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Education in Ukraine During A Full-Scale Invasion

Last updated on June 14, 2023

Editor’s Note:

This article is a part of the Holos Project, a four-way partnership (ENGin, The Los Angeles Times Insider, Published Points of View, The Outspoken) established to empower the voices of Ukrainian students across the world through one-on-one journalism mentorship. This article was written by Kateryna Kvasha from Ukraine with the mentorship of Sofia Tripathi from the United States. “Holos” is the Ukrainian word for “Voice”. 

According to Eurostat, in 2020, Ukraine took second place in educational attainment among those aged 20-24 years compared to other European Neighborhood Policy-East countries. 97.2% of Ukrainian women and 96.9% of Ukrainian men had completed at least an upper-secondary level of education by 2020. Having seen the numbers, one may start wondering why they haven’t heard anything about the education system of Ukraine. Is it indeed that perfect? What are the differences between an average American and Ukrainian student? What challenges have arisen with the full-scale invasion? And does Ukrainian education have a future?

I would like to start by comparing the education system in Ukraine and the USA. Generally speaking, most of the more technical approaches are quite similar. In both countries, secondary education is compulsory and is funded by its state. School education is divided into 3 levels: elementary, middle and high schools; and usually children start studying at the age of 5 or 6. Ukrainian schools use a 12-point assessment with 1 and 12 being the lowest and highest scores, respectively. The typical size of the classes in Ukraine are 25 to 35 people, but what may seem unusual to an American reader is that in Ukraine we spend all 11 (or 12) years of school with the same exact people. We do not have electives and the program for the whole schooltime is determined by the government and remains the same for everyone. Thus, a typical Ukrainian 8th-grader would not notice much difference coming back to the same classroom after a summer break, having the same teachers and seeing the same classmates around. 

Previously, Ukrainian programs required only 9 years of school to get a general basic education or 11 years for a full general secondary education, instead of 12 years which the US and most European countries do. This system lasted for more than 25 years up until it was changed in 2018 when the New Ukrainian School (NUS), a package of key reforms to the Ukrainian education system, was implemented in life. I would like to dive a little deeper into NUS as, being one of the biggest reforms in the whole history of Ukraine, it aims to revolutionize current teaching approaches and bring up generations of responsible citizens, leaving behind some post-soviet models. According to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, which is the driving organization in the country, “instead of memorizing facts and definitions, students will acquire competencies. This is a dynamic combination of knowledge, skills, ways of thinking, opinions, values, and other personal qualities that determine a person’s ability to socialize well and to engage in professional and/or further learning activities. In other words, core knowledge is formed that will be supplemented with the ability to use this knowledge, with values and skills that Ukrainian school leavers will need in their professional and personal life.”

Another significant difference between the American and Ukrainian educational systems is the focus on extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, the system of after-school activities aren’t as well developed in Ukraine, and as a result, we usually don’t have any kinds of clubs or sororities; the sports life in Ukraine isn’t as important either. These organizations play a key role in socializing as well as discovering your strengths and weaknesses, and that’s why I find their absence in Ukraine a considerable disadvantage.

Furthermore, I will mention a couple of things regarding higher education in Ukraine. What goes without any doubt is that finals are a stressful period in the life of each student. Overall, Ukrainians take state exams 3 times throughout the studying period: after 4th, 9th, and 11th grade. The most important exams are the last ones because the External Independent Evaluation (EIE or ZNO in Ukrainian) determines your eligibility for universities. The approach to higher education is quite similar to what we have at schools: you spend 4 years with the same group mates to get a bachelor’s degree, and the program is fixed which highlights the role of government in education even more. 

The education system in Ukraine is hard to call a perfect one, nevertheless, we are trying to level it up by working on the pedagogical attitude and expanding the governmental budget. However, the life priorities of each and every Ukrainian have changed drastically about a year ago. On February 24th of 2022, thousands of students didn’t come to their classrooms. Some of them will never have such a privilege ever again. Among all the other fields, education faced one of the biggest disruptions as both professors and students keep wrestling with internet and power outages, air raid alerts, as well as missile and drone attacks daily. Our response to this complex challenge was transition to online classes. Previously, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the first radical shift to e-learning in Ukraine which, in my opinion, helped our educational institutions adapt to the wartime realities nowadays.

