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“Kyiv-Mohyla (Academy) has always been an independent university. It has always defended its position.”
Andrii Latsyba, a second-year law student at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says these words with a calm, unwavering determination.
He is one of the leaders of a several hundred-strong student strike movement at Ukraine’s oldest university, ongoing for two weeks and sparked by what those taking part see as an attempt by the education ministry to erode the university’s autonomy.
The conflict stems from the academy’s long-running attempt to elect a new president, which has been fruitless after two years and five elections.
The last attempt at an election on Jan. 27 was marked by an incident where one box was vandalized and another temporarily stolen and returned with unclear motives.
The university’s electoral commission nevertheless ruled the election legitimate, but on Feb. 2 the Ministry of Education ordered a rerun. The next day, the ministry canceled its order after a public outcry which prompted an intervention from the speaker of parliament and the prime minister.
Students say they won’t stop protesting until election winner Serhiy Kvit is appointed, and education minister Serhiy Shkarlet is out of his job. Shkarlet has a reason to begrudge Kvit, the man who headed up a commission in 2020 which found Shkarlet guilty of academic plagiarism.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal fuelled further speculation on Feb. 18 by failing to directly answer a question from an opposition lawmaker on whether Shkarlet would be fired.
The current conflict arose after Kyiv-Mohyla’s fifth attempt in two years to elect a college president, a position which has been vacant since 2019.
The institution’s lack of a permanent head paralyzes the university’s ability to make long-term decisions, according to Serhii Firak, editor of Spudeyskyi Visnyk, Kyiv-Mohyla’s main student newspaper.
“The university needs a leader who can present a vision and begin to deal with problems on all fronts,” Firak said.
Four attempts to elect one failed to yield a majority for any candidate. The fifth attempt was held in January, with the run-off vote between Serhiy Kvit and Oleksandra Humenna taking place on Jan 27.
During the vote, five masked perpetrators burst into the voting hall, poured zelenka, a common disinfectant which dyes anything it touches green, into one ballot box, and stole another before returning it.
The identity or motives of the perpetrators have not yet been established by the ongoing police investigation.
The university’s electoral commission subsequently conducted an investigation. They found that the box seals weren’t broken, and that number of ballots matched the quantity given out. They, therefore, decided to certify the election.
However, on Feb. 2, the Ministry of Education intervened. They issued an order which declared the election void and demanded a rerun in March.
This provoked outrage among students and wider civil society, who condemned the action as illegal. One of those voices was Kyiv School of Economics professor Yegor Stadnyi, who also served as Deputy Minister of Education in 2019-2020.
Ukrainian law stipulates that if a candidate for college president wins over 50% of the vote in an election, the education ministry must sign a contract with them. The ministry has no right to annul a certified election.
“This is far from the first time the ministry has broken the law,” Stadnyi told the Kyiv Independent.
“However, this incident gained such attention that the outrage wave went far beyond the Ministry of Education.”
Ruslan Hrabovskyi, head of Kyiv-Mohyla’s student council, told the Kyiv Independent that on Feb. 1, the day before the education ministry’s order, he was summoned to a private meeting with Sharklet to discuss the election.
“I told him he had no right (to annul the election). He replied that he was the minister, that he didn’t care about anybody else’s opinion, and that he would do it.”
Hrabovskyi says Shkarlet told him: “You can either spend two months on (another) election, or two years going through the courts.”
The Ministry of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
The day after the order was issued, an emergency meeting was held between university representatives including Hrabovskyi, Shkarlet, Parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk, and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, among others. The result was a cancellation of the Feb. 2 order, and an agreement to respect the election results.
“Stefanchuk argued that the ministry had no right to interfere in the autonomy of universities,” Hrabovskyi said.
“Because of this, Stefanchuk and Shmyhal forced Shkarlet to cancel his order,” he added.
The retraction of the education ministry’s order did not satisfy the students, who decided to press the advantage and go ahead with the protest anyway.
“(The government) really doesn't want student protests right now, which is exactly why we’re protesting,” quipped Latsyba, referring to the government’s desire to avoid negative headlines after several recent scandals.
Several student protests have been held, with the last one taking place outside the President’s Office on Feb. 14.
They say they won’t be persuaded to back down until Kvit’s new contract is signed, and Shkarlet is out of his job.
Students and civil society figures have several reasons to be unhappy with the education minister, who was appointed to the job temporarily in June 2020, then permanently in December 2020. He has been accused of stalling education reforms, however, one core theme stands out in students’ protest banners: “Shkarlet – plagiarist.”
In September 2020, when Shkarlet was already serving as acting education minister, the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance, headed up by Kvit, found him guilty of three counts of plagiarism. Shkarlet later successfully appealed the decision in court.
Media outlets published excerpts of his academic work with entire paragraphs identical to those published by other academics years before.
Shkarlet’s confirmation as education minister elicited nationwide student protests, arguing that a plagiarist was not fit to uphold academic standards. Many have still not forgiven this.
Kvit, in addition to having already served as Kyiv-Mohyla’s president from 2007 to 2014, was also minister of education between 2014 and 2016, under the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, Volodymyr Zelensky’s predecessor.
This affiliation to the previous president, who is currently on trial for treason while being the most popular opposition politician in Ukraine, may also be a factor in the ministry’s apparent unwillingness to appoint Kvit.
Anger at Shkarlet, however, runs deeper than just the plagiarism scandal.
Ex-deputy minister Stadnyi expressed his frustration with the stagnation of meaningful education reforms under the current management.
“Even progress on projects which were started before Shkarlet’s tenure is extremely slow,” Stadnyi said.
He highlights the example of the $200 million loan for education spending secured from the World Bank in May – according to Stadnyi, negotiations should have been concluded “several months earlier.” The ex-deputy minister also said that the New Ukrainian School project, much trumpeted during its launch in 2019, has gone nowhere.
The New Ukrainian School is an initiative that seeks to modernize Ukraine’s Soviet-era school policies. The core concept of the reform is to base students’ learning around core “competencies,” such as the ability to be a lifelong learner, IT proficiency, and financial literacy.
However, the effort has petered out of late. On Feb. 18, prime minister Shmyhal fielded questions in parliament from opposition Voice party lawmaker Inna Sovsun, who wanted to know why the New Ukrainian School reform had “collapsed.”
According to an October survey conducted by the National Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, less than 10% of Ukrainians consider their education system to be of high quality, and only 35% believe that a good education can be accessed by anyone.
Students across Ukraine frequently cite antiquated curricula, suffocating red tape, and lack of resources as the main problems in Ukrainian higher education.
According to Stadnyi, the situation won’t improve anytime soon, as the ministry is too busy waging political vendettas and responding to self-inflicted scandals like the Kyiv-Mohyla election.
The former official also thinks that the current furore won’t be the end of Shkarlet’s tenure, as he believes the government does not have a potential replacement lined up to fill his role.
However, the prime minister’s Feb. 18 remarks to parliament were notable for the absence of any concrete assurances that Shkarlet would be kept in the job, opening up an uncertain future and the potential for another victory for Kyiv-Mohyla’s striking students.