Graduate from Cambridge, conquer Kilimanjaro and … teach in Ukraine

He dreamed of a career in politics – being 18 he announced his candidacy for mayor of Uzhgorod, he was the head of public youth organization "Nashe pokolіnnya" (“Our Generation”), ran for the City Council, and suddenly … disappeared. As it turned out, he went to study in the U.S. (University of California), and then continued his education at Cambridge University. His research interests became sociology and criminology. That’s when he created the first full English-language scientific study of the problems, painful for the present-day Ukraine, which had recently adopted a new Criminal Procedure Code – the phenomenon of Ukrainian prisons and dramatic transformation of the penal system in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Anton Simkovich is one of those young people (very few so far, unfortunately) who, having received education and written a thesis at the prestigious University of the West, returned to Ukraine. He is now a Sociology lecturer at the National University of "Kyiv-Mohyla Academy". We believe that interview with a young scientist may be of interest to the readers of our weekly.

– Mr. Simkovich, you studied in three different countries – Ukraine, the USA and the UK, so you can compare their educational systems and identify their features. What is the difference between an average American / British university lecturer and an average Ukrainian higher education establishment teacher?

– As for me, these are not systems of education that are so much different, but societies, the demand for educated people. Since Ukraine at the current level of development reminds something like America during gold rush era and Wild West, we do not clearly see the classic link between intelligence or diligence of an individual and his financial and personal success. The example of this is the social status of Ukrainian nouveaux riches, corrupt high-ranking law enforcement officials and other "respectable" and "successful" people. Ukrainian recipe for success is ties and non-encumbrance with moral principles, rather than education and perseverance. The diploma is not a measure of eccentricity and intelligence any more, it has become a fetish. One third of Ukrainian parliament members are PhDs. Ukrainian education system is fully commercialized: for the money of taxpayers and direct official and unofficial payments (bribes), it gives something of a public demand – “certificate”. And there is no demand for something more in the Ukrainian society. That is why I see three main differences between Ukraine and the English-speaking West.

Firstly it is corruption of the Ukrainian system of education. Secondly – the motivation of students: we do not have a lot of young people who, apart from a "certificate", expect something more from universities and teachers, for example motivation for their development. And thirdly – the content of education. Our higher education is not very different from the secondary one: that is cramming and reproduction of facts. In addition, it is often of little use for professional activity, outdated or detached from reality.

Generally, in the West there is not a pronounced division between students and teachers, at least when studying for Masters. Workshops are debates, because higher education is not so much intended to give  knowledge, which in an era of rapid changes and the Internet students can get themselves and which may become obsolete before the end of the course, as to instill the skills to think critically about information and its sources, and analytic ability to apply acquired knowledge and skills in different areas, often quite different from the major field of study.

Most of my teachers in California and Cambridge were researchers-practitioners. Retelling books is purely Ukrainian experience. One more difference is the relationship of subordination. If we are taught from the cradle that "the boss is always right", hence "the teacher is always right", in the West they do not socialize children and young people in the culture of rank-worshiping. The authority of the teacher is not defined by the position, but human and professional qualities.

– Perhaps because of this, in most Ukrainian universities there is a huge gap of mutual misunderstanding between students and teachers. Maybe that’s why now in this country organized student-teachers’ campaigns in defense of their rights and common values are almost a utopia…

– University not only provides practical and theoretical knowledge, but also socializes people, teaches them how to behave in society, particularly with the government. That is why university is far from being just a "market of educational services". By the way, in this case Ukrainian authorities and the Governments of the United States and Britain are acting in the same way. They try to downplay the role of universities to the forge of professionals. University has to educate social leaders. That’s why most of the students in western universities are involved in various clubs and societies. The culture of discussion and debate is widespread, protests or lobbying activities constantly take place there.

– Students from all around the world study in Cambridge. Where do your classmates work? How do other countries encourage their most talented students when they return home after graduation?

– Most of my Cambridge classmates have returned to their country, others are finishing dissertations. Some moved to other countries. Most countries do nothing special for the sake of preventing "brain drain". Students who had their study abroad paid by the national government have a contractual obligation. Others return because they know that with the Cambridge diploma they will not have problems of career growth at home or in any other normal country. Ukrainians do not return for several reasons. Firstly, here education is not valued. Moreover, I try not to advertise my overseas studies because it often brings hostility and envy. Secondly, in Ukraine a foreign diploma needs to be confirmed. The procedure of nostrification costs money and time, and most importantly it does not give special advantages. Thirdly, Ukraine is a very unpromising country.

– As a graduate of one of the most prestigious universities in the world you have a real opportunity to choose the country with high living standards and wages. Instead, you have returned to Ukraine. Why?

– Nomo sapiens – are not always rational creatures (laughs).

I was repeatedly asked about it. One day, while still abroad, I replied that I could not long be out of Ukraine. Western accuracy and predictability are boring after all. I have never been indifferent to what is happening at home. It is my deep conviction that Ukraine needs highly educated and energetic young people.

For more than a year in Ukraine a debate has been going on about the bill of higher education. What principles do you think the new law "On Higher Education in Ukraine" has to be based on? Which basic principles will help Ukrainian system of higher education to become competitive?

– I consider three things to be urgent, firstly, the autonomy – financial, managerial, and academic, secondly – the union of education and science, that is, studying with research, and thirdly – entry into the international scientific and academic space.

 – How do you assess educational reforms of a current Ministry of Education, Science, Youth and Sports (MESYS) management, which resulted in academic freedom existing only declaratively, on paper? Does this mean that Ukrainian education, particularly higher education, is sliding back and moves away from the global trends?

 – I am not a supporter of conspiracy theories, but I think that Yanukovych has appointed Tabachnik a minister in order to distract a conscious part of society from such a large mayhem as the deliberate delivery of the public interest in the Stockholm trial, or the seizure of Economy of Ukraine by the Family. I would not call the Minister’s actions reforms, because a reform provides conceptual and major changes. Previous governments can be proud only of modest achievements in this field too. I do not think we are sliding far back, because, unfortunately, for 20 years we haven’t moved far so there is nowhere to slide.
Regarding global trends, they, firstly, not all are universal, and secondly, not all are worthy of emulation.

– Certificates of world universities, even so popular as Cambridge, Oxford, Sorbonne and Harvard are not recognized in Ukraine. They have to be proved eligible through the procedure of nostrification. What do you think of this situation?

– It’s funny and sad at the same time. For some reason my UzhNU certificate was recognized in the USA, but Ukraine disdains California and British diplomas. I do not see the point in wasting your time and money on it to prove the Ukrainian bureaucracy that I am a person with a scientific degree. I don’t want even to stand in one row with Ph.D. Yanukovych, academic Lytvyn and other "degreed" authorities. These researchers have 50-400 of scientific publications. I am not so fruitful in scientific terms yet.

Modern science is being globalized, national boundaries are disappearing. Can modern Ukrainian scholars, particularly sociologists, generate knowledge topical for the whole world?

– Of course! Every time I make a report at international conferences I observe a keen interest in my research. In mainstream sociology or criminology a lack of knowledge about the countries of the third echelon is felt.

As we know from the web page of the Ukrainian Society at Cambridge University, you have various interests. Besides, you are fond of different kinds of sports and have set an unusual goal – to conquer Kilimanjaro and teach in Ukraine. Have you succeeded in any of these plans yet?

Life does not tolerate mediocrity and inertia. The main thing is to strive for diversity, for new challenges and contribute the changes that we want to see in the world.

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