A Discussion with Yulia Vasylenko, Student at Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, Ukraine

With: Yulia Vasylenko

July 1, 2017

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, undergraduate Anastasia Sendoun interviewed Yulia Vasylenko in July 2017. Vasylenko is an undergraduate student at the Ukrainian Catholic University studying sociology. In this interview, she talks about her experiences with higher education in Ukraine, including eliminating bribery as an important way to improve the system.

Can you introduce yourself and explain what you do at the Ukrainian Catholic University?

My name is Yulia Vasylenko. I am in my third year at the Ukrainian Catholic University, studying sociology. I have also worked in the university’s student government. Outside of school, I like to read, travel, and work on different projects that allow me to have new experiences outside of my comfort zone.

What made you interested in studying sociology?

I had a choice between studying marketing or sociology, or studying in another country. I considered all the possibilities: I walked through the hallways of one university, walked through the halls of Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), and decided that UCU was by far my favorite. The sociology program at UCU was just in its first year, and my parents and I were both nervous because I didn’t know what the experience would be like. But I took the risk because I considered it would be a good foundation for future study and work. It’s important to understand how society works.

Can you share some of your experiences with the Ukrainian system of education? Can you illustrate the importance of education in your own life?

I have thought more than once that at UCU, it’s as though we are in a greenhouse. Sometimes I wonder about what it will be like when we are released into the “real” world. Education at our university is different from education at other universities. In addition to the fact that we follow the curriculum established by the Ministry of Education—that is, we don’t have a right to have a completely different program—the administration does everything possible to take into account students’ ideas. This is one of the main reasons I continue to study here. At other universities, it is much harder, particularly at public universities. 

I have always wondered about why there are so many people [in Ukraine] who want a higher education. This is the standard path after completing school; you have to complete higher education because without a diploma, you are a nobody. Students are told this from a very young age by their parents and their teachers. I actually think that we need fewer people getting diplomas and then going to work in education, going to teach, because in reality, they are not all needed; they are not all suited to teaching. I do not think it is necessary. As far as I know, however, in Ukraine, universities do a good job of preparing specialists. People take education seriously. 

But, we have a big problem with bribery. This cannot be hushed up, cannot be covered up with various euphemisms because bribery has existed, exists now, and unfortunately will continue to exist, particularly in legal and medical spheres. It starts small at the level of the university and then is transferred through doctors who also take bribes, and so on. We have this as a reality in Ukraine. 

There are also problems with financing university education and with the stipends students receive. It is very difficult to get by with just the stipend. I am speaking as someone who does not receive a monthly stipend, as this is a private university. The only stipend I receive is through a private benefactor who helps to pay for my classes, and then I just have to cover living expenses, food, etc. I don’t worry about paying for my actual education though. At public universities, it is different. You go to a government university, take a class, and if you don’t pass the class, they take away your stipend. This does not mean that you automatically have to pay. You can continue to study for free, but you no longer receive a stipend. Honestly, it is very difficult for students without the stipend. Sometimes this creates a situation in which professors take money from students in exchange for a certain grade so that the student does not lose their stipend. We have a lot of problems with education in Ukraine, but I think there is potential, and we just have to commit to seriously reforming education.

Can you tell me about the role of education in Ukrainian social and political life, using examples from your own experiences?

I am positive that our politicians should be educated. I’ll start with the fact that for me, education is not just about sitting in a classroom. However, there is a certain base of knowledge that is acquired at university, and it is clear if a person has completed higher education. I believe that higher education is therefore necessary, whether or not it brings me a concrete benefit in my career or not. It is important not to just think about job benefits that higher education can bring. It is important to think, first and foremost, about what you as an individual get out of attaining a higher education. In political life, I believe that people with diverse views, diverse experiences, should go into political positions. The question of how these people are put into these positions is a different question, but in the end, education plays an important role.

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?

There aren’t really problems with accessing higher education in Ukraine. At least, I did not have any issues, and I do not know of anyone who has. This is because if you apply to university, you don’t have to necessarily a phenomenal score on the ZNO [Independent External Evaluation exam] in order to enroll in a university. If you study, then you can do well on the exam. I was never asked to give any sort of bribery to enter into a university. However, once I had started at UCU, my mom’s friends often asked her who she had made a deal with in order for me to study here. On one hand, this shows the prestige of the university. However, on the other hand, prestige is associated with this idea that, in order to enter into the university, it’s necessary to make a deal with someone. This reaction from other people surprised me very much. 

