A Discussion with Roman Nazarenko, Administrator at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, Ukraine
July 7, 2017
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, undergraduate Anastasia Sendoun interviewed Roman Nazarenko, an administrator at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in July 2017. In this interview, Nazarenko discusses the Ukrainian education system, corruption, and how UCU is different from other universities in Ukraine. He also notes generational differences in addressing challenges to social justice.
Can you begin by introducing yourself and explaining what your role at the Ukrainian Catholic University is?
My name is Roman Nazarenko, and I work as an aide to the rector of the university. Originally, I am from Crimea. I lived there for 16 years and then came to Lviv to study philosophy and theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Then I went to the Netherlands to write a thesis about interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Currently, I am working toward a doctorate on the same subject.
The Ukrainian system of education has a rich history. Can you tell me a little about this system, how it has changed over the last few years, and what is your personal experience with education?
I believe that compared with the education system in the West, the Ukrainian system of higher education is not effective. In Ukraine, this system depends heavily on the government and who is in power; if there is a pro-Russian government in place, schools are more likely to teach Russian, for example. In Ukraine, depending on who is in power, textbooks are written differently. History is in the hands of those who are in power, and there is a lack of standardization. At an individual level, this is bad. However, it does encourage students to think critically and to adapt more quickly than students in other countries.
Can you tell me about the role of education in Ukrainian social and political life, using examples from your own experiences?
It is possible to look at the people in power and how they were educated, and to come to some conclusion about them. For example, given that UCU has a fairly prestigious reputation, many of its graduates are successful in a number of fields. These students are able to avoid corruption to a certain extent—they are oriented toward something beyond materialism, toward notions of altruism.
Most students in Ukraine work to achieve a certain grade or just earn a diploma. Without a diploma, it is impossible to envision a future for oneself. But whether you actually learn something is a two-part question—does the university give you the knowledge you hope to obtain, and do you want to obtain that knowledge?
How many young people who wish to attain higher education have the opportunity to do so? What are some of the challenges people face in accessing higher education in Ukraine?
Here it is important to understand the Ukrainian mentality. If there are 10 people and nine of them enroll in university and this is considered prestigious, the tenth will also enroll whether or not he needs to do so. In Ukraine, there are many universities in which the cost of attendance is not particularly high, and there are also a number which do not require any particular effort by the student who, nevertheless, earns a diploma. On paper, there are many universities in Ukraine. They pay the government in order to maintain their accreditation, and everyone is satisfied. The student wants a diploma and the university wants money, so the student pays the cost and everyone is happy. If the university is prestigious, however, money can be a barrier.
Quality is another issue. Every individual decides what they want out of their education, whether that is professional knowledge or just a diploma. According to this, they choose where to go.
What are the weakest and strongest aspects of education in Ukraine?
The biggest weakness is corruption, which exists at every level of education. Here, I can say that the Ukrainian Catholic University is a structure where there is no corruption. Corruption is simply part of the system of education. The strongest is that there are many students who genuinely want to be educated. Many of these students go to study overseas, and they are very successful.
Why do you think UCU was able to make itself into an institution that is not corrupt? How was it able to achieve this?
There are several reasons it was able to do this. The first is that it is a religious institution and that its founders were committed to building an institution on certain religious and moral values. They looked for individuals who were ready to work toward some greater mission. The other reason is that the founders of the university studied in some of the best institutions overseas. They were able to bring all the positive aspects they saw in these institutions to Ukraine and, using these examples from abroad, create a university like UCU.
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?
Social justice is several things. The first is the right to life, to certain basic things that every individual needs. It is also appealing to individuals who have, perhaps, greater means in order to encourage them to help those who are less fortunate. There needs to be a mutual understanding between people. The fact that the term “social justice” exists implies that there are spaces in which there is injustice. We need institutions that are able to balance these differences.
What are some challenges to social justice in Ukraine today?
One challenge is corruption at both high and low levels of society. A second challenge is dignity, broadly-speaking. There are cases, for example, in which employers look to hire whoever will do the work they need done for the lowest wage. As a result, people do not get paid what they deserve for their work. In Ukraine, we do not have a middle class or small businesses. There is a class of elites and a lower class.
I think that the younger generations in Ukraine will be able to overcome these challenges. The generation of my children, for instance, I think will have a completely different mentality. My parents’ generation grew up in the Soviet Union, I am part of the generation that is seeing this transition with the EuroMaidan and such. My kids, however, will grow up in a different Ukraine.