The Five Key Student Protests in Ukraine in the Autumn of 2016

Since the Maidan events in 2013/14, higher education reform in Ukraine has attracted special attention, encouraged by the fact that the starting point of the active protest was the night when students were dispersed by riot police as well as the former Minister of Education having been one of the figures symbolic of the Yanukovych regime. The new Ministry team announced pro-European reform and, despite government spending cuts for nearly all social welfare projects, education was not affected. Up until this autumn that is. The cuts introduced in late 2016 provoked student protests in many universities in the capital. And although these protests are mostly unrelated to each other and often concern internal university problems, they are a consequence of a more general phenomenon, namely the failure of the higher education reform in Ukraine.

When, at 4 a.m. on November 30, 2013, riot police squads raided the Maidan, few could have imagined what kind of fundamental changes it would bring. Just as few of the students whose backs and limbs were hit by police batons could have expected to achieve a special social status by virtue of being there at that moment; the status of the social group who started the revolution, and thus one to be reckoned with. So, even the neoliberal governments that came to power afterwards and started to actively engage in “optimization” of government spending on social issues and implementation of “market relations” avoided touching education. Students were left alone and the government focused on reforming the field. Still, one cannot say that neoliberal reforms have not affected education at all. The program called “Money Follows the Student” has been partially implemented; it has been heavily criticized by  education experts for facilitating the monopoly of large universities, causing elimination of regional higher education institutions.

The implementation of the relatively progressive Higher Education Law and adjustment of Ukrainian higher education to meet “European standards” was undertaken by the former President of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Serhiy Kvit and Inna Sovsun, a researcher in higher education.

It seemed that the cause was moving forward. Universities got more extensive academic and financial autonomy, and students were now able to influence university administrations and choose what courses to take.

Their stipends, although failing to reach the level of subsistence wage as demanded by law, remained accessible to the majority of students with government-covered tuition serving as a minimum basic income. Even the replacement of the leadership of the Ministry of Education after Yatseniuk’s Cabinet resigned was not supposed to shift this “European” vector. However, in the autumn there was a shock that raised huge doubts about the success of these reforms.

Even before the beginning of the academic year, the Ministry responsible for basically everything in the country, namely the Ministry of Finance, initiated a review of the principle of distribution of student stipends. That moment can probably serve as a baseline for a series of student protests that peaked in the end of November 2016. And although these protests were mostly unrelated to each other and most of them concerned some very local issues, all of them together reveal the implicit problems of the Ukrainian education system, which, despite all the optimism, has not changed since Tabachnik (the Minister of Education in Yanukovych’s government), nor even since Gorbachev. But let’s talk about everything in due order…

Dolce Vita

On August 20th, a press conference in the Crisis Media Center gathered experts with representatives of student organizations and universities in order to discuss the reforms in the stipend distribution system with the Deputy Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko. The speakers’ desks was united in consensus: the system of stipend distribution that gave stipends to no less than two thirds and no more than 75% of all students was to be cancelled. The experts spoke about inefficiency, the officials about the impossibility of implementing the Law on Budget and the need for saving, and the student leaders generally did not mind. But then, suddenly, a cake was thrown at the deputy minister’s face, and a group of radical students stood up to shout: “Spend money on education, not on war!” It should be noted that the reform in stipend distribution eventually passed through the Parliament this December.

The provocation was successful. The issue of education spending cuts, which were apparently planned to be slipped quietly into the new budget plan, was now found on the front pages of the papers. And, at a press conference organized by his Ministry, the Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk ensured the public that education spending and the stipend fund would not undergo cuts. In fact only the mechanism of stipend distribution would be changed: the stipends would be given to the least socially secure and the most academically successful (social and academic stipends, accordingly). The minister, however, was unable to list the criteria for “success” and “insecurity.” They are still undefined. And along with these terms, the fate of those who risk losing the small, but crucial, sum of UAH 825 ($31) remains undefined, too.

The lack of clear rules for stipend distribution and the fight between ministries for budget money ended up affecting universities. Thus, the major Shevchenko Kyiv National University decided to shorten the academic year, justifying the decision by the uncertainty in funding. They will try to implement this decision at the end of November but many other interesting things will happen before that.

