Iveta Silova and Viktoriia Brezheniuk*
Since November 2013, the world has been following the historic protests on EuroMaidan, where mass rallies have been held against President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU). Thousands of Ukrainians – both young and old – took to the streets of Kiev to demand the resignation of Yanukovych and his Government. Carrying both Ukrainian and EU flags, protestors occupied Kiev’s central Independence Square as well as other administrative buildings. The anti-government protests have recently intensified in February 2014, and have lead to deadly clashes between protesters and police - 82 people have been killed thus far with hundreds of others left wounded. On February 22, the parliament voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych, marking a new beginning in Ukraine’s history.
While the world is celebrating the victory of the EuroMaidan – highlighting the power of community action and discussing the prospects for Ukraine’s European future – and the new Interior Minister continues the dramatic hunt for Yanukovych, Ukrainian students have not stopped protesting. On February 21st, 2014, around 200 students occupied the Ministry of Education and Science in Kiev. They started with a peaceful protest demanding the resignation of the current Minister of Education Dmitro Tabachnik and his deputy Yevgen Sulima, two government officials regularly criticized by student protesters over the last few years for their reforms aimed at decreasing funding (including students’ stipends and scholarships) for higher education.
Students’ patience wore out when Minister Tabachnik failed to support their participation in EuroMaidan by commenting that “students have to attend classes in order to receive scholarships,” suggesting that they can participate in demonstrations in their free time – after 3 p.m. when the classes are over. When students entered the building of the Ministry in order to start the negotiations about the new candidate for the post of the Minister of Education, the officials began leaving their offices, refusing to discuss students’ demands. Irritated by such a dismissal, student activists took more radical action. The students decided to occupy the Ministry of Education - taping the office doors, bringing in enough food and water to sustain themselves inside the building, and even organizing their own security guards around the Ministry of Education. Shortly after, the students streamed a video voicing their demands:
“In the past four years we have witnessed an incredible increase of corruption, centralization of education, as well as the destruction of autonomy of education institutions, the academic environment of Ukrainian intellectual community, and the possibility of integration into European environment of higher education and scientific research. We are systemically observing the deterioration in the sphere of welfare of students and teachers. During the administration of this Ministry, we have witnessed the decrease of student scholarships... This is absolutely an anti-social and anti-student policy of the Ministry! Hence, Verkhovna Rada [the Ukrainian government] has to accept the resignation of Tabachnik! As of tomorrow, all students will stop giving bribes. Ukraine has to adopt a new and quality European education!”
The students made three main demands: (1) to change the leadership of the Ministry of Education and Science, (2) to stop the repressions against students participating in political protests, and (3) to initiate meaningful education reforms in Ukraine. And while the Deputy Minister of Education Oleksiy Dniprov attempted to threaten student protesters - claiming that students may destabilize the work of the Ministry and cause a delay in paying out student scholarships and teachers salaries – the student protest had an almost immediate result. Verkhovan Rada fired Minister Tabachnik – twice. On February 23rd, 236 deputies voted to remove Tabachnik from his post. On February 24th, following the claims of voting irregularities the previous day, the government voted again. This time, the resignation was supported by 249 deputies.
But this is only the first step. Students are now concerned about who is going to take Tabachnik’s post. They believe that the next Minister of Education should be an expert in his or her professional field, be respected in the academic arenas of both Ukraine and Europe, and be able to initiate reforms that would be discussed and supported by key stakeholders of the Ukrainian education system. Protesters proposed three candidates for the position of Education Minister, including Serhiy Kvita (the president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy), Mihailo Zgurtovskiy (the rector of Kyiv Politechnical Institute), and a deputy Liliya Grunevich. However, the Cabinet of Ministers proposed its own candidate on February 24th - a deputy of the fraction “Svoboda” (“Freedom”) Irina Farion. Unsatisfied with the government actions and determined to pursue their ideas, the students refused to open the doors of the Ministry of Education building to Farion because “she has neither skills nor experience in education policy-making.” The students are seizing the power to shape the direction in which the Ukrainian education is going and promising to open the doors of the Ministry only to those who deserve it.
Students have also articulated a clear vision about the immediate and future direction of education reforms. One of the most influential student unions, “Direct Action,” which played an active role in the all-Ukrainian campaign “Against the Degradation of Education” in 2010-2013, insists that education reform should focus on granting autonomy to universities, ensuring financial transparency, and, most importantly, providing a completely free education for all, including for part-time students. Students also demand guaranteed access to dormitories for all students upon their request, and a level of financial support (in the form of student scholarships and stipends) that at least meets the minimum living costs, which is currently set at 1218 hryvnas or 125 US$. Finally, students are eager to increase their participation in university governance, including setting budgetary priorities, appointing candidates for leadership positions, as well as legalizing activities of independent student unions in university affairs more broadly. These demands - and the visions of the Ukrainian higher education that they evoke - are not new. Students have been advocating for these changes since the 2010s by organizing demonstrations, writing petitions, and mobilizing support among education stakeholders. What is new is an extraordinary sense of determination and commitment to make these visions come true.
*Viktoriia Brezheniuk is a graduate student at the College of Education, Lehigh University. She is doing research on post-Soviet transformations in education, focusing on youth protests against privatization and marketization of education in Ukraine.