A Discussion with Orysya Bila, Director of the Ukrainian Catholic University Philosophy Department, Lviv, Ukraine

With: Orysya Bila

July 3, 2017

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in July 2017 undergraduate student Anastasia Sendoun interviewed Orysya Bila, director of the Philosophy Department at the Ukrainian Catholic University. In this interview, Bila talks about Ukraine’s system of higher education and how Ukrainian society has changed in the past few years in response to the EuroMaidan protests. She identifies low-quality education as an impediment to building stronger civil institutions.

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

My name is Orysya Bila, and I am the director of the Department of Philosophy.

Could you illustrate, using some of your professional or personal experience, the role or importance of education in Ukrainian public and/or political life?

Education is very important. Education forms societal discourse, not just in Ukraine, but in every country. A lower level of education leads to a more radical mentality, more black and white thinking. Education, then, teaches individuals to think critically and to see that situations are not always black and white—the world is more complicated. Today, for example, we are seeing the rise of political populism because there are people who are ready to accept easy answers. 

Do you believe that Ukraine is heading toward a political system in which individuals are better educated, given the events of the EuroMaidan and the sense that young people in Ukraine seem to be increasingly interested in studying abroad or taking advantage of opportunities to grow themselves intellectually?

I think that the situation is improving, just not as quickly as one would hope. I am not expecting any kind of drastic change—we still have a lot of work to do. I think that things will not go back to how they were before; I cannot imagine what would have to happen for the country to go back to the way it was before the Maidan. The country is moving forward—slowly, but it's moving. 

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?

The question of social justice is a difficult question in Ukraine. Justice, in general, is a difficult thing to define because it is, what is known in philosophy, as an empty signifier. That is, everyone has a different understanding of the term. But I would say it is access to some goods—the opportunity to obtain an education, human rights, labor rights, equity. This for me is social justice—the ability for citizens to access the goods that are guaranteed by the constitution, and the opportunity to use those goods for one's own personal development. 

What obstacles exist to this concept of social justice in Ukraine?

There are a number of obstacles. For example, when talking about gender and access to leadership positions, it is always the case that men tend to be in positions of power. In terms of access to healthcare, healthcare is a very corrupt sphere in Ukraine. I don't even know at which level this corruption begins. It exists at medical institutes, doctors' offices, in the government ministries, and in the mentality of people. 

How many young people who desire to access higher education in Ukraine have the opportunity to do so? What is the greatest impediment to an individual accessing higher education?

In terms of access to education, I believe that the situation in Ukraine is better than in the United States. However, it is better only in terms of access, but not necessarily in terms of quality. In Ukraine, parents do not have to save all their lives to be able to send their child to university. In America, based on where you are born—in what state, in what kind of family—there is already a certain range of schools that you can attend. In Ukraine, an individual from any village can attend university. 

However, where an individual attends high school can affect access to university education. For example, the quality of education in rural villages is low, and this is a problem. If a student does not have access to quality education in high school, then it is difficult to get a good score on the External Independent Evaluation [standardized test required for university admissions in Ukraine], which can limit which schools that individual can enroll in. However, as I see it, if an individual in Ukraine wants to learn, then they can. 

Can you share an experience with me to illustrate the greatest strength of the Ukrainian education system? The greatest weakness?

The strongest aspect of the education system in Ukraine is the access of individuals to education, and the weakest is the quality of higher education. For example, recently I returned from the summer philosophical school [a summer program in philosophy organized for doctoral students from different parts of Ukraine], and as part of the program, we organized debates. However, I saw in those debates that the students lacked analytical knowledge. There were two students who were undergraduate students, but the rest were Ph.D. students. They lacked the ability to effectively argue their points. Theoretically, all individuals with higher education would be able to do this, but I realized that there was a problem with what higher education [in Ukraine] requires of students. However, I am very glad that education is accessible—that there are free schools, government schools. In Ukraine, there is an additional problem that private schools can, at times, be very expensive but of very poor quality. But people go, they pay, they acquire a diploma, and no one is actually interested in what they learned. 

How can this culture be changed? How can the quality of education in Ukraine be improved?

I think that education can only be improved through changes in instruction. Education depends fundamentally on the people who provide it—that is, institutions, professors, administrators. And for me, a very simple way to improve education is to have more individuals study abroad so that they can observe other schools and bring back best practices from those universities to Ukraine. I see a very clear difference between an individual who works in higher education and has never been abroad, who doesn't have any experience from a European or American university, and one who has been abroad. This affects how they interact with students, how they lecture, how they prepare, how they see the aim of their work—it is immediately apparent. 

How has Ukraine and perhaps, collective consciousness in Ukraine, changed in recent years?

We no longer have as paternalistic of a way of thinking. The Soviet Union taught that a strong hand is supposed to change your life—that is, some leader is supposed to come and fix everything. I think that Ukrainians understand that they have to change things themselves. Also, I hope that young Ukrainians are more like the rest of the world in terms of their values. 

Ukraine has a problem in that our consciousness has changed—we are ready to live in a citizen-driven society, but we do not know how to build these civil institutions. This is a problem, and is a big task for us to accomplish in the coming years. The question of corruption is a reflection of a lack of trust and a lack of social institutions. For example, if there is a normal system of education that guarantees the quality of education, then it is not necessary to come to a professor and think to yourself "Do I have to pay him to get a good grade?" 

There is a lack of trust in social initiatives. For example, if we have a new president who makes a mistake because it is impossible for him to do everything perfectly, instead of thinking "Let's work together to help; this is not just the responsibility of the president but of the whole society," everyone begins to complain that the president is a criminal or that he is unintelligent. Everyone keeps waiting for a miracle to happen, for it to fix itself. There is a lack of a sense of social responsibility. 

It is important for Ukraine for others to believe in it and for other countries to support Ukraine in its efforts to improve. I think that Ukraine will be able to achieve what it desires, so long as it has support from the rest of the world.

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