I believe that now, there is not as much of a problem with having to pay someone to enter into university because there are floods of people going to university. Just the Ivan Franko University in Lviv alone has thousands of students. There, one department has as many students as all of UCU. People want to study, and I think this is very good. I don’t think there are many problems with gaining access to higher education. 

Is there a big difference in the quality of one university from another?

Yes, there a big difference. This is clear when people apply for jobs, since certain employers give preference to graduates of certain universities. Some universities are considered superior, and this can sometimes be because of that university’s history. The older a university, oftentimes, the more prestigious. However, a university cannot survive by its name alone, and universities need to maintain their reputations by striving to improve.

I believe that many universities in Ukraine are surviving by name alone, unfortunately. This is a shame because in reality, there are many incredible professors at these universities that truly strive to teach their students, to make an impact, who are constantly working to improve themselves as educators. But they often work at universities that do not value them, or the students. For example, at UCU, if you go to the office of the dean of a department, you can go and knock on the door and ask a question. The door is always open. The dean has a modest office that he shares with his assistant, and he is perfectly happy. I saw the door of the dean at another university—church doors aren’t as ornate as his door was. There were lines outside of his door. In Ukraine, there is a strong sense of hierarchy and the student is considered to be a nobody. I think it is nonsense when I hear professors refer to students as ty [you, informal in Ukrainian]. At UCU, everyone refers to each other as vy [you, formal], mister or miss. In universities in Ukraine, there is a power imbalance between students and professors. It seems like everyone is out for themselves in the education system in Ukraine—there is no collective sense of bringing order to the system.

When I use the phrase “social justice,” what images come to mind? What is the cultural understanding the term in Ukraine?

Social justice, as far as I understand it, is just access to goods in society. Unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind is medicine. We do not have equal access to healthcare—there are some people who are treated at government hospitals where it is not guaranteed that they will have a qualified doctor, and they will end up having to pay for a private doctor in the end anyway. There are also many cases in which people have to pay extra money directly to the doctor after treatment or surgery, which is another example of bribery. The doctor will come into the room with a number written on a piece of paper and the patient is expected to pay it. I’ve always wondered why people pay this if it is unofficial and the patient has already received the treatment. There is no place in Ukraine, however, where people of different means can go to get the same quality healthcare. Wealthier people have better healthcare, and those who are poorer have to make do. Education and medicine are basic services that people should have, and they should be of a certain quality.

Do you think this culture of paying bribes is changing with the younger generation?

I think so. Our parents lived at a time when everything truly had a price—people had to cheat, to pay for everything because there was such scarcity. Now, there is choice and it’s not necessary to pay extra for everything—you can get something simply because it is something you need and deserve, just because you are a person. This is how education should be. It should be given to you because it is something you need, like bread. It should not be necessary to pay somebody extra in order to get it. I think that the older generation doesn’t like this culture of having to “gift” someone something in order to get what they want, but they are used to it and it is hard to change them.

What is the greatest strength of the Ukrainian education system, and what is the greatest weakness?

The biggest strength of the Ukrainian education system is its people—the desire of students of learn. I think it is very good when a country has a lot of human capital, many individuals who are educated. The biggest weakness of the education system is that it is outdated, and there is an unwillingness to adapt to new standards or to adopt new programs. We are still studying according to old systems—that is, we are learning things that are no longer useful, and we are not being taught things like financial literacy or information technology. I think it necessary for us to adapt. We are not in line with the twenty-first century, but rather the 1950s or 1960s, and this produces individuals who are not thinking about the world as it is now, but according to the past.

Has the consciousness of Ukrainians changed in the last few years?

Ever since the start of the conflict in the east, there has been much more volunteerism in Ukraine. People have begun to understand that it is possible to do something for someone else, not just for personal gain. Every little part of society is starting to understand its responsibility to the rest of the country, and with that, the country is developing and growing. It feels as though we are in a state of anticipation. There is still a lot of uncertainty. I think there is also a big difference in how people in the western part of Ukraine view the country and how people in the eastern part view it.

How do you envision Ukraine’s future, and what role do you think the Ukrainian Catholic University will play in that future?

I believe that everything will be better—we will conquer our fears and work through the problems that we are having now. New people will come into the government, and I think that they will have a different perspective and will be able to bring new approaches and encourage dialogue. This is a very optimistic perspective.

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