There are ways for UK universities to help in Gaza as they did in Ukraine

Supporting Ukraine has taught the UK sector lessons about how HE can help in other international humanitarian crises. Paula Sanderson shares how it can be done

Paula Sanderson is a Halpin fellow

News updates on the invasion of Ukraine have slowed and I fear war in Ukraine has become normalised.

Reporting of the invasion of Kharkiv in May particularly hit home, as I recollected interviewing some incredible women (always women!) from universities in Kharkiv, including many that had stepped up to lead their universities as their male counterparts were called to the front line. I recall interrupted interviews as sirens signalled incoming attacks and, of course, the harrowing stories that come with war. I recall brave, resilient, and incredible women protecting students, staff, and research infrastructure and working to retain the right to education.

The UK sector – particularly with the support of the Twinning Scheme, brainchild of Charles Cormack – came together in a way that had never been seen before. The breadth of response was significant, with funders, regulators, government agencies, universities, and both private sector and charitable organisations coming together to support the Ukrainian sector.

That support, quite naturally, raised questions as to why we had not responded similarly to other crises. Those questions are again being raised. With over 70 per cent of higher education infrastructure in Gaza now destroyed, why have we not seen a similar response from the sector.

Limits of unity

The situation is more complex, more political, playing out on our campuses in a more conflicted way. A unified response is more challenging. This is undoubtedly limiting the response. What can we learn from the response to Ukraine? What can we play forward if we support the view, articulated in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that access to education should be maintained through emergency situations. Research, commissioned by UUKi in 2023, designed to be a lessons learnt exercise, sought to answer some of these questions.

The research identified three factors which differentiated the response to Ukraine: co-ordination, a favourable policy environment, and the availability of funding. Funding, particularly through the Twinning Scheme, was no doubt a catalyst for some truly impactful partnerships. The research highlighted a range of sector cases studies which we feel should be built upon as a repository of good practice.

The positive visa regime brought in by the UK government provided opportunities that we have not seen in other humanitarian crises. We have seen no such softening of the visa regulations in the case of Gaza and, in fact, the very infrastructure to support legal migration from Gaza has gone, the offices destroyed, and people displaced.

Led, by the fantastic team at UUKi, alongside the UK Humanitarian Group, the Cormack Group, CARA and others, some coordination is taking place. That coordination provides the foundations for universities to share experiences and to connect those wishing to join together in taking action. We are starting to see the coordinated, connected, and partnership approach that defined our response to Ukraine. Cormack is connecting those who would like to twin with Universities in Gaza (contact Charles Cormack here). Without funding, the impact will be less, but there will be impact.

The British Council Higher Education Scholarships for Palestinians (HESPAL) will open again in 2024. Universities, even in their own challenging financial circumstances, are offering scholarships and fellowships to Gazan scholars, pledging additional support to Hespal, and supporting their existing Palestinian partnerships where possible. Universities in the West Bank are providing additional access to resources and teaching for their Gazan colleagues, and CCG is exploring options for a supportive partnership approach between UK and West Bank universities. Most displaced scholars won’t make it to the UK, however, nor may they want to, and so there are also options to consider supporting through existing TNE partnerships or access to online courses and modules.

Humanitarian framework

One output of the research was the development of the UK Higher Education Humanitarian Framework. The framework drew on a range of previous humanitarian responses and was informed by academic research. It positions those needing humanitarian support as the guiding force in the sector response to humanitarian need, ensuring that accountability is to affected people.

It acknowledges the pivotal role of the policy and regulatory environment as underpinning the strength and scale of any response, and centres networks and partnerships as being absolutely core to a coordinated response. It provides a critical lens for those wishing to respond whilst aiming to ensure that institutions, partnerships, and the sector consider the full cycle of engagement in any humanitarian response. It has been designed to have relevance and applicability at the university, partnership, and sector level.

It was our ambition that the framework be a starting point – something to be used and improved. The UK HE Humanitarian Group has picked up that framework, a framework that we feel will be better refined over time and as it is used in different crises. What is clear is that the scale of response that is needed will require both national and international coordination. Listening and understanding the context, connecting and preparing ourselves for long term support are key to the framework and to the work of the group.

You can read the report Responding to international humanitarian crises and download the humanitarian framework here.

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