ANALYSIS UKRAINIAN UNIVERSITIES
Deep wounds, but perseverance in Ukrainian higher education: 'Don't forget about us'
The damage to Ukrainian education is tremendous, but the determination to continue is just as big. While the international community of higher education expresses its support, Russia becomes an academic pariah.
The war in Ukraine has already been raging for a year now. While the fear of of a big Russian spring offensive is growing, the damage to the country has become massive. In the east Ukraine is broken, while in other parts of the country its people are trying to continue daily life as much as possible.
This applies to students and professors as well. Even higher education in Ukraine does everything in its power to keep its head above water. The wounds are deep, but perseverance prevails.
While the international academic community holds out an olive branch to Ukraine and blocks collaboration with Russia, Ukrainian academics fight for their country in various ways.
From distance learning to martial law
After the outbreak of the war, it quickly became clear that Russia does not take international law as seriously: civilian targets were warp and weft, schools filled with children included.
The damage to Ukrainian educationis massive. At the time of publication, 2,698 educational institutions have been damaged 411 of those totally destroyed. Many universities have also taken a hit, especially in the eastern regions of the country.
'We must not be forgotten: our compatriots are dying'
Volodymyr Dybovyk, Professor of International Politics
'The first two weeks we did not give any classes, but rather quickly we decided we had to continue no matter what', says Volodymyr Dubovyk, Professor of International Politics at the Odessa Mechnikov National University. At the moment, he is a visiting professor at The Fletcher School.
Since many institutions have been damaged, and many students and lecturers have fled or moved, the main focus is online education: 'Fortunately, the covid pandemic has already prepared us for that,' says Dubovyk. 'Morale was very low for a while, but it is important for students to be able to continue working.'
During our video call with the professor, the Ukrainian flag hangs proudly on the wall. 'It's important for me to spread awareness about the war, including with the many lectures I give these days', he says, 'so I try to be constantly busy and help in my own way. We must not be forgotten: our compatriots are dying.'
'I would've lost my mind a long time ago if I had stopped'
Ukraine is currently under martial law, which is preventing many male students and teachers from going abroad, since they are being drummed up to fight. Professors and school teachers, however, seem to be generally exempt from this, in order to continue to play their important social role.
But the working conditions are far from ideal. In addition to material and psychological damage, there is also a great lack of resources: 'Obviously, the national budget now mainly goes to defense and facilities,' says Professor of Theology Taras Tymo, Vice Dean of Internationalization at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He himself obtained his master's degree in theology at KU Leuven in 2001.
'KU Leuven was one of the first universities to express its support'
Taras Tymo, Vice Dean of Internationalisation at the Ukrainian Catholic University
'Our salary drops or disappears sharply, and our students are also struggling financially, of course', Tymo tells us. About 80 percent of academics still remain in the country according to him. According to many professors, continuing to practice their profession is of psychological importance: 'I would have lost my mind a long time ago if I had had to stop', says Dubovyk.
Ukraine is also traditionally a very highly educated country, with a high average of university graduates: 'The people at the front are the best of the best: young, motivated and very smart', says Dubovyk proudly, 'It is a shame that we are losing them.'
International community comes to the rescue
No sooner had the war broken out than it rained messages of support from Europe. 'KU Leuven was one of the first universities to express its support', Tymo recalls. Internationally, a lot of initiatives were taken to support Ukrainian education. In November 2022, Belgium also chipped in with a support package of 29 million euros for the reconstruction of Ukrainian schools.
Particularly helpful to academics is financial support, or the possibility of teaching remotely at friendly universities in the European Union. The relaxation of exchange programs could help alleviate the wounds.
'But it is difficult: on the one hand you don't want to tar all Russians with the same brush, but on the other hand every open door is an opportunity for the Russian propaganda machine to penetrate.'
Peter De Mey, Vice Dean of Internationalisation at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of KU Leuven: 'If we can provide that a Ukrainian student can come here not just for a whole semester, but also for two months to complete their studies, that is an important support.' Tymo agrees: 'We could really use research grants, grants or temporary teaching assignments from a distance.' Peter De Mey, Vice Dean of Internationalisation at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of KU Leuven:
That way it was unanimously decided within the Erasmus+ program - wherein European students are able to go on an exchange outside of the European Union - to free up more spaces for Ukrainians. Russia on the other hand is temporarily barred from virtually all European partnerships.
Unless the students were already in Belgium before the start of the war, most Russian students are not welcome anymore through exchange programs. Not all Russians support Putin, says Professor Tymo, 'But it is difficult: on the one hand you don't want to tar all Russians with the same brush, but on the other hand every open door is an opportunity for the Russian propaganda machine to penetrate.' Unless the students were already in Belgium before the start of the war,
KU Leuven steps into the breach
Today, 24 staff members and 144 students from Ukraine are working and studying at KU Leuven. At the beginning of the war, Dean Luc Sels expressed his support to the country in a general statement.
On February 23, Dean Luc Sels shared different initiatives of KU Leuven in an email. 'Multiple research groups have offered a temporary position to a displaced Ukrainian researcher and plenty of colleagues have personally dedicated themselves [to them].'
'Education is at the heart of a developing generation, education equals future'
Iryna Kushnir, researcher at Nottingham Trent University
'Immediately all partners and students of Leuven from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were registered', says Nynke Salverda of KU Leuven's International Office. Over the past year, she has been extensively involved with the issue. 'We started conducting new negotiations with the top universities of Ukraine. In total, we reached 10 new exchange agreements with Ukrainian universities in the past year', Salverda reveals.
In addition to that, the university set up an Emergency Fund after the invasion, of which the resources are being used to support fleeing Ukrainian students and researchers. In the meantime, the fund has already grown to half a million euros.
Don't forget about us
Iryna Kushnir, a researcher at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, is closely following the reaction of the international academic community to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In the West, the war has been strongly condemned by academics, especially the attacks on Ukrainian educational institutions. 'Education is at the heart of a developing generation, education equals future: one cannot afford not to condemn an attack on education.'
Kushnir sees an indirect role to be played by higher education in the struggle: 'You need education to create awareness and fight propaganda. Ethical research into truth is the cornerstone of academia, and it will continue to be important to protect Ukraine.'
Everyone against Russia
While Ukraine is receiving heaps of support, the cooperation with Russia has been frozen, and has often gone sour.
European states in the Erasmus + program have for example unanimously agreed to exclude Russia for the time being. 'I do feel that academics explicitly support Ukraine, and that is positive,' says Kushnir.
At the same time, people in Europe are trying to find ways to strengthen the critical voices in Russia that fight for social justice: 'When Europe decided to exclude Russia from the European Higher Education Area (EHEA, a group of 47 countries that work together for a compatible and comparable higher education throughout Europe, ed.), they also this starting from the question 'how can we help the students from Russia who call out the injustice against Ukraine and get punished for that?'
Can all Russians be tarred with the same brush as the imperial regime? 'The situation is of course complex,' says Tymo, 'but there is a penetration of that regime in all layers of society, including higher education.' He thinks it is responsible to temporarily close all doors to Russia.