President of Ukrainian top university: 'Western aid is causing a great brain drain'

Timofiy Milovanov is a former Minister of Economy of Ukraine, and president of the prestigious Kiev School of Economics. He appreciates support from Western academia, but warns for a brain drain: 'I do feel there is a little bit of academic racism at work here.'


'I am meeting the vice-prime minister today, so I don't have that much time', Dr. Timofiy Milovanov starts off. Between August 2019 and March 2020, Milovanov was the Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture of Ukraine.

Today he is president of the Kiev School of Economics, one of Ukraine's top universities. During a video call we talked about the situation of Ukraine's higher education, and how support from Western academia leaves much to be desired.

What is daily life like in Kiev at this moment?
'Well, except for the occasional air-alarm, it actually feels quite normal. Here at our university we conduct business as usual, but the topics are in fact more military. At the moment we are having a conference on de-mining, for example.'

'Mostly, the support is of a moral or symbolic kind'

'Daily life continues rather easily: we go to work, have meetings, relax at home and meet with friends on the weekends. Of course it wasn't like that in the first months of the war, but eventually you get used to the sirens, explosions-sounds and power outages. I think when the war is over, people are gonna realize how abnormal the situation was, and how traumatized we are. But the way we try to persevere is amazing.'

How do you feel higher education in Ukraine has reacted to this war?
'When speaking about my own university, the Kiev school of Economics, we are rather an exception to the rule. We have 70 percent of students in residence, whereas the national average is about 50 percent. I think we are a role model for others. We showcase that where there is will, there is a way.'

'We continue teaching physically, whereas a lot of other institutions have opted for online-lectures. But a lot of people are misplaced, or have fled the country. A lot of academic personnel have gone abroad as well. These things pose a challenge.'

How do you experience the support from the international higher education community?
'We have received a lot of support, as well as great willingness to help us out. Be it in meaningful programs or funding. Some universities have also set up new partnerships with institutions. Mostly, the support is of a moral or symbolic kind though. But there are a few examples of partnerships that are turning into something great. You see examples of joint laboratories, student exchanges and shared diploma's.'

'However, there is a negative side to all of this. The way the international academic community has responded was certainly well-intentioned, but not very productive. What often happens is that institutions offer scholarships or exchanges for the most talented Ukrainian students and faculties. But that causes a brain drain.'

'We want to develop Ukraine, we don't want to strip Ukraine of talent'

'The focus is on people that exit Ukraine, and that's dangerous. Instead, they should have focused on setting up institutional relationships with Ukrainian universities. We have a partnership with the University of Massachusetts for example. In the Virtual Scholar in Residence Program, we provide a mechanism for Ukrainian scholars to collaborate with research centers and faculties on scholarly topics of mutual interest.'

'So instead of granting a position for someone leaving Ukraine, the academics can stay with their family and country. But at the same time they can continue writing papers, teaching and producing output. I think that's the best way to help: to enable Ukrainian universities to collaborate with fellow academics and remain competitive. Ofcourse, it's important to aid those who wish to leave the country, but not all funds should go towards facilitating a brain drain.'

This brain drain, how serious do you feel this could be?
'It's a really big problem, even though people are not really talking about it. We want to develop Ukraine, we don't want to strip Ukraine of talent. I think this approach is coming from an assumption that, whenever a tragedy occurs, the best you can do is get people out of the country. '

'As an academic you are human, and you want to contribute to the people around you, even to those in your 'lesser' country'

'But that destroys the country in question. If you do this every time something bad happens in a country, you end with a failed state. Instead you have to support those who stay in the country.'

Do many people share your opinion about that?
'I am definitely a minority, because that's not how most people think of it. When you sit in Chicago or Boston or New York, Ukraine is an abstract concept, an unknown third world country. Until recently many might not even have known about it. I don't want to sound radical, but I do feel there is a little bit of academic racism at work here.'

'In academia there sometimes is in fact a problem of snobbism and arrogance. You are respected if you end up on a high spot in international rankings, and publish in high impact journals. The bigger universities have a tendency to look down at others.'

'The fact that we can continue teaching even during the war, also sends a strong message to the Russians'

'You already have this hierarchy between countries in the developed world. And then when looking over across the border, there is always the following assumption: what good could there be gained for talented people in a third world country? The best they can do, obviously, is leave and go to a top university. That is the reasoning you often hear.'

'But as an academic you are human, and you want to contribute to the people around you, even to those in your 'lesser' country. I have indeed seen a lot of great scholars do a lot of great things in their own country. That's not very well recognized by some world-class academic institutions.'

Do you feel Ukrainian higher education is being underestimated then?
'I must admit that it's a very heterogeneous landscape. We have these legacy universities from the Soviet period, where academic integrity and corruption are worrisome. There is not a lot of money involved in those institutions, it's not really merit-based education. Those universities should indeed be shut down.'

'But at the same time there are good institutions to be found. They may not be world-class, but they are more than decent. People really need a more detailed and nuanced knowledge of our country.'

You spoke about the way research topics become more military. Do you feel higher education has a role to play in this war?
'Morale is very important. A high morale is not an isolated concept: it needs to be reinforced by people feeling that they are together and unified. They need to be able to be proud of themselves and their nation.'

'We know that in Russia power changes hands when leaders make mistakes'

'The fact that we can continue teaching even during the war, also sends a strong message to the Russians. Their universities are collapsing as we speak. Corruption thrives there, all the while students are brainwashed. There are cases where students express discontent with government policies, fellow students report on them and they get sent to prison.'

'Higher education in Russia is quickly deteriorating and moving towards supporting the propaganda machine. In Ukraine it's different. We are seeing an evolution where higher education rises to the challenge of the war, and tries to be even more relevant to society, in terms of both education and research. I think that sends a strong message.'

What are your hopes for the following months?
'I hope Russia implodes, either militarily or politically. We have seen it before with Janoekovitsj, the Russian proxy president of Ukraine. Eventually things escalated, protests appeared and we had a revolution. That was a very dark time for Ukraine: the first time we realized we had to trade lives for freedom.'

'Now we are paying with our lives every day. I don't think everyone really grasps this: every day Ukrainian citizens die. There is a price to be paid, but Russia is under so much pressure, on so many fronts. Something has to happen.'

'We know that in Russia power changes hands when leaders make mistakes. We just don't know when it will happen, and how long we will have to wait.'

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