At the Door

“The Academy is a pickled tomato from a broken jar.” This is the initial statement of the manifesto written by Aliona Mamay, a student of the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture. She wrote it with a piece of chalk in front of the Academy’s door in the morning of September 30th. The artist herself sat next to it, partially blocking the entrance to the university building, and started to hand out leaflets with her demands to students. She called the gesture her term project and refused to produce anything else.

Her Academy, according to Aliona, has been stuck in the past century. In impressionism, modernism and baroque. It knows nothing about teaching contemporary forms of art, such as video art or performance and students’ projects are evaluated behind closed doors at viewings that the students themselves are not allowed to attend. Despite the attempts to prevent it by the guards and the Academy’s administration, the information about the performance spread rapidly via social media and within the Academy students were divided into the activist’s supporters and opponents.

“You can say that the dialogue has started,” says Aliona two months later. But its pace leaves much to be desired. Together with a group of like-minded people she organized a series of lectures in contemporary art that have every chance to develop into an elective class; the issue of open viewings of students’ projects was submitted for review of the Academic Council. But nothing has visibly changed just yet. The bureaucratic system of decision making in the Academy, as well as in the higher education system in general, continues to function according to the universal principle of “behind closed doors.”

One Store Less

The same principle has long guided the administration of the Drahomanov National Pedagogic University, whose buildings have been leased for many years, despite its overloaded classrooms. And then, when the lessee (Mic Shorr Ltd.) departed, leaving a half-million debt behind them and an active discussion about the further fate of the space sprung up in the university, the administration launched its own business project. Instead of classrooms, libraries or a delegation hall, they planned to house a new furniture store in the venue in the centre of Kyiv

When students got into the university building on November 4th, they ran into pieces of furniture, some of which were already moved in, as well as signs and business cards of UkrFurniture Ltd. They later found out that the company could not present any papers to justify their presence on the premises, so the university was not even supposed to have a part in the deal. It looked like the store’s opening was soon, and when the students noticed this, they refused to leave the building and announced a protest.

They stayed in the occupied “store” for a week, drawing the attention not only of their own university administration, but of the media as well.

The situation reached absurd levels when the Russian Liberal-Democratic Party, led by Zhirinovsky, announced their intention to come to Kyiv and bring order in the Drahomanov University! But the students also experienced repression. The university administration and its pet students’ organizations started a voluntary/mandatory collection of signatures against the activists; they even forced professors to publicly denounce the protest. The campaign, however, was unsuccessful, and on November 10th, the students left the building with a letter from the rector in their hands. The letter read that there would be no new furniture stores in Kyiv, that the fate of the building would be decided by a university-wide project contest and that none of the students who participated in the protest would be repressed.

The students admit that the tactical victory does not change the system. For example, it is still unclear who allowed the furniture into the university and who would profit from it. So the struggle goes on.

The Silence

The Karpenko-Kary Kyiv National University of Theater, Film and Television has its own peculiarities. Its students say that the real education for many of them starts after the classes. That is when the prospective actors and directors visit rehearsals, workshops and classes with known teachers, when they practice their future profession. And these rehearsals can go on late into the night. So the rector’s command to limit the hours when the students can be present at the university premises until 8 p.m. (because of the need to save electricity) outraged the students.

Another problem for this university, and a no less important one, is cutting down the hours of specialized classes (such as singing or choreography), which are of primary necessity for students in creative specializations. The administration also tried to justify this move by the lack of funding from the Ministry of Culture. But students were not satisfied by such a justification.

On November 21st, around 50 people stood in a line at the university’s walls and sealed their mouths with black tape. Their sealed mouths symbolized the administration’s attitude to its students, its unwillingness to hear their voice. It symbolized the silencing of the university’s most urgent problems that are long overdue. And they partially managed to voice them.

The Silent Protest was supposed to go on for another week, but on the very first day, the rectorate announced that it was ready to negotiate and the student council was re-elected. Within seven days, on November 28th, the Academic Council meeting decided to allow students to stay on the campus until 9 p.m. They also started a dialogue about the opportunities for involving partners. But the most important problem of reducing the specialized class hours has still not been resolved. So students do not deny the possibility of new protests, but this time outside the Ministry’s building.

“Cold, Hungry and Untimely…”

On November 24th, everything in the conference hall of the Red Building of the Shevchenko Kyiv National University was ready for making influential decisions at a student conference. Well, on the other hand… Actually, to be honest, not for making the decisions, but for approving whatever the university administration had decided beforehand. But the student delegates were not concerned about this, for some reason. Everyone was concerned with something else, namely a group of students who had gathered in front of the university building with banners and had started to move into the conference hall, accompanied by journalists.

