Since I have to leave Ukraine today, on the 18th day the protests, in order to attend my PhD viva in Britain, this blog will be updated less frequently for the next week or so. Before departing, I have emailed my current students.
As concerns the potential revolution in Ivano-Frankivsk, the daily meetings continue, as does the literary “bastion” on Mickiewicz Square in all weather. Today sees a new mode of gathering: an ecumenical prayer for Ukraine at 14:00. The students have been asked to schedule their strikes at 14:00, too, next week in order to avoid disrupting classes. This seems like an effort to trouble the solidarity between students and workers. Judging from meetings with students, however, it seems that many of them have their upcoming exams as their chief concern, thus the protests are seen among some students as something of an inconvenience, especially with a sense of slowing momentum taking hold. An interesting debate took place on TSN, the news service on oligarch-run 1+1 TV, between the mayors of Ivano-Frankivsk and Donetsk. Although there was tension between them, the interview made clear that Ukraine needs more intra-national dialogue in order to facilitate a functional state.
The Literary resistance continues in all weathers.
Two weeks ago I wrote to you all at a time when it was not clear what would emerge from the first sparks of protest in Ukraine against the government’s decision to abandon the EU Association Agreement.
The situation, in terms of what the outcome of this insurgent wave of protests will be, remains unclear. However, it is clearly evident that a large section of Ukrainian society – particularly in your region of western Ukraine – supports Ukraine’s European aspirations, while also finding the current government’s politics and its treatment of peaceful protest objectionable.
It is also clear that, when called upon, students in Ivano-Frankivsk can join a wave of protests, developing consciousness and awareness of the civil, social, political and geopolitical conditions that will shape not only the future of your country but also – and perhaps more importantly – your generation’s future.
Perhaps two weeks ago not all of you were aware of why your Student Senate and your colleagues were summoning you to strike or why it should be students who lead the protests and encourage a broader swathe Ukrainian society to take to the streets.
I would say that your university, our university, has not been as supportive as it could be of the strikes and student protests. Firstly, it took until the twelfth day of protests for our rector to make an official statement (the gathering on Tuesday by the Stefanyk Statue https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjqF_towpXg
). His speech was not explicit in supporting the student protests and strikes, while it also failed to answer many questions which I know concern many of you: what will happen to lessons missed, to exams, to your grades or your stipends.
Secondly, there has been no overall policy from the university meaning that not only each deparmental/institutional Dean but indeed individual lecturers have been able to impose their own vision on the protests (so ordering you to attend classes when you would rather be on strike or threatening punishment for non-attendance). This lack of policy has led to confusion and weakened the strike movement. There has also been, as far as I can tell, no official policy issued to lecturers and what they should do during the strike hours. This has meant that the traditional student-lecturer divide has remained intact at a time when unity and solidarity is required more than ever.
Thirdly, on Thursday the rectors of our university, the Oil and Gas University and the Medical University issued a request for students to move their strike from 11:30 to 14:00 so that fewer classes would be disrupted. Intentionally or not, this has the effect of disrupting the solidarity between students and workers who are on strike and customarily gathered at midday at the ODA (white house) building.
I would argue that these are not the actions of a university that fully supports students’ and society’s actions towards a European future.
The question now, regardless of the outcome of the current protests, is what can you and your colleagues achieve. Speaking to some of you in the past fortnight, I realise that there remains a sense of despondency that you cannot change much in the spheres that affect you directly: the structure and reality of your studies in particular. Indeed, it is a particular irony of these protests that you have shown yourselves more willing to challenge the government and the state apparatus, including its Berkut riot police, than your university authorities.
Another irony of these protests and strikes is that for the first time in your university experience you have a structure of studies which resembles that of European countries. Your Dean has asked that you attend two classes a day and only in your main subjects. In this situation you have around 15 hours a week of seminars and lectures, all centred on courses that are related to your major subject.
In all four of the higher education systems I have studied under: students have a choice of courses within their major degree subject; they are not put into groups in Year 1 and left to experience studies with the same 10-15 people for four-five years; students have a maximum of 15 hours per week of lectures and seminars; the Bologna Process consists of more than simply giving marks out of 100 at the end of each semester; students have time to participate in university life and student life in autonomous forms; a bachelor degree usually lasts three years not four; a semester is about 12 weeks, not 17; there is no bribery or terror imposed on students; there is little overt nepotism; there is toilet paper in the toilets.
I realise that you might think that it is best to keep quiet and avoid causing trouble within your university, that it is best to simply get your degree certificate and leave. But the terror and corruption that can emerge within the higher education system here – eliciting bribes, refusing to give pass grades to students who complain, allowing “favoured” students to pass courses and get their degree without the same effort required of ordinary students – will pass into the next generation of Ukrainian society if you do not combat it now.
You are that generation who will make the future of Ukraine. Even if the pro-European political and civil forces succeed in the current revolution, Ukrainian social and educational structures will not simply change by order from above. People like you need to change the system in its everyday forms, the forms you experience and will experience, from below.
Now is a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s history. The events in Kyiv will grab the media’s attention, the politicians’ attention, the world’s attention. But the only way to ensure that you experience a European future – without abandoning your country – is to work towards this consciously on an everyday level. Changing your university is a good start.
How to achieve this, I don’t know. But a good start would be to break down the barriers between groups within the same course. Groups 11, 21, 31, 41 speak to groups 12, 22, 32, 42, and you speak to 13, 23, 33, 43. And then students of foreign languages speak to students in history and philosophy, and to students in computer science and in physics. And Precarpathian students speak to Oil and Gas students. Ivano-Frankivsk students speak to Lviv students and Kyiv students and Kharkiv students and Luhansk students. Ukrainian students speak to Polish students, to Czech students, to Molodovan students, to Russian students. And don’t just speak, but meet, exchange ideas and – most important of all – work together.
Whoever, in the Soviet times, thought of the system of dividing university students into fixed groups did so for a reason. It was to limit the spread of ideas and criticism. It was part of a system of divide and rule. There is no reason for that to exist now.
Work together, talk together, don’t let the system of divided groups and divided departments make you think that your fellow students are competitors. They are your colleagues and comrades. Work together, think together, meet together, and then change will happen organically.
Universities produce the people who make the future society of a country. Politicians – whatever their political outlook – cannot change a country alone from the top down.
This is your task now, to change the country from below.
I am leaving Ukraine today because of unavoidable circumstances: I have my thesis defence (viva) next week in Glasgow, Scotland. However, I will come back as soon as I can and look forward to working directly with those of you that I am scheduled to teach in 2014. Those of you who, sadly, are no longer my students, this does not mean that our collaboration is over. University, after all, should be about more than just what happens inside a seminar room or lecture theatre.
Good luck with your exams and your revolution.
See you in 2014