Prior to 2008, if you were to have asked typical Ukrainian high school students, university applicants or their parents to honestly explain the surest way to gain entrance to university, most would have responded that informal payments and influence-seeking provided the golden keys to admission. This type of process benefited not the brightest and most deserving but the affluent and best connected. High school graduates from low-income households or rural areas had virtually no access to the more prestigious universities and faculties of Ukraine. This uneven playing field for university admissions has already had its unintended consequence; since the best students were not always accepted at the best universities, employers too often settled for underqualified graduates, resulting in a workforce less professional than it should be.
The picture is beginning to change. Since 2007, USAID has assisted Ukraine in building and rolling out national university admissions testing. USAID’s Ukrainian Standardized External Testing Initiative (USETI) and its follow-on, the USETI Alliance, have partnered with Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, the academic community and civil society to launch national standardized external testing for university admissions, helping Ukrainians build the infrastructure and intellectual tools for a fair and merit-based admissions process. Equal access to higher education and by extension better prepared graduates are critical ingredients for a more competitive Ukrainian professional workforce to drive the economy.
USETI is a partnership of 16 Ukrainian and international governmental institutions, NGOs, universities and businesses, established to make Ukraine’s higher education system more transparent in its admissions processes.
USAID’s key innovation was to build a coalition of support for standardized external testing as a transparent tool for admissions to higher educational institutions, bringing together parents, educators and NGOs who are convinced of the benefits of this merit-based approach. Parents asserted the rights of their children to merit-based access to higher education. NGOs responded by becoming the voice of the parents, putting pressure on politicians to change national policy. Higher educational institutions saw the benefit of supporting a merit-based admissions policy in attracting high quality students.
USETI and the USETI Alliance provided critical support to Ukraine’s national testing center, the Ukrainian Center for Education Quality Assessment, to make it a strong and sustainable institution capable of independently and transparently developing and implementing secure tests that meet international standards.
The USETI Alliance also helped develop the KONKURS online reporting system, which publishes the results of each university applicant by name, assuring the real-time internal transparency of admissions to higher educational institutions.
The USETI Alliance continues to build public support for the process through one of Ukraine’s most influential civil society organizations, the OPORA Civic Network, a partner organization that has instilled public confidence and approval of the standard external testing process through intensive university admission monitoring
According to national polls, popular support for standardized external testing continues to increase. Whereas 42 percent of Ukrainian supported such a system in 2008, by 2012 the number had increased to 62 percent.
Most importantly, by the end of 2015 about 1.8 million students will be accepted to university programs based on their performance on standard external tests rather than family contacts or their ability to pay.
Much more has to be done to make an admissions system based on standardized external testing sustainable, and a continuing commitment by all stakeholders is essential. Nonetheless, the paradigm has shifted, and Ukraine will be better for it.