Now a bit of history. A couple of days before the conference, news had spread in the university that the timing of the exam session would be moved. Now, instead of studying and sitting tests before New Year’s Day and taking exams after it, according to the new study plan, all exams had to be over by December 31st. Thus, within the month that they had left, professors were required to wrap up their classes, and students to submit all their papers, prepare for exams and pass them. And, although nothing is impossible for a Ukrainian student, this obviously had nothing to do with quality of education.

And after New Year’s, according to the administration’s plans, students were supposed to have a two-month vacation, followed by intensified study schedule with classes on Saturdays, which was no less outrageous. Some students directly pointed out that the two-month vacation is a way to save on heating in the cold university buildings; the cold classrooms were another issue raised at the conference.

The problem of the cold has been around for years. While the Red Building with its red carpets and paintings is an illustration of the university’s pompousness, most of its buildings, located at the campus on the city’s outskirts, turn into freezers when summer is over. The temperature in classrooms usually does not rise above 10°C, sometimes as low as 5°C. There have been protests demanding to warm the classrooms up before and the current rector Leonid Hubersky has promised to solve the problem. But the thermometer’s bar has not moved since.


But let us return to the conference hall. Traditionally, student problems were the domain of the provost Volodymyr Buhrov. According to him, the administration has been forced to postpone the exam session by the ministry’s plan to change the principle of stipend distribution. And since the Kyiv National University is funded from a dedicated point of expenditure in the state budget, and the system of stipend distribution is still undefined, there can simply be no money for stipends next year. At least that’s the “intuition” of the administration. The situation with the cold also cannot be resolved, because the buildings are built according to an old architectural project, and, although there is money allocated for heating, there is no technical possibility to warm them up to the required temperature.

The provost promised to “consider” the storm of questions, requests and suggestions by students that arose after his report. Because the student conference cannot deal with these issues anyway. So, despite the indignation and the large number of people who still wanted to speak up, the discussion was ended, and the conference moved on to making decisions. The protests did not prevent student delegates from voting in favour of the administration’s suggestions.

Despite the conformist position of official bodies, students decided to continue the campaign. Workgroups for the issues of scheduling, stipends and heating were organized; anyone could join them.

On November 29, students expressed their demands at a press conference. At the same time, repressions started.

One of the active protesters, Bohdan Tsiurko, was called to the Dean and then to the Rector’s office, where it was hinted that he might not pass his exams. A few other protesters also had similar conversations but in their cases the university administration resorted to direct threats. It looked like the administration felt threatened themselves.

This feeling was quickly confirmed . The decision of changing the exam session schedule was not made after all, and the studies continued according to the old schedule. The students who came to classes on Monday, November 28th, had a pleasant surprise awaiting them: the thermometer in the classroom reached the mark of 18°C. Thus, everything that had been totally impossible four days ago suddenly became reality. But will it stay that way?

To Wrap Up

All these cases can be treated as isolated crashes in the system, as random outbursts of activity, as responses to specific problems in specific universities. But we can also try and see the bigger picture. Despite the announced reform and the real autonomy, despite the “European vector” and the Bologna Process, Ukraine’s education is still controlled by a rigidly established hierarchy. University bureaucracy, who keep asking the ministry to explain every single phrase in legislation which states that higher education institutions should decide on a certain issue on their own, reproduces the hierarchy within itself. Students and unprivileged teachers remain disenfranchised and voiceless, unable to have any considerable impact on important decisions. Although official student organizations have 25% representation in Academic Councils, they mostly just legitimise the decisions made at the top. And those who actually try to fight still remain a minority. What kind of self-government is it if even the legally guaranteed quarter of elective courses in the study schedule is a privilege that has only been implemented in a handful of Ukrainian universities? And the quality of education, according to officials, has to miraculously emerge in student’s competition for grades under the condition of limited resources.

So shouldn’t we just admit that the reform has failed, that the ministry of finance with its neoliberal direction is not the best advisor on educational problems, and that, as ever, students can only rely on themselves?

Translated by Roksolana Mashkova.


Sergey Movchan
Sergey Movchan is a left-wing activist, anarchist, and correspondent for Political Critique Ukraine (“Політична критика»).