The war must prompt Ukrainian academia to clean up its act

The latest bribery scandal is a reminder that even as the country fights for its survival, bad habits persist, says Ararat Osipian

September 12, 2022
A man passes hundred-dollar bills under the table, illustrating corruption
Source: iStock

An expression that has often been repeated in Ukraine during the seven months since the Russian invasion is: “War is war, but lunch is as scheduled.” It seems that corruption is as scheduled, too.

Ukraine ranks low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). In the 2021 ranking, it was 122 out of 180 countries for transparency, in the same stratum as Swaziland, Nepal and its arch-nemesis, Russia.

Corruption continues not only in the war-torn eastern and southern regions but also, it seems, in the relatively quiet western regions. Take Chernivtsi. It is the only city in Ukraine that has not suffered a single missile strike, but it has recently been shaken by a bombshell of a different kind.

According to local media, the deputy director of a pedagogical college, part of Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University, was arrested in her office while allegedly taking a bribe of $1,500 (£1,300) in exchange for granting admission to a state-funded programme. Police images show $100 bills on her desk.

Her husband is reportedly a mere gatekeeper at a local college. Yet a Kyiv-based journalist found in 2018 that the alleged bribe-taker owns three residences, with a combined value of at least $200,000, quite a fortune by Ukrainian standards. On paper, she has an unusually large workload, both administrative and teaching, but colleagues told the journalist that they often had to cover for her.

This isn’t an isolated incident. In 2015, for instance, Ukrainian prosecutors arrested the dean of one of the faculties of the same university for allegedly demanding $1,000 from an applicant for a correspondence course. And the Kyiv journalist was told by students and employees that the pedagogical college has had an admissions price list for decades, peaking at $3,000 to $4,000 for its schools department.

While some educational administrators continue to enjoy a wealthy lifestyle, Ukraine’s impoverished colleges are struggling to cope with the security demands posed by the war. Chernivtsi has reopened only two colleges; the others are still struggling to clean and organise their bomb shelters, which is a requirement to restart the educational process. What an act of solidarity it would be for corrupt officials to channel their ill-gotten gains into creating and improving bomb shelters. Perhaps some of them would become underground palaces, covered in marble and gold. But don’t hold your breath.

It would be naïve to expect the war to help tackle corruption, as the nation mobilises to defend its sovereignty. Instead, there are numerous allegations that the war is having the opposite effect. But we cannot just let this happen. The international community is continuously urged to boost the volume of aid for Ukraine – which includes the effort from the World Bank to improve efficiency, conditions for quality and transparency in Ukraine’s higher education. But, in return, Ukraine has to realise that business as usual cannot continue.

The time has come for the Ukrainian government to move from declarations to action on corruption. Despite the recent arrest in Chernivtsi, law enforcement has proved largely ineffective when it comes to rooting out corrupt academics. But perhaps there is a better approach: regime change.

Of course, it is unrealistic to fire all academic administrators – or to expect those who replace them necessarily to be any better. However, new-generation professionals educated in the West could make a difference. For three decades, the US State Department’s Edmund Muskie and Freedom Support Act programmes have allowed hundreds of Ukraine’s best and brightest youth to receive a graduate education at top American universities. That education includes programmes in education policy, higher education administration, public policy, economics, business and management.

The Ukrainian government should make a big effort to place these graduates into the administrative offices of colleges and universities. Hopefully, the culture of academic integrity and managerial ethics they would bring, as well as the example they would set, would be more effective than isolated police action at rooting out the corruption still endemic in Ukrainian higher education.

Ararat L. Osipian is a founding fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, New York.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Ukraine’s corruption battles

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