Can new educational reforms in Ukraine be seen as a tool for forced assimilation of national minorities?



The crisis in Ukraine has several aspects. One of the most important problems is the issue of language. The law “on education”, adopted in 2017, as well as the law “ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language“, adopted in 2019, actually introduced a ban on obtaining secondary education in any languages ​​except Ukrainian, as well as on the use of other languages in the process of contacting the authorities. In addition, the law imposed significant restrictions on the work of the mass-media in the languages ​​of national minorities.

The ban on teaching minority languages in secondary education within Ukraine is especially alarming, since it directly affects the self-identification of children from families of national minorities. Indeed, not only the general educational level of the child, but also their feeling of belonging to a particular social group depends on the language in which the child’s intellectual and conceptual apparatus will be formed.

The Politics of Linguistics and Childhood Development

The child’s intellectual and conceptual apparatus revolve around their primary knowledge about  the world around them at an objective level. If this knowledge is formed in a non-native language, then there is an obvious tendency to change identification towards an intellectual internal habit of this non-native language. If knowledge is not formed in their native language at all, then this language is gradually lost by the child and will be replaced by a non-native language, and the processes of (forced) assimilation in this case will be more active.

In the event that a child from a family of national minorities does not have a choice of the language of primary education and he is obliged to study in the language of the ethnic majority, there is a threat of forced assimilation, which is prohibited by international law and by the recommendations of various international organizations.

This is exactly what the Ukrainian government is accused of by opponents of the language reform in Ukraine inside the country. The same position was taken by the governments of a number of other countries. For example, the Russian leadership saw this as discrimination against the Russian linguistic minority, even Hungary declared discrimination against Hungarians in this country and blocked Ukraine’s participation in joint activities with NATO. Moreover, the governments of Romania, Moldova and a number of other countries have also voiced their disquiet on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian official authorities deny the forcible assimilation of national minorities, saying that the reform is being carried out in their interests, in strict accordance with the international obligations of Ukraine, and the linguistic minorities, especially Russians, with the Ukrainian government alleging that the Russian linguistic minority has made a ‘free choice’  for a long time in favor of the Ukrainization in state school education.

The purpose of this article is to dispassionately understand how this is true. After all, if minorities choose assimilation themselves (and then this is a completely normal phenomenon), the level of their knowledge of the state language has de facto increased, and in general the reform leads to an increase in the quality of education, then some may argue that all the statements of opposition of the reform may possibly miss a beneficial side effect of the reforms.

Recently, the Ukrainian Institute of Politics (Director Mr. Ruslan Bortnik) sent formal inquiries and received responses from two of Ukraine’s main think-tanks dealing with education in the country. We are talking about the Ukrainian Center for the Assessment of the Quality of Education and the Institute of Educational Analytics. The main statistics on secondary education in Ukraine are concentrated in this two institutions and forms the basis of our analysis.

How many schools and students are there in the Ukraine??

First, we need to understand what overall dynamics exist in terms of the number of students and schools themselves in Ukraine. From present data it follows that the total number of schools in Ukraine decreased from 21,276 in 2004 to 15,000 in 2020. The overall drop in the number of schools was 29.8%. Of these, about a third – 2,232 schools – dropped out of statistics due to the loss of control over Crimea, as well as parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014. The total number of secondary educational institutions in the country decreased by 6,276 in 16 years.

At the same time, the population of Ukraine decreased over the same period by 5,720,000 people or by 12% (excluding Crimea).

At the same time, the total number of students decreased from 5,563,530 in 2004 to 4,072,559 children in 2020. Moreover, the reduction was progressive and sustained until 2014, when Ukraine lost control over schools in Crimea and in the separatist regions of the LPR / DPR. In 2014 the number of pupils in schools in Ukraine, according to statistics, decreased to 3,675,076 people, but then the numbers gradually went up.

Thus, in general, we see that the rate of reduction of secondary educational institutions in Ukraine does not correspond to the rate of general decline in the population. Consequently, due to the loss of Crimea and part of the Donbass, the objective aging of the population were not the main reasons for the reduction in the number of secondary educational institutions. In all likelihood, the main reason is the so-called “densification” of educational institutions, when two or more schools are combined into one, which entails an increase in the number of classrooms, but allows to reduce the cost of education. Actually, this is not hidden and is an explicit policy of the Ministry of Education and Science itself.

Statistics of Ukrainian Educational Delivery in Different Languages

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to trace Ukrainian dynamics of the number of schools and the number of students by the primary language in which it is delivered. Schools with the Ukrainian as the primary language of educational delivery suffered the least from the general reduction in schools. If in the 2004-05 academic year their number of schools was 17,044, then in 2019-20 the total number of such educational institutions was 13,584 units. Moreover, until the 2008-09 academic year, their number, albeit insignificantly, was growing. The peak was in 2006-07, when 17,117 Ukrainian-language schools functioned in the country. But since 2008 their number has been steadily decreasing. It is interesting that the upheaval of 2014 had absolutely no influence on this process. If from 2008 to 2014 the number of Ukrainian schools decreased from 85 to 300 units per year, then after 2014 the decrease was from 200 to 600 educational institutions per year. The average rate of reduction ranged from 0.5% in 2011 to 4% in 2018.

