“The main thing is not the walls, the main thing is the people” – displaced universities in a war zone

Vitaly Nosok, senior advisor in the Ukraine government, explains how some Ukrainian universities at the front line were moved in their entirety to safer areas

Vitaly Nosok is Senior Advisor within the Ministry of Education and Sciences in Ukraine, focused specifically on higher education

February 24, 2022 turned out to be a terrible day for Ukraine and the whole world. But for the sphere of higher education of Ukraine, it also had a double meaning.

By coincidence, on February 23, 2022, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine adopted an order approving the Strategy for the Development of Higher Education – a document on which the expert community worked for several years. And February 24 was supposed to be the first day of its implementation.

A full-scale invasion changed everything in one fell swoop. It did not change the key strategic goals and vision of higher education of Ukraine. Those goals are competitive and socially responsible higher education of Ukraine, which has high trust within society; forms the professional and scientific and educational potential of the country through the implementation of high-quality educational programs, research and social projects; integrated into the European educational and research space; demonstrates the dynamic development of institutions and academic communities based on the principles of academic freedom, university autonomy, integrity and inclusiveness. But it definitely changed the terms and steps to achieve the set goals.

For most universities in Ukraine, the events of February 24 were a shock and a big surprise, especially for those who were closer to the zone of active hostilities, which at that time was expanding unpredictably and uncontrollably. But there were also universities for which such events had a bitter familiarity. Those were the already “displaced universities”, which appeared eight years before the full-scale invasion – in 2014.

The case of Donetsk National University

It all started at the end of September 2014, at the Donetsk National University (Donetsk, East Part of Ukraine), when an extraordinary meeting of the University’s Academic Council was convened, which was invaded by armed men claiming they had come on behalf of the “minister of Education of the donetsk* people republic.” They brought with them one of the university’s associate professors – stating that he would be the newly appointed rector of the university and “from Monday the university will come under the jurisdiction of the donetsk people republic.”

At that time, those events were regarded by the majority of the academic community as surreal, but the presence of automatic weapons did not encourage academic debates. Those who did not agree with the changes were made to resign from the university and were encouraged to leave the city. It should be noted that this was in fact a generous offer, as since then, those who do not agree with the “policy of the authorities” could expect what was called “an exciting trip to the basement” from which no-one ever returned.

The actual Rector and part of the team, recognizing that it was not possible to cooperate with this kind of “authority”, made the difficult decision (because many of them had worked at the university all their lives) to leave the university and temporarily leave the city – until the return of power, which they expected very soon. At that time, the “new leadership” was enjoying their seizure of power, and those who wanted to resign were let go without any obstacles.

Teachers and students who managed to leave the occupied city decided to appeal to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine with an initiative to temporarily relocate the university to safer territories. Although that was initially a small group – the rector of the university, several deans, employees and students – their active position led to the fact that by mid-September, the Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, Serhiy Kvit, released the following statement:

I inform you that the Ministry of Education and Science is currently working on a project to transfer Donetsk National University to one of the other regions of Ukraine. It is about the fact that its rector, the vast majority of students and teachers took a principled patriotic position. They want to preserve their university as an institution with its own academic traditions and to develop it further.

Despite having lost its entire material and technical base which remained in occupied Donetsk, by 3 November, 2014, the Donetsk National University resumed its educational activities in the central part of Ukraine in the city of Vinnytsia. 70 per cent of the thousand teaching staff and 60 per cent of 14,000 university students managed to move there.

Moreover, as soon as there was a message about the planned resumption of the university’s activities, the occupation authorities in Donetsk introduced strict prohibitions for staff at the occupied university in order to prevent any contact with those colleagues who had transferred to the re-opened university. Additional controls and individual inspections were created for those employees who were dismissed – so that they did not take with them the property of the university – especially educational materials.

More face displacement

This successful case of moving the university became an example that such an option is possible, and provided encouragement for moving other educational institutions out of the war zone if necessary. Since 2014, as a result of the temporary occupation of the territories of Donetsk, Luhansk Oblasts, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, 19 institutions of higher education have been relocated – including one institution of higher education from the temporarily occupied Crimea.

Eight years later, on February 24, 2022, when the full scale invasion by russia started, some institutions of higher education again faced the terrible reality of displacement. For the leadership of universities and employees of the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine this was an extremely difficult task. In Ukraine there is a wide geographical location and a large network of higher education institutions. There are about seven higher education institutions – universities, academies and institutes – per one million in the population. So the task was to do everything possible to ensure the safety of staff and students of several institutions at the same time, whilst infrastructure was under attack and war atrocities affected everyone across the East of Ukraine.

The Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine immediately provided instructions regarding the organisation of the activities of educational institutions during the legal regime of martial law. From February 25, 2022, all civilian educational institutions were recommended to stop the educational process and announce vacations for two weeks. At the same time, higher military educational institutions were instructed to carry out early certification and graduation of cadets who received higher military education.

Thus, the system of higher and professional pre-higher education of Ukraine has proven its stability and ability to adapt in extremely difficult conditions. By April 2022, the educational process was resumed in most institutions in the West, North and South, though much of it in a distance format. At the same time, the process of moving institutions of higher and professional pre-higher education started, in areas in the East that were close to the line of active hostilities or were at risk of temporary occupation continued.

As a result of the full-scale aggression from Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, certain regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv regions, which are temporarily occupied or where active hostilities continue, 31 institutions of higher education and 94 institutions of professional pre-higher state education, communal and private ownership were able to organise their activities and educational process in new cities. As of 1 November 2023, 19,485 students are continuing their studies in relocated educational institutions by educational degrees.

*Please note that Ukrainian authors often do not use capitals when naming russian or pro-russian entities.

Leave a Reply