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Ihor Kotsan: "By the fourth year, each student must be fluent in English"

When Ihor Kotsan became the head of Volyn State University ten years ago, as a newly-appointed rector he did not have the name that would be well known amongst scholars (although he had achieved the status of Doctor of Biology by that time). There were rumours that he won only because he was a son-in-law of Nestor Burchak, one of the best rectors of the Lutsk Teachers' Institute who, in his time, had accomplished a great deal for the development of the institute. Ten years have passed already since Ihor Kotsan, a 45 year old chairman of the Biology Department, became the rector of our university.

Some who were dubious about this ten years ago now cannot help acknowledging the fact that this young man from Lviv region has succeeded in doing a lot to help our university remove the layers of provincialism that were part of it.

It was during his presidency that the term ‘national’ was added to the designation of our University (in 2007), and then a few years ago the region-related part of its name was removed. This earned the rector heavy criticism from the opponents of the processes of internationalization. Now our 75-year-old Lesya Ukrainka Eastern European National University is advancing toward new concepts of development with a clear vision of the Europe-oriented future.

“We have ambitious plans to create a centre for European education in Volyn”

Mr. Kotsan, we have almost got accustomed to the new name of our university, although it was difficult at the beginning. There are some people who are still unable to forgive you this change. Do you have any regrets for having taken this step?

– No, not at all. There are some patriots who think that it is necessary to constantly repeat the name of Volyn in order to glorify it. I don’t believe that. The University has not left Volyn and gone anywhere else, and it will never go. However, it is known and will be known in Ukraine as well as throughout Europe that the Eastern European University is located in Volyn. In the time of Yanykovych, integration with Europe was not discussed, and our orientation was toward Russia. It became clear to us that it was necessary to move in another direction, and we couldn’t postpone it – we had to begin somewhere. There are many other universities that are just as Volyn's was, in the sense of tied to a specific region, such as Ternopil’, Uzhgorod and others. It was necessary for us to transcend this limitation of attachment to region. We set up a all-inclusive conference of university personnel, to which we invited the former head of Volyn Regional Administration. We came out in public and stated that we were going to be moving toward Europe, so it was necessary to change the university’s name. As we are located in the eastern part of Europe, our university should be termed 'Eastern European'. When the Poles were preparing to enter the EU, they also formed an Eastern European University, in Szczecin. It was on this basis that the concept was studied and then presented for consideration by university personnel as well as by the authorities. Mr. Klimchuk stated that he had recommended not doing that. He thought that it was necessary first to undertake something, in order to be take the name 'Eastern European'. However, the participants in the conferences unanimously supported the decision to rename Volyn National University as the Eastern European National University. I think it was the right decision. I persuaded people of this, and they believed me. Those universities which didn't do that then, and which still haven’t done it, are regretting it now. I have spoken with many rectors, and they are envious that Volyn did it so promptly, although merely changing the name constitutes only a small part of the undertaking. We set ourselves an ambitious goal – to create a centre of European education in Volyn, not only so that our students could go abroad to study, but also that students could come to Volyn from all regions of Ukraine in order to obtain a European education, and to receive European diplomas in Ukraine; and so that professors from abroad could come to Lutsk to present lectures.

Many graduates from our university are already continuing their education in Europe and in the USA. This is evidence of the high level of education now being obtained in our University in Volyn, which for a long time was impeded and by the dragging burden of provincialism.

– We issue international certificates, and our bachelor's diplomas are recognized in Europe. With the bachelor diplomas our graduates have the right to enter any European university, and many are taking advantage of this right. We have signed many agreements, in particular with regard to dual diplomas. In Polish universities, our graduates are able to study free of charge while taking courses towards their Master’s degree. Whenever I have occasion to travel in western Europe, I seek to ensure that our university is more widely known. We have submitted documents to the EU Council, applying for funding towards the construction of the Eastern European National University Scientific and Technological Park. In connection with this, I met with Elmar Brok, the current Chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, and he approved it. Now the documents are undergoing examination in Brussels. The plans are ready, the technical documentation is being agreed on, and a government decree has been enacted regarding the land. This scientific and technological park constitutes a complete campus covering an area of8 hectareson Stepova Street, where everything will be located―dormitories, blocks of flats [apartments] for the teaching staff, classroom buildings and sports facilities.

The financial independence of institutions of higher education is one of the key points in the reform of higher education in Ukraine; will this make it possible for the Eastern European University to invite foreign teachers to present lectures for students?

– It’s very difficult to speak about financial independence, about which ordinary Ukrainians are hearing so many nice words. The university budget includes the following: a special fund which is now within the Treasury, and into which students' tuition fees and the state finances to be disbursed for salaries, stipends and utilities. For the development of the university there is nothing in the budget, likewise with special funds. Annual inflation is at a level of almost 10 per cent but the agreements with students for tuition fees are set for a four-year period. Tuition fees are not to be altered during the course of those four years. Thus we can only use the fees received for the provision connected with the educational process, and the maintenance of buildings and laboratories where students can at least receive a certain level of education. In the process of attaining to European standards, the revenue from the fees is in itself not sufficient to cover the costs involved in the budget, regardless of whether or not they are distributed autonomously. Universities will only be able to attain a new level when the economic portions of an association agreement with the EU have been signed.

If we create a solid material and technical base, students won't have to wait three or four years for something to be opened but the higher educational establishment will be able to provide him/her with everything necessary for studying, and carrying out scientific research and realize himself/herself. For example, when the budget of the university is at a level of 100 million euro and earns the same on various scientific programs and grants – only then we can expect a high quality of education. European universities, by the way, take in comparable sums of money every year.