Not only did the war chiefly leave its mark on the psychological state of Ukrainian students, but it also caused some major reforms to the system itself. Perhaps, the most significant and innovative change was substitution of the format of the final exam with National multi-subject test (NMT). NMT is an online test which consists of three blocks: Ukrainian language, mathematics and the history of Ukraine. At the latest conference, the Ministry of Education and Science passed the law on sticking to the same format in 2023 as the war goes on, announcing that this year, the third subject will be up to each student. The test takes place in special temporary examination centers created in populated areas of Ukraine upon agreement with state authorities, as well as many European countries, the USA and Canada. 

Another adaptation manifested itself in the format of classes. Each school or college has the right to choose between synchronous and asynchronous lesson modes. The latter one supposes a teacher will post the material with solved examples on a platform of choice, which gives the students a chance to work on it whenever it is possible for them. From my point of view, this step shows the loyalty from both the government and the teachers; some of whom were extending the deadlines for tests and homework, as well as reducing the academic workload. 

Digitalization has happened on different levels: one of them has to deal with the graduation certificates. As many Ukrainians were displaced to other countries due to the war,  some of the most necessary documents were left at home or lost forever. Lots of houses were destroyed, and some are still located on temporarily occupied territories. Nevertheless, it is important that Ukrainians have access to their own documents regardless of their location. Thanks to Diia app, an online service which allows all Ukrainian citizens to use digital documents in their phones, as well as access over 50 government services, high school and university diplomas have been uploaded to everyone’s profile in Diia since November 2022.

In the last section of the article I am going to bring up one of the most clamount topics at the moment, at least for me personally: future course of actions in the education field of Ukraine. Despite the ongoing war, Ukrainians and our foreign partners keep developing a range of various post-war strategies aimed to rebuild the country and create a foundation for core European principles. Closing our eyes to the education sector would be a huge blunder. So, I can determine three main existing problems which should be addressed as soon as possible in order to avoid a crisis after the victory of Ukraine. 

First of all, the most self-evident challenge is funding. The budget for education was cut down to 20% to save money for more vulnerable economic sectors. This step resulted in decreasing salaries for educational workers, let alone investing in developing the areas of weakness, which existed before the invasion started. Besides that, according to different sources, more than 2000 buildings of various educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged since February 2022. Moreover, this number continues to increase everyday. I’m not in a position to estimate the approximate costs of reconstruction but we can only imagine how much resources it will take us to get the studying process back on track. 

The second obstacle is human capital flight or the so-called “brain drain”. About 20 million people have fled Ukraine since February 24th according to data assembled by UNHCR; among them around 8.1 million have been displaced across European countries. After getting over the adaptation period, a tremendous number of Ukrainian specialists got new jobs in new countries, and their kids are going  to new schools for the first time this fall. On the one hand, I am convinced that a lot of Ukrainians will return home when the war is over and the situation is stable; and the experience they have gained abroad will better serve them in continuing their careers in the motherland. On the other hand, as the war goes on, many Ukrainian refugees doubt their decision to go back home shortly. Thus, the challenge I suggest to focus on here is how we can stimulate the Ukrainians who have already settled down in new places to get back and invest their skills in rebuilding Ukraine.

Last but not least, we should pay attention to complications with the mental state of both students and professors. Personally, I foresee this issue as a much more complex one than it may seem at first glance. What I mean here is that writing a simple essay about your family, for instance, may be too visceral for Andrii from 4th grade whose dad was killed by a direct missile attack on their house. It is natural for grief and trauma to bring out strong negative emotions in postwar reality, that is why huge work will have to be done by bunch of different specialists, e.g. psychologists and government workers creating school programs, to increase the inclusivity in education and individual approach to each and everyone involved in the studying process.

In conclusion, I would like to draw your attention to one pretty obvious but somewhat underestimated principle which people can easily forget about. No matter how stable some things may seem, even the most hardened structures or routines can encounter a dead end in a wink in a swiftly changing world. When war hits your life, adaptivity and quick response are crucial in keeping pace with challenges like that; I am full of pride to say that the Ukrainian education system demonstrated such character to the world last year. And what is even more important, we see that no matter what, Ukrainian students are motivated to obtain an education.

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