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ATHENA project: Objectives and Results (Interview with Thomas Estermann and Ihor Kotsan)

With 850 members across 47 countries, EUA is the largest and most comprehensive organisation representing universities inEurope. 17 million students are enrolled at EUA member universities. As the voice ofEurope’s universities EUA supports and takes forward the interests of individual institutions and the higher education sector as a whole. EUA provides unrivalled opportunities for members to share best practice by participating in projects, events and other mutual learning activities involving a wide range of universities.

Above all, EUA provides members with unique opportunities to influence and shape future European policy and initiatives affecting higher education and research. Through its work and contacts with the European Commission, Parliament and other key decision-makers, EUA ensures universities’ interests and concerns are taken up with all key stakeholders.

The European University Association takes a keen interest in the European Neighbourhood Policy. EUA cooperates with higher education institutions and organisations in the eastern neighbourhood, includingUkraine, in order to foster dialogue and mutual understanding, exchange knowledge and expertise, build capacities and encourage greater system compatibility.

The ATHENA project initiated by the EUA in 2012 aims to contribute to the development, reform and modernisation of higher education systems in the Eastern Neighbouring partner countries Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine. The project is designed to support structural reform processes and the development of strategic frameworks at the national level. ATHENA ultimately aims to enhance the quality and relevance of higher education systems in the targeted partner countries and to increase their voluntary convergence with EU developments (the information is taken from the official site of the EUA).

EasternEuropeanNationalUniversitywas one of four Ukrainian Universities to participate in the ATHENA project and to implement its recommendations and reforms. This September the final meeting of the ATHENA project members will be held in Brussels, Belgium. Preliminary outlines of the changes made inside the system of the Ukrainian higher education in general and inside the Eastern European National University are drawn in our interview with Thomas Estermann – Director for Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development of the EUA and Ihor Kotsan – rector of the EENU after their meeting in Lutsk.

What do you see as the main mission of the European Association of Universities in the Eastern European direction?

Thomas Estermann:

– We represent over eight hundred individual universities in 47 countries. Our main mission is to support our members in different tasks - in teaching, research and innovation. We represent them at the European level, we work at the national level and at the institutional level. Particularly within three years with this big ATHENA project which includesUkraine,Moldova andArmenia we are taking activities which look both – at the system level development as well as at the institutional development.

– Professor Kotsan, for how long is the Eastern European National University a member of the European Universities Association?

Іhor Кotsan:

– Since 2010. And in 2012 we were one of four Ukrainian universities that joined the ATHENA project. International collaboration is the priority of our work today. We have to participate in different European programs, which aids our integration. You can ask any student or professor and they will tell you that they want to live and study according to the European standards. We are very happy that our idea to build Eastern European university got much support. I am very proud of that. But we need to work a lot, less words, more efforts.

We need to ruin some stereotypes about Ukraine in the European society. Are there any stereotypes that were ruined after your visit to Ukraine? Something that you imagined to be different here?

Thomas Estermann:

– I think it was already when we started the ATHENA project three years ago. And we were looking at the institutional autonomy of higher educational institutions within the system, so we were making a lot of analysis, to find out how things are.

When we undertake a project for us it's important that we first understand how things work within the system, so in the first phase we spend a lot of time of understanding the legal structure, the system setup, but also how things are actually done, because very often the reality is different from the things written on paper. So for us it was very important to get the information from different views. With this project we have partners institutions as well as the Ministry of Science and Education. So therefore you already get naturally different views on how things are and how things should be done.

You gather much statistical data. About how the reforms are applied, describing trends of autonomy, the level of this autonomy. What was the most surprising statistics?

Within the project we have our autonomy scorecard, this is a tool where we can compare different high education systems and there we have seen that in some of the dimensions Ukrainian universities are not very autonomous, particularly when it comes to the organizational autonomy, as well as to financial autonomy there is a large number of restrictions. What we've also seen is that in terms of using money there are still lots of bureaucratic procedures involved, so when you want to develop new ideas, that is challenging, because you can't act as quickly as others, in my opinion.

But we have ambitious plans.

Ihor Kotsan:

– We have a strategy of the development of our university for the next 10 years. And the most important material prospect is the construction of a scientific park. We have8 hectares of land onVolodymyrska street. This will be the area for new engineering projects in the sphere of town architecture, landscape design, green energy and socio-natural interaction.  Campus has to be the main research and scientific priority of the regional development.

When you think about the systems that you have analyzed during these three years – Ukrainian, Armenian and Moldovan, which is the most dynamic, which progress is the most visible in reaching this autonomy? And why is it so? What are the reasons for this progress?

Thomas Estermann:

– All the three countries that we have analyzed in these three years have very similar starting positions, but are different.Ukraine is a large system,Moldova andArmenia are much smaller systems, so that is also something that should be taken into account when comparing. The political situations are very different. Apart from that, withinUkraine, when we started the project, we analyzed the situation before the new law was introduced. But when there is a legal change you always have subsequent regulations and some of them are not in place yet. So, therefore the key focus of the EAU forUkraine will be in the implementation of this law. We've also had many discussions with the Ministry of Science and Education. Particularly, in the last year the Ministry has taken high priority into this project and there we had very concrete proposals and steps that are necessary in terms of implementation.

After your visit to EENU, what would be your advice to us and can we hope for future collaboration?

Thomas Estermann:

– During the three days of my visit to EENU I had a great opportunity to get true insights of the things you do through lots of discussions with very different people. What I can see is that you have very ambitious plans and that's very good. It was also very good to see that you are acting on many of the things that we were discussing in the ATHENA project. For me personally it is very satisfying.

Your development plans about the construction of the new campus and science centre are very ambitious. For me it is very clear that you are located in a specific area, border area, in your strategy you have chosen to be open toEurope, so therefore you can be like a hub that stands for European values and helps building strong neighborhood collaboration and future gradual integration into the European Union.  

Interviewed by Anna Levchuk

Vice-rector for European Integration and Work with Students

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