The number of Russian schools declined at a much more rapid pace. In the 2004-05 academic year, the number of schools with Russian as the primary language of education in Ukraine was 1,555 units. Until 2014, it steadily decreased – down to the target figure of 2020 in 1,275 schools, i.e. an average of 4-5% per year. In 2014, the number of Russian schools fell sharply by more than two times – to 621 schools – primarily due to the withdrawal from the statistics of the Crimea and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where the majority of the Russian-speaking population lives. However, until 2017, the number of Russian schools declined by no more than 5.3% per year. The turning point began in 2016, when it became clear that a ban on teaching in the languages ​​of national minorities was being prepared, and the Ukrainian authorities did not hide the fact that the educational reform was primarily directed against the Russian language, and not against the languages ​​of the EU countries. As a result, already in 2017-18, the number of Russian-language schools was artificially reduced by 15.5%, and in 2018-19, it was reduced further by 58.8%. In the 2019-20 academic year, their number in Ukraine was 125 units. Thus, from 2004 to 2020, the number of Russian schools in Ukraine has decreased 12 times.

At the same time, one must understand that the reform does not destroy schools of national minorities as such. Yes, according to the law of Ukraine “on education”, the education in the languages ​​of national minorities has remained since 2018 only in elementary school, i.e. from first to fourth grades. Indeed, from September 1, 2020, it is planned to transfer all Russian-language schools to full teaching in Ukrainian, and schools in the languages ​​of the European Union will be transferred to Ukrainian from September 1, 2023. But this does not mean that schools of national minorities should disappear. They will remain, albeit in a truncated form. In particular, it will be possible to study in their native language and literature in the language of a national minority.

However, no other school, except the Russian one, experienced such a sharp reduction. For example, the Hungarian school system lost eight schools by 2014, but by 2019-20, their number increased again by six units. As a result, if in 2004 the number of Hungarian schools was 74, then in 2020, it was 72. The number of Polish schools did not decrease at all, and also one German-speaking school appeared. The Romanian school also experienced a reduction, but by less than 30%. If in 2004 there were 95 of them, then in 2020, there was only 68. Finally, the number of schools in the Moldovan language has decreased by four times (from eight to only two).

So, Russian schools have experienced the greatest reduction. Meanwhile, as part of the entire population, Russian is one of the two most common languages ​​of communication among the population of Ukraine. During the 2001, the All-Ukrainian Population Census showed 29.6% of participants named Russian as their native language, including 14.8% of Ukrainians. However, independent estimates show a much greater prevalence of the Russian language and its actual predominance over Ukrainian; this is because Russian is underestimated census results are usually explained by the fact that many people who consider themselves Ukrainians named Ukrainian as their native language because of their national identity, although their first language (or one of their native languages) is Russian. It is also worth adding that in 2012-2018, in accordance with the 2012 law “On the Foundations of State Language Policy“, it was the official language in the southern and eastern regions of the country. The law was repealed in 2018, but has only effectively ceased to operate since 2014.

Now let’s see what is the situation with the number of students in the languages ​​of education? The number of students in Ukrainian schools has decreased over 15 years from 4,408,567 in 2004 to 3,753,305 in the 2019-20 academic year, i.e. a decrease of 14.8%. The number of students in Russian schools in 2004 was 1,242,764, and in 2019, it was 281,257 students, that is, an overall decrease of 77.3%. The decline took place in waves, and in some years, for example, in 2011/12 and 2013/14, it grew. The main drop in numbers coincided with the 2014/15 academic year, when Crimea and the territories of the self-proclaimed DPR-LPR did not record the statistics. Then the number of students was reduced by almost half – from 703,572 to 356,262 children. After that, it gradually decreased by about 1.5% until 2018, when the new law “On Education” came into force. After that, in 2019-2020, the drop in the number of students in Russian-language schools was 8% and 12%, respectively.

Interestingly, the number of students in Hungarian schools has not decreased by much. It slowly but purposefully decreased from 2004 (19,996 people) to 2014 (15,001 students), and then went up and reached 17,192 students. A sharp decrease in line with the decrease in the number of schools occurred with students of secondary educational institutions in the Moldovan language of education. From 6,128 students in 2004 to 2,498 in 2019, or by 59.2%. The number of children studying in Romanian schools decreased at a slightly slower pace – from 26,400,000 in 2004 to 16,100,000 in 2020. However, it should be said that in 2018/19 and in the 2019/20 academic years, the number of students in Romanian schools remained practically unchanged.

The only exception to the negative dynamics of the number of students in Ukrainian schools by language of education is the Crimean Tatar classes. Specifically, classes (not schools), since after 2014, when Ukraine lost political and military control over Crimea, the schools of the peninsula no longer appeared in official statistics, but Crimean Tatar classes were created in ordinary schools. This practice began in 2017, when the first 11 students of such classes were recorded. Their number increased to 53 people in 2019.