With the help of God, and with the eventual ending of the war, everyone will understand what the top priorities need to be. Before the university can be developed, it is necessary first to deal with the most urgent economic tasks facing the region and the country as a whole. Yet the government does not understand. What is crucial for students? Do not just teach them how to do things, but teach them first of all what needs to be done: then they will produce dozens of interesting innovative solutions. There will be energy-saving technologies, and advances in the area of agriculture and the environmental. At the present time, we are all being taught only how to do things. This is not the right path to take.

“There are several famous universities in Europe and the USA which are located in small cities”

 Is it possible for such a small university city as Lutsk to develop meaningful academic science, when there are no powerful scientific institutions present in the city?

– It is possible for this idea to be realized, as well as the dreams. If we just think about it but do nothing, then nothing will happen. There are obvious examples in the world: there are famous universities in Europe and the USA that are in small cities. Harvard itself is located on the outskirts of Boston. Some small universities are for various reasons located in large cities. A small city is functionally more ideal for the development of a university: this has been studied and investigated. If it is possible to get from either end of the city to the university within thirty minutes, then a city can be considered suitable for a normal, fully functioning university. There are some cities in America and Europe which survive only by virtue of the universities, and they are developing successfully. Thus we need a plan, and we need to do something at once, because Lviv is already ahead of us. There are representatives of the western scientific community and all the departments of the Academy of Sciences in Lviv. A unique thing about  the Eastern European University is the Lesya Ukrainka Research Institute.  Have you read what Mr. Sadovy developed in Lviv? He built a 50-hectare Industrial Park. He held a competition, and the Netherlands wants to invest 50 million euros in it. I proposed a scientific-technological park seven years ago. Then residents of Lviv called me and wanted us to include them in the project. And what happened? We are talking about the development of agriculture, and energy saving, but think only about what mayor to elect. It’s necessary to work and to think about the future. If we don't seize this opportunity now, then after a while all our children will go to Lviv to study. We must work and we need to create some genuine international projects.

Can any innovations be expected by the students in the new academic year?

– Of course, because the new law “Regarding higher education” is already in effect. The students will themselves choose up to 25 percent of the subjects that they study. Lectures will not be held only during half of a day, as it was before, but throughout the complete working day, as in European universities. We are prepared to carry out everything required by the law, and we are ready for that. The most significant change, of course, affects those who are entering the first year of study. They will study on the basis of a program which as much as possible resembles those of Europe. A foreign language will be studied from the first year, but not in the way we studied during Soviet times, when we studied but could not speak the language. Many hours will be allocated to the study of English; there will be annual examinations, tests (intensified monitoring). Without a high-level knowledge of foreign languages we cannot speak of full integration into the world educational space. By the fourth year, all students must be fluent in English, regardless of the department in which they are studying. whether in physics, chemistry or the humanities. Unless they pass the tests in a foreign language, none will obtain a bachelor's diploma, or enter the program for Master’s-level studies. In the Master’s program groups will be set up in which the main language of instruction is either English or Ukrainian. In parallel with this, there will a choice of the foreign language to study: Polish, Spanish, Italian, or Slovak. This means that English will no longer be a foreign language – it will be a working language in the Eastern European University. President of Kazakhstan Nazarbajev ordered that all the subjects should be taught in English to the pupils of the 11-12 grades. Can you imagine it? While I am trying to convince the principle of Lutsk specialized school #1 to introduce such pattern of education. He says that they are not ready yet, the pupils will not study and will not be able to learn other subjects well. At some faculties we tried to form specialized groups of students that would be taught in English. Unfortunately, there are no volunteers. The exception is a faculty of international relationships where one group of students was formed.  

– Mr. Professor, what is your opinion, do we need so many specialists with higher education diplomas that enlarge the number of the unemployed? Maybe, we should set other priorities in our society? In my class only four classmates obtained higher education, others earn their living without diplomas. Now, I do not know why, it became shameful to do manual work. Parents are ready to do anything, to take big loans for their kid to obtain higher education. But that kid cuts classes and does not want to study... 

– Every person has the right to study. All parents wish a better life for their child. It is very true that the level of higher education is to be raised. And it does not matter whether it is a private educational institution or the state one. University education must have clearly defined criteria. In our country some educational institutions are located almost in flats while their owners put money into their own pockets. You won’t find any examples in the world when the tuition fee is a type of business. The earned money, even if the education is paid for, does not go into somebody’s pocket for the sake of their enrichment but is used for the development of an educational institution. Abroad rich people invest their money into the development of universities. That’s why private universities there can compete with the state ones. They have even more opportunities because they can find billionaires that are ready to share. In our country the rich opened private universities as if following the examples in the west but instead they just make big money. In rich countries a wealthy person opens a university because he has money and wants to do something good for his children, his compatriots and his country. He starts a university fund and invests his own money in it. I wish a Ukrainian billionaire would open a decent private university and all other small ones that were founded by unknown people would be closed. Then there would be no temptation for all the people to study because the enrolment into the licenced educational institutions would be more serious. It is doable if there is a will.

– What do you consider to be your most important achievement as a rector of 10 years?

– Our university is already well-known in Ukraine. I want Lesya Ukrainka Eastern European National University to be better introduced in Europe within next three years. It is really very pleasant that in2014 inthe consolidated rating of the Ukrainian higher educational institutions our university occupied the 49th position among almost 300 universities. But there are ways to improve and grow.

– I would like to see the time when our university is among the prestigious universities of Europe. And on its 75th anniversary we wish that to all your staff. We wish you, dear rector, the implementation of all your dreams and plans.

– Thank you.

Nina ROMANIUK

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Date: May 26, 2018Time: 12:48:49Online: 0