Archive for September 26th, 2017


Education Law (language issues – again) Beyond the international tempest

September 26, 2017

It appears a storm in a tea cup, or perhaps given the current (and no doubt momentary) circumstances, a tempest in a tea cup may be more accurate, rages over the newly adopted Ukrainian law on education reform and the primacy it provides to the Ukrainian language as the language of tuition.

Romania reacted by cancelling a State visit by President Johannis to Kyiv and also cancelling a visit by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada Speaker to Bucharest.  It adopted a Resolution declaring it expected Ukraine to adhere to European standards with regard to minority rights.

Poland expressed its displeasure.  Moldova too.

Russia did what Russia does – and claimed oppression as it always does.

Hungary however, has stated it will now thwart all Ukrainian efforts at further European integration, and perhaps all Ukrainian initiatives across wider international arenas.

The objections appear to be centered around Article 7 of the newly adopted law.  In summary Article 7 provides for ethnic minority languages to be used as the language of tuition (to deliver all lessons) from pre-school until the conclusion of primary school.  Thereafter Ukrainian will be the language of tuition, albeit the minority languages will still be taught – but as a subject not as the language of tuition for all other lessons.

As of the time of writing no statements were found from Belarus, Israel, or Greece which also have notable minorities.

Naturally the Ukrainian State has an obligation to the State language – Ukrainian.

Such is Ukrainian statute, without a solid understanding of the State language, certain vocations are simply not attainable, and others will be difficult.  The rules relating to the Civil Service demand a solid understanding of the State language.  Those entering the arenas of law or politics would also struggle without a solid understanding of Ukrainian.  University study in Ukraine without a knowledge of Ukrainian would be a heavy burden on a student.

Equally, there is a pilot programme, yet to be rolled out, where students from minority language ethnicity have a kind of symbiotic lesson where key terminology is also taught in their native tongue to provide for a possible university education in their ethnic lands.

To be clear, the issue here is not about Ukrainian education being delivered in Ukrainian, but rather a perceived roll-back of the current ability for an ethnic Hungarian to be taught entirely in Hungarian in Ukraine throughout the duration of their State education for example.

Undoubtedly this law will be challenged within the chambers of the Council of Europe, the UN and sent to the ECfHR by those affronted by it – and such is their right.   It is difficult to see how Ukraine would lose such a challenge, but a specialist in minority rights this blog most certainly is not.

So much for the legislation – and the tempest it brings.  It will be eventually be resolved – perhaps more swiftly than it currently appears.

As always with legislation in Ukraine however, implementation is so often lacking – either through lack of will, or lack of ability, or a lack of resources.

The current situation in Odessa for the school term that began on 1st September does not bode particularly well with regard to implementation of the new law.

Odessa currently has vacancies for almost 400 teachers.  This is an increase in the number of vacancies from the previous school year.  Few will be surprised to discover a further increase in teacher vacancies when 1st September 2018 arrives.

The authorities have accommodated the shortage of teachers by increasing class sizes – again.

The average age of a teacher is getting older and older.

Further, approximately half of the schools in Odessa use the Ukrainian language to deliver all curriculum lessons.  The other half of the schools use Russian to deliver all curriculum lessons.

This is not driven by local politics, no matter how it may appease or dismay certain local politicians and/or activists, and thus is perhaps wrongly perceived by an uninformed outsider.

It is driven by an acknowledgement that the increasing numbers of teacher vacancies, an aging teacher stock, and combined with Russian being the de facto lingua franca for the past few hundred years among the numerous established ethnic groups that form the very cosmopolitan and mercantile city and surrounding oblast.

Quite simply there are insufficient teachers – and among those existing there are insufficient teachers – capable of delivering all lessons in Ukrainian in Odessa.

No doubt many can understand and stumble through in Ukrainian.  That is not in dispute (albeit it may well be the case that the teacher’s Ukrainian linguist ability proves worse than the student).

It is an entirely different matter to deliver quality education in a language that would require not only proficiency, but a deep understanding of its nuance and intricacies..  Education is more than simply being about retaining knowledge and/or accepting perceived wisdom.  It is, if it is to be of use, primarily about genuine understanding and insight.  That requires a level of communication and teacher-student interaction that will undoubtedly suffer from an average, or below average ability to speak Ukrainian.

There is no quick fix for this, regardless of the previous or newly adopted law.

When the city (and oblast) cannot attract teachers, the teaching vacancies grow annually (as do the class sizes), the existing teacher stock gets older, and the youth see no attraction to teaching as a profession, then by extension the ability to be able to pick and choose on the basis of a teacher’s Ukrainian language skill comes secondary to whether they can and want to teach.

It is possible of course to transfer or import Ukrainian speaking teachers into the city – but it is an expensive city to live in by Ukrainian standards, and teacher’s salaries are woeful.  A teacher’s salary goes a little (or a lot) further in other less expensive towns and cities.  Clearly thus far not enough teachers from other regions have found sufficient reason to leave their current existence to move to Odessa.

Thus whatever international issues some may have with the new Ukrainian education statute, it may well be that they will be resolved far more swiftly than the ability to actually implement it in certain regions of the country – simply through lack of local human capital resources.

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