Thus, the number of students in all schools in Ukraine, regardless of the languages ​​of education, with the exception of the Crimean Tatars has been falling over 16 years. However, how did the number of schools decrease in proportion to the number of students?

Is there a basis for a social inquiry into national minority schools in Ukraine?

If we compare the number of schools with the number of students, we will see a critical overcrowding of two schools; those with Russian and Moldovan as the primary language of education. In 2020, one Russian school had on the average 2,250 pupils, and one Moldovan school had 1,200 pupils. This is compared with one Ukrainian school which usually has an average of 276 children. Thus, the pupil density of Russian schools today is eight times that of its Ukrainian speaking counterparts, and for Moldovan-speaking schools, it’s four times higher than that of Ukrainian ones. The pupil density of all other schools is not so significant in comparison with Ukrainian ones, and sometimes it is even less. For example, the pupil populations of Hungarian and Romanian schools is lower than that of Ukrainian ones – on average 208 and 236 students per school, respectively, the workload of Polish schools is less than in two times higher than that of Ukrainian ones, etc.

Of course, the events of 2014 hit Russian schools the most. Roughly after the loss of Crimea and the separation of parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Ukraine lost approximately 650 Russian-teaching schools. But another 496 (80% of the rest) were transferred to the status of bilingual or Ukrainian-speaking in six years! But, as can be seen from the above figures, the social demand for education in Russian has not decreased. Consequently, the reduction of Russian schools on such a scale clearly did not meet the interests of the Russian-speaking population and was an artificial step towards the de facto forced assimilation.

This conclusion is also prompted by the difference in the transition period to the Ukrainian language for schools of education in the languages ​​of the EU countries (five years) and in other languages, which actually include schools in Russian and Moldovan languages ​​(two years), fixed in the new law “On Education “and in the law “On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as a state language.” Therefore, the authorities’ assurances that Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine voluntarily choose the Ukrainian language of education do not stand up to criticism.

Thus, the main victim of the educational reform was precisely the Russian linguistic minority of this country. The decline in all other schools was broadly in line with the decline in the number of children wishing to study in their native languages. This is a definite merit of both the communities themselves, who managed to fight for their rights in an organized manner, and their countries of origin from among the EU members. It was the tough position of Romania and especially Hungary that forced the Ukrainian authorities to make concessions to the so-called “EU languages”. That is why the Moldovan community suffered also, as their language, like Russian, does not belong to this group of languages.

Considering this, as well as the high level of social demand for the native language among the national minorities of Ukraine, it can be argued that the educational reform in this country is aimed at their forcible assimilation. National minorities themselves speak of this. In particular, in July 2020, the “National Council of Romanians in Ukraine” complained to the Romanian authorities about the violation of the rights of their community to education in their native language and administrative reform projects. They stated that they were subjected to systematic forced Ukrainization in all spheres. This was reported by the Romanian service of Radio Liberty. It is safe to say that the same is happening with respect to other national minorities.

Conclusion: What about the quality of education?

Another question we can posed is: Can it be argued that, in spite of everything, the educational reform gives an overall increase in the quality of education, at least in schools in the Ukrainian language? Unfortunately, the answer here is “no”. Despite the fact that the reform will end for Russian and Moldovan schools on September 1, 2020, when the teaching of general education subjects in their native language will be completely prohibited there, and for all other schools of national minorities on September 1, 2023, the transition period already allows preliminary conclusions to be drawn.

This is how the Ukrainian Institute of Politics evaluates this experience. In their research “Dynamics of the number of schools and students by languages ​​of instruction in Ukraine“, the experts of the Institute write:

“Simultaneously with the reduction in the number of schools, the densification of the number of students in classes and the elimination of education in Russian, the results of external independent testing of students are also deteriorating: -if in 2008 only 4.58% did not pass Mathematics, in 2014 – 6.07% , then in 2019 – more than 18%; -in 2008, 9.73% of students did not pass Physics, in 2019 – 14.97%; -in 2008, did not pass the Ukrainian language and literature 8, 81%, in 2019 – 14.97%; – in 2008, 9.09% did not pass the History of Ukraine, in 2019 – 16.22%. We also observe a sharp increase in the number of students who did not pass mathematics and physics … “And what about the Ukrainian language? To what extent has the reform improved the knowledge of Ukrainian by pupils of national minority schools? “Despite the allegedly promoting the Ukrainian language policy of Ukraine,” says the analytical note of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics, “the test results in the Ukrainian language also worsened: the number of those who could not pass the Ukrainian language in the exam has almost doubled since 2008 , and the growth in the number of those who did not pass began after 2017 – that is, after the adoption of the law “On Education.” It is likely that the adoption of the new spelling in 2019 will even more negatively affect this indicator if its norms are used on exam – because of their artificiality and inconsistency with the living Ukrainian language.”

Thus, it can be assumed that the full implementation of the 2019 reform will lead not only to the forcible assimilation of national minorities, but also to an even greater backwardness of children and, as a result, to a further loss of their competitiveness in the labor market of Ukraine.

Dr Valery Engel is a Senior Fellow at CARR and President of the European Centre for Democracy Development in Latvia. See full profile here.

© Valery Engel. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).