A Discussion with Dmytro Sheremhovsky, Administrator at Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, Ukraine

With: Dmytro Sheremhovsky

July 5, 2017

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, undergraduate Anastasia Sendoun interviewed Dmytro Sheremhovsky in July 2017. Sheremhovsky is an administrator at the Ukrainian Catholic University. In this interview, he talks about the role of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Ukraine and how the education system has changed over the years in accordance with the country’s transition from a Soviet to post-Soviet country. Sheremhovsky notes the importance of giving students both practical and theoretical training in order to prepare them for life after university.

Can you introduce yourself and explain your role at the Ukrainian Catholic University?

My name is Dmytro Sheremhovsky, and I am the director of the academic division that is responsible for academic policies, international cooperation, and ensuring quality in our programs. 

And how long have you been working at the Ukrainian Catholic University?

I have been working here for five years. 

The Ukrainian education system has such a vibrant history. Can you share some significant parts of this system, how it has changed, and grown over the years?

The system of education in Ukraine has indeed changed in recent years, and I would say it is trying to understand exactly how it fits into the system of European education at-large. While we cannot copy the system of another country because it will not work in the Ukrainian context, we are looking toward other countries' universities to see how they are successful and trying to adapt their success for the Ukrainian system. 

Independent of the level and style, the education system is, nonetheless, a remnant of the Soviet system of education. In a certain sense, this education system was successful because in the Soviet Union, nearly everyone was able to complete higher education, which was not the case in imperial times when education was not accessible to the average person. 

What are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Ukrainian education system?

There is still a very traditional understanding of education as a stage of life through which one must pass. It is understood that a person goes to school, goes to university, and then goes into the workforce. However, this can be problematic because this education system very rarely transfers practical knowledge. This system is very theoretical, very complex. As the market changed, new skills and new knowledge became necessary. However, students were not acquiring these new necessary skills. Education remained formally necessary but not practically necessary. Many students were unable to find jobs or had to work in jobs that were completely unrelated to what they had studied. 

Because Ukrainians are guaranteed access to higher education, free of charge, they have a high level of education. However, this is not reflective of a functional mastery of information. In the last few years, we have begun to feel the effects of this system. Many universities are very focused on the theoretical. This is not to say that academia is not "allowed" to be an ivory tower at times; education does not have to be completely practical. However, education should not be completely theoretical either. It is important to include professional training in education and to give students access to diverse career paths.

Universities need to adapt to teach what will be necessary in five years, rather than what was necessary 10 years ago. Without this flexibility, without these processes of adaptation, universities will become irrelevant. Young generations are increasingly interested in obtaining a quality education. More and more, they are demanding quality education. The other big plus of the Ukrainian system of education is the devotion of teachers. Despite very low wages, many of them are very engaged in their work.

Another big challenge, in my opinion, is that there are too many universities in Ukraine, and many of them do not have the resources to provide a quality education. In Ukraine, there are over 300 universities. This generates many problems. Most universities are public, which means they rely on government funds. It is necessary to overhaul this system to ensure that resources are being allocated to the schools that most need them. The other question is around private universities. We have many different examples of private universities, and many which have become “pockets” over the years—that is, they serve as a way for some people to hide or make money, and they just write out diplomas, essentially selling them. This raises questions of quality. Despite the problems that exist, however, compared to two or three years ago, we can see that there has been progress. We are heading in the right direction.

How is the Ukrainian Catholic University different from other universities in Ukraine?

First and foremost, it is different because it is Catholic. This is something unique in Ukrainian higher education, since we are not just concerned with students’ professional development. For us, it is important to shape students as good citizens, as good Christians, and as good people. This formation of students with an education grounded in values is very important. There are very few institutions in Ukraine that are like this, that are like the Ukrainian Catholic University. Most universities in Ukraine are focused on students’ professional preparation, but not their preparation for life. We try to prepare students for life.

The other things that makes the Ukrainian Catholic University different is that it is a private institution, it is smaller, and it is more dynamic. This means that it is fairly easy for us to start new programs and to adapt, which is difficult for public institutions to do since they are so big and rely on government funding. We like to experiment, always keeping in mind the quality of our education so that our experiments don’t turn into a fiasco. We are not afraid of speaking with students, with future employers, in order to create and evaluate programs.

The third way in which the Ukrainian Catholic University is different is its administrative model. We have different schools with different departments, and those departments have certain centers and programs within them. This is closer to the American administrative model, and it works well for us.

When I use the term “social justice” what images or ideas come to your mind? What is the cultural understanding of social justice in Ukraine?

I understand social justice as equal access to opportunities. It is difficult to envision social justice as equal outcomes, although I suppose it is possible. However, I understand it as equal opportunity. Every individual, independent of the circumstances in which he was born, should be able to realize him or herself.

How can we guarantee quality in education for every individual?

There can be a lot of obstacles. Ukraine is not adapted to provide education, for example, for individuals with special needs. This begins even with the construction of facilities, which are not designed for them. There are also students who studied at rural schools where the quality of instruction was low and education, again, was more of a formality than anything else. These students, once in university, lack the skills needed to succeed. We need to work on closing the gap between secondary school and university. There is a lot of work to be done to improve education in Ukraine since these situations are not uncommon.

Because of the ongoing conflict with Russia in the east, there are many students who now cannot attend school because they are living in a conflict zone or had to flee. There are also many young individuals who have decided to fight in the conflict, sometimes abandoning their education. A student in Lviv does not have to worry that he will not be able to attend university because of the conflict, whereas a student in the occupied territory has this worry. This further generates social inequality.

There are also many students who receive diplomas from universities with instruction of such low quality that employers will openly decline to hire students from those universities. They simply do not recognize their diplomas. This brings up other questions of discrimination.

Has the consciousness of Ukrainian society changed in the last few years?

This is a very complicated question. Social activism has changed for the better. We are seeing more instances of social activism, and we are seeing more successful cases of both individual and collective activism. Three or four years ago, this was not the case.

How do you see the future of the Ukrainian Catholic University?

I hope that the Ukrainian Catholic University continues to experiment so that it can serve as an example, as healthy competition for other Ukrainian universities, which would encourage other universities to improve their practices. I hope that the Ukrainian Catholic University will remain open and accessible so that many more people want to come here.

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