grades.


Universities use a point system to select incoming freshmen. A maximum of 800 points can be earned. Applicants take five tests after graduation from high school, then submit three of the subject scores, each worth up to 200 points, to their chosen universities. This system was inaugurated under the previous education minister, Ivan Vakarchuk, in line with Ukraine’s participation in the so-called Bologna process of harmonizing European higher education standards. From this year, universities must also add up to 200 admission points for a student's high school grade point average.


That decision has caused concern among educators who believe that secondary school grades can too easily be altered if the right sum of money is paid. Taras Dobko, pro-rector of Ukrainian Catholic University, argues that using standardized tests as the sole basis for making admissions decisions is the fairest system that Ukraine has used to date.


“It has allowed the best students to go to the best universities and it has given them more choice,” he said. “In a perfect system, using a variety of criteria is good. But there’s too much corruption involved with the other criteria.”


Education officials counter that the addition of grades to the admissions decision will safeguard against students’ tendency to concentrate only on subjects to be tested.


“Students should know all subjects well. Using just test scores as a barometer for admissions decisions will cause students to stop learning,” said Yuriy Korovaichenko, the ministry’s deputy director for higher education.


On the ever-touchy topic of corruption, Korovaichenko said there are systems in place to prevent grades from being changed. “Sure, there is a risk. But if we suspect that grades and the certificates they are printed on have been tampered with we always double check,” he said.


Howard Everson, a U.S. education consultant for the USETI program, said that in the United States standardized tests, such as the SATs, have more credibility and are given more weight than grade point average. He said university admissions officers in the United States “do not trust” grades since some teachers are easy graders and some are hard graders.


While many educators believe that grades are not always a good barometer of a student’s ability to perform and that standardized test scores are considered a better reflection of this, Arizona State University Student Success Director Mary Cook says this has not always been the case in her experience. “For the most part you usually see a correlation in a student’s grade point average and their test scores,” Cook said, adding that “grades submitted by teachers can be trusted as accurate and that most teachers are fair graders.”


As part of a presentation given to university rectors in Ukraine last month, Everson pointed out that a key difference is that in Ukraine standardized tests are subject-oriented, while in the United States the SATs are designed to test general language and mathematical aptitude. “Another big difference is that U.S. universities make their own decisions on the criteria used for the admissions process and they determine their own application due dates,” he said.


Serhiy Kvit, rector of the prestigious National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, has been a vocal proponent of giving universities more autonomy. Unlike some university managers who say the current level of corruption makes it necessary for them to work within ordered structures provided by state officials, Kvit believes Ukrainian universities should have the right to make their own procedural and policy decisions. He says part of the problem is that education officials “cannot imagine doing things differently. It’s part of the Soviet psychology. The education system functions much like it does in the army. All commands are issued from above in an authoritarian manner. Some university rectors don’t want more autonomy because with it comes more responsibiliy, responsibility for providing quality education.”


Still, despite the new mandatory admissions rules decreed by the government this year, some schools are administering their own set of admissions criteria.


Amid all the changes and the ongoing debate over which criteria are better for determining admissions applications, educators and ministry officials attending the universities conference in Kyiv in mid-July were very attentive when USETI consultant Everson told them that standardized testing is a very profitable business in the United States, earning annual revenues of more than $900 million as a rough estimate. “This [standardized testing] business allows us to improve the quality of our tests and we don’t have to rely on the government for support,” Everson said.

Christine Demkowych is a freelance journalist in Kyiv. She was a Fulbright scholar in 2008-2009.

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