Ukraine’s Education Reform Angers Neighbors Over Minority Rights
27 September, 2017

On the surface, education reform appears an unlikely source of international controversy. But Ukraine’s recent decision to revamp its educational system and expand teaching in the Ukrainian language has angered the leadership of some of its European neighbors.

Apart from altering the curriculum and providing more autonomy for schools and teachers, the new education law, signed by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on September 25, will eliminate schools teaching in the languages of ethnic minorities. Instead, minority languages can be used to teach until the fourth grade, after which school will be largely carried out in Ukrainian.

This means that 735 minority-language schools and around 400,000 children in Ukraine will now have to transition to Ukrainian. And several eastern and southeastern European countries with co-ethnics in Ukraine aren’t taking the news well.

Who is offended?

Four countries have officially voiced their discontent: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó announced on September 26 that his country will now “block all steps within the European Union that would represent a step forward in Ukraine’s European integration process.”

“We can guarantee that all this will be painful for Ukraine in the future,” Szijjártó said. He called Ukraine’s education reform  both “shameful” and “outrageous.”

Photo credit: UNIAN

Szijjártó’s statement comes almost two weeks after Bulgaria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it, along with foreign ministries of Hungary, Greece, and Romania, sent a letter to Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Council expressing their concern and asking Kyiv to reconsider the policy.

Romania then cemented its position by canceling President Klaus Iohannis’s October visit to Ukraine, a move Iohannis referred to as a “strong diplomatic signal.”

“I told [Poroshenko] directly that this visit will not happen until progress is made on the education law,” Iohannis said.

Ukraine has aggressively defended the law and reassured its neighbors that there is no reason for concern.

“Our intention is to add more education in Ukrainian, not take away from the education in minority languages,” Klimkin said at the Yalta European Strategy forum in Kyiv on September 16. “We need to make sure that our citizens fully know Ukrainian so that they have a future in Ukraine and can attend our universities and have jobs in the future.”

What’s in the law?

Apart from the controversial language aspects, the law — which Poroshenko called “one of the most important reforms” — grants more autonomy to schools and teachers, creates a broader syllabus, extends schooling from eleven to twelve years, and increases the starting teacher’s salary to three Ukrainian minimum wages, currently 9,600 UAH ($363).

President Poroshenko has said that the reform will “increase the quality of education [in Ukraine] and the competitiveness of the young generation entering the labor market,” as well as speed the country’s entrance into “the European educational space.”

Photo credit: UNIAN

Oksana Makarenko, an advisor to the Minister of Education, told Hromadske on September 21 that Ukraine has long needed education reform because the world has changed since the last substantial reform, over a century ago.

“[The old system] does not help children become successful in today’s world…,” she said. “We have new technologies, new values, and new requirements by employers in the market.”

Students graduating from minority-language schools tend to perform badly in the Ukrainian-language component of the compulsory university entrance exam, Makarenko added. As a result, they are accepted into poorer universities and have limited job options. This is why increasing Ukrainian-language education is important, she said.

Photo credit: UNIAN

Igor Samokhin, an education policy analyst at the CEDOS think tank, agrees that two hours of Ukrainian language a week — which the minority-language school students currently get — is not enough for professional fluency in the language.

“It’s a very small amount of time, and it is not enough for a profound knowledge of the language and the ability to speak it and use it in society,” he told Hromadske on September 24.

Despite the controversy in Europe, the law has been received very well in Ukraine, Samokhin added.

Ukraine remains optimistic

Ukrainian officials continue to support the law and argue that its introduction is necessary to ensure the successful future of both national minorities and Ukrainian as the state language.

Ukraine is now seeking ways to reconcile with its European partners, Poroshenko said. He has tasked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with carrying out the “necessary consultations with European partners, including the European Council.”

Photo credit: UNIAN

“Ukraine has had and continues to demonstrate an attitude toward ethnic minorities that meets our international obligations, remains in harmony with European standards, and sets standards for neighboring countries,” the president said.

Klimkin appeared to share Poroshenko’s guarded optimism.

“I think that our discussion will lead to understanding. But, of course, every [country] has its own internal politics,” he said. “Some people are happy to communicate, and some people leverage their internal politics.”

READ MORE: Eastern Europe: As Illiberal Forces Grow, So Do Tensions​

/By Maria Romanenko