KHARKIV – Faced with empty seats in university classrooms, Ukraine belatedly is embarking on ‘higher education marketing’ -- a campaign to restore the magnet role that Ukrainian universities long enjoyed during the Soviet era.
Last year, Vitaly Denisenko co-founded here the Ukrainian Admissions Center, a private company supported by the Education Ministry. The goal is to attract thousands of foreign students by touting Ukrainian universities as offering high quality education at rock bottom prices.
“The relatively low cost of studying in Ukraine means our universities can attract large numbers of students,” Denisenko said in an interview. “Our institutions provide a quality education and diplomas are recognized in many countries and organizations.”
After a drop in 2014-2015, due to the war, foreign enrollments have bounced back. In 2016, about 27,000 new students enrolled in Ukrainian universities – a 42 percent jump over 19,000 students in 2015.
It is a race against time.
To cut government spending, Ukraine is closing universities. Since 2014, the number of universities has dropped from 802 to 317. Some closed, others were converted to vocational education colleges. More may be on the chopping block.
One reason: fewer young Ukrainians are in the population pipeline.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union one generation ago, the number of Ukrainians aged 14 and under has almost dropped in half, falling to about 6.3 million today. In Kharkiv Oblast, the number of deaths each year is nearly double the number of births.
“Where else would you open an office, rather than the student capital of Ukraine?” Denisenko said of his international student recruitment office here. “All participants in the project agreed that Kharkiv was the most favorable option, if you take account of the cost of living, salaries and the number of institutions.”
Of the top 10 Ukrainian universities chosen by foreign students, half are in Kharkiv. Only one is in Kyiv, the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, located near Ocean Plaza. Kharkiv has the largest number of foreign students in Ukraine – 20,925, compared to 12,950 in Kyiv.
Overall, there were 63,906 foreign nationals from 130 countries studying in Ukraine in the 2014-2015 academic year. This compares to about 187,000 in Russia, a country with about 3.5 times Ukraine’s population.
Upping its game, Russia expanded its free tuition quota in 2014 to 15,000 students. Now, it promises easier visas for university students.
As in Russia, students from former Soviet Republics, notably Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, top the list of nationalities in Ukraine. But here the mix is changing. The next three nationalities are India, Nigeria, and Morocco.
Students from India and Morocco doubled over the previous year, according to Olena Shapovalova, director of the Ukrainian State Center for International Education, a state body overseeing recruitment and placement of foreign students.
In 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict triggered an 8.5 percent drop in foreign students. Most foreign students simply shifted from Donetsk and Luhansk to continue their studies in peaceful areas. Kharkiv is 300 km northwest of the front lines. At this city’s 38 institutions of higher education, serving 300,000 students, teaching and learning continues unaffected.
"Terrorism and conflicts occur everywhere in the world: in Paris, Berlin, Istanbul,” said Ramy Bouguerra, a Tunisian studying at Kharkiv’s National University of Pharmacy. “I am all too aware of what is happening in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But this isn’t happening in Kharkiv.”
Ukraine’s low annual tuition fees -- from $1,700 to $5,500 -- are big draws for students from developing countries.
“Ukraine, compared with Russia and Europe, is cheaper,” Bouguerra said. Most foreign students studying in Ukraine pay their own tuitions.
Fields of study are dominated by professions guaranteed to make money back home: management, medicine, dentistry and accounting.
The language of education also has shifted from the Soviet days, when virtually all university level courses were in Russian.
Half of foreigners studying at Ukrainian universities in 2014-2015 chose Ukrainian, a leap from 16.5 percent a year earlier. Thirty-two percent studied in Russian, and 18 percent studied in English.
While Third World students flock here, a comparable number of Ukrainian students ‘trade up,’ studying in the European Union.
This academic year, 30,589 Ukrainians are studying in universities in Poland, roughly double the number of the previous year. Helped by the linguistic proximity of Polish and Ukrainian, Ukrainians now account for 53% of all foreign students studying in Poland.
Overall, about 65,000 Ukrainians study overseas, roughly the same number as foreigners studying here.
In Ukraine’s race to fill empty classroom seats, it may just be playing musical chairs.
For comments and news tips, please email UBJ Kharkiv Correspondent Kate Zaika at email@example.com.
Photo: A student from Africa sports a Ukrainian embroidered vyshyvanka shirt at a summer festival on Sofiyska Square, Kyiv. (Credit: Ukrainian State Center for International Education)
Posted Feb. 15, 2017