Language Barrier. How Almost-Professors Ruin the Potential of Almost-Education Reforms

What keeps thousands of the most educated Ukrainians from becoming professors, and what can be changed?


The Heads of Ukrainian universities are in despair. The college professor assembly line has nearly grinded to a halt.  Since the beginning of 2016, only 21 people received the title of professor or assistant professor, compared to more than five thousand last year. What keeps thousands of the most educated Ukrainians from becoming professors, and what can be changed? Does the problem lie within the academics themselves, or the system?

Since the beginning of 2016, the titles of professor and assistant professor in Ukraine can be awarded under new rules. In particular, proficiency in English is required. Despite the fact that this requirement seems to be natural in today’s globalized world, future professors and docents find it difficult. The Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, universities, and research institutions have initiated a large-scale campaign to change these rules. Why did the Ministry establish this requirement, and what exactly is inacceptable in the academy’s perspective?

Ukrainian Filter

What if we conduct a mental experiment and try to determine who of the Nobel winners could receive a professor’s diploma according to the rules applicable in Ukraine by the beginning of 2016? Most likely none of them because the rules are focused nearly exclusively on people who have worked in the educational and R&D system of Ukraine for many years and obeyed its rules. However, when a “respected person” needs a title, there is room for a exception. For example, Viktor Yanukovych easily received the title of “proFFesor”.

The new rules came into force in the beginning of 2016. They are certainly more innovative since they dropped a number of barriers for those who received degrees or have worked abroad. At the same time, future professors and docents should meet some requirements to integrate into the global world of higher education and science. In fact, there are three new requirements,

  • international experience, for example, education or internship in an OECD or EU country,
  • publications in journals included into international databases of peer-reviewed literature,
  • and a foreign language certificate according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (level B2 or higher).

The new rules have been applied for only 9 months, but in fact, they stopped the machine printing the diplomas of professors and docents. In particular, according to the statistics, 16 people were awarded the title of professor in 2016 (comparing to 1048 people in 2014 and 1119 people in 2015), and 5 people were awarded the title of docent (comparing to 4127 in 2014 and 4589 in 2015).

What exactly has been the insurmountable barrier for those seeking to become a member of the educational elite, namely to get the position of professor or docent and teach students?

International experience has not become a major problem. This requirement created a demand for a new market that might be called “scientific tourism”. In cooperation with travel agencies, organizers of “scientific tours” offer interesting routes which in addition to visiting places of interest also include visits to some educational institutions and sometimes classes. Upon the completion of such a tour, participants receive a certificate of training. There are lots of offers on the market.  Some organizers openly give the details on the tour route and schedule and others offer the tours secretly.

Publishing articles in journals included into international databases of peer-reviewed literature has not proven to be a challenge either. Offers of publishing articles in “periodicals covering a broad range of topics” quickly entered the market. Although on online forums, education workers often complain that the cost for articles is 3-4 times the salary of professors and docents. By comparison, none of the top-20 economic journals has charge their authors for their publications.

However, the obstacle future professors and docents cannot deal with is obtaining a certificate of language proficiency. Specifically, the level that the Ministry requires (B2 or higher) corresponds to IELTS score above 5.5 (the maximum IELTS score is 9). This score corresponds to upper intermediate level.

This test can be taken in special test centers, including British Council. It is impossible to pass the exam by paying a bribe; at least no such cases have been registered. So far, there have been no offers on the market on how to get the language certificate with zero language knowledge.

The whole situation is absurd since a future docent or professor passes the exam in a foreign language twice while working on his/her thesis, first time as an entry exam and second time while studying (the so-called candidate minimum). Moreover, all post-graduate students take a foreign language course. However, obtaining a European standards certificate has become a problem.

Recently a new management team of the Ministry (the currents rules were implemented under Serhiy Kvit, former Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine) submitted for public discussion a draft of further changes in Academic Degree Regulations. There’s no requirement of a foreign language certificate in the proposed draft. In fact, it is a big step backward and an antireform that will open the door for thousands of professors and docents who are not willing or not capable of learning a foreign language. I hope civil society will join in the discussion of this document and will defend the right of Ukrainian youth to be taught by well-educated professors who are able to integrate into the modern educational trends and impart up-to-date knowledge to their students.


The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations