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Choosing between classes and fire safety in Ukraine

With many Ukrainian institutions of higher education on the brink of financial collapse, negligence and growing utility costs result in fire safety being overlooked.

January 23, 2020 - Ararat L. Osipian - Articles and Commentary

Fire engine AC-40 on a ZiL-131 chassis. Vinnytsia, Ukraine. (cc) Photo: George Chernilevsky (cc) wikimedia.org

Last year, Ukraine’s traditionally cold winters had a serious impact on the country’s higher education sector. In 2018, colleges and universities had no money to pay heating bills and thus, many had no choice but to close their doors. The problem of unpaid heating bills affected numerous universities, including Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University, Ukraine’s flagship higher education institution. As a result, higher education institutions throughout the country sent their students on extended holidays until spring. Some education institutions, including both colleges and schools, even cancelled classes in March.

Significant increases in utility rates over the last few years have placed many higher education institutions on the brink of financial collapse. Most educational facilities in Ukraine are old Soviet-style buildings that lack insulation and modern energy efficient heating technologies. Accordingly, heating classrooms has become ever more expensive. The chronic lack of state funding combined with inflated utility bills, made many universities cancel classes for winter months in previous years as well. Both the universities and the Ministry of Education and Science tried to mitigate the problem, but to no avail, referring to distant studies by correspondence, help of distant technologies of learning and knowledge control, university autonomy as the right of universities to choose their schedule and other tricks.

This academic year, cold lecture halls and libraries discouraged students from attending classes. Not surprisingly, the practice of cancelling classes due to cold weather continues. Moreover, in some instances, it has had tragic consequences.

Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts was quarantined for two weeks in November in connection with the declared “epidemiological situation” in this higher education institution. This was due to the fact that the university did not turn on the heating. As a result, 25 per cent of students fell ill and the university leadership decided to quarantine from November 1 to 17.

The case of Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts, however, is less extreme compared to the tragedy that took place at another higher education institution in Odesa. On December 4, 2019, a major fire erupted at the Odesa College of Economics, Law and Hospitality and Restaurant Business. There was no fire alarm sound and some faculty members exited the building without even directing students to exits. Blocked in their classrooms, some students had to jump from windows.

The old six-story architectural landmark in downtown Odesa burned completely, with the roof, floors, and walls collapsing. As a result, 16 people died and around four dozen suffered injuries. Of the 16 dead, 11 bodies were burned beyond recognition and required special DNA tests for identification. The deadly fire in the college was caused by a malfunctioning electric wire. There were also allegations that the college was unable to pay for heating and instead some offices had been heated with the help of electric heaters, which is illegal.

In Odesa, the problem of heating bills in colleges and universities persists. In 2018, several universities, including Mechnikov Odesa National University, Odesa Law Academy, Odesa National Academy of Food Technologies, Ushynsky South Ukrainian National University, and others, sent students to winter holidays until spring of 2019. Mechnikov Odesa National University said that lengthy winter holidays are a normal practice that started in 2011. Winter holidays for 2018 were approved back in May of 2017. Given the stories of universities not being able to pay their heating bills, the tragedy in Odesa should have been expected, and quite possibly, avoided.

The firefighters and police investigators reported that the building was not equipped with a fire alarm system and that the emergency exits were blocked and locked. Moreover the only fire extinguishers they found in the building were stored under the building manager’s bed. The investigators also reported that the building’s electricity regulation system had been tampered with. Because electric heaters consume a lot of electricity, the system was unlawfully arranged in such a way as to increase the current at the expense of safety. This was a perfect recipe for a tragedy, which unfortunately took place when classes were in progress.

The police charged the college director with negligence that caused tragic consequences and the court placed her under the house arrest, also suspending her from her office. The director stated in her defense that after a fire in a children’s summer camp near Odesa in 2017 that took lives of three children, she wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education and Science, asking for funds to set a fire alarm system in the building. However, her request was ignored by the Ministry. This was during the time when the Ministry of Education and Science was led by Liliya Hrynevych, a secondary school biology teacher. Since then, Ukraine has appointed a new Minister of Education and Science, Hanna Novosad. It is not clear yet whether Novosad will bring any change to the way that the higher education sector in Ukraine functions, including its rampant corruption and dismal fire safety regulations.

But the story does not end here. A police investigation is underway in the building of the State Emergency Situations Services in Odesa. Investigators from the State Bureau of Investigations (GBR) have been seizing documents from fire inspections that date back as far as 2014. The State Service of Emergency Situations is suspected of official negligence by the State Security Service. Furthermore, the investigators report that some managers of the State Emergencies Services have tried to hide and destroy documentation regarding the inspection of the fire safety condition and the provision of permission to operate the premises of the educational institution. Apparently, fire safety inspectors turned a blind eye on numerous fire safety violations in the college building. This is hardly surprising because fire safety inspections in Ukraine are traditionally considered corrupt. The tragic fire at the Odesa College of Economics, Law and Hospitality and Restaurant Business is a result of a chain of routine corrupt activities, typical for Ukrainian educational and state bureaucracy.

The situation has gotten so much attention that Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, signed a special order on fire safety enforcement, prescribing, among other things, better protection and control over fire safety in educational institutions. This is unlikely to help, however. Presidential orders do not provide money for paying heating bills, and thus no higher education institution is safe from risks of future fire. Students, faculty and staff will have to choose between classes and fire safety. In the meantime, as the tradition dictates, the Odesa regional committee will discuss how to postpone the winter examination session and extend holidays for the burnt college’s students.

Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fellow of the Institute of International Education, and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption and sexual harassment in education.

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