UK universities can go further to support the resilience of Ukrainian higher education

Gwen van der Velden and Bo Kelestyn paint a picture of the challenges faced by Ukraine universities, and introduce a new series of articles exploring how the UK can continue to offer help

Gwen van der Velden was until recently deputy pro vice chancellor for education at the University of Warwick. She is currently on sabbatical as co-leader of the Leadership for Educational Transformation programme for 40 education leaders from Ukraine

Bo Kelestyn is Associate Professor at the Warwick Business School and co-leader of the Leadership for Educational Transformation programme for education leaders from Ukraine

As of 24 February it has been two years since the full-scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine.

Many universities in the UK have supported their counterparts in Ukraine by twinning with universities, providing refuge for Ukrainian academics and offering places and scholarships for Ukrainian students. Two years on, the impact of war on universities continues and we’re taking stock of what the impact has been on the sector in Ukraine and how UK universities can and already are making a continued contribution to Ukrainian resilience.

By August 2023 four universities were destroyed and 81 damaged. Since then, attacks have continued and civilian structures increasingly targeted. Students and staff have moved to universities in relatively safer areas, leading to overpopulation in some universities. Especially in high-risk zones, online learning has become standard, whilst in other areas a mix of provision is in place. We know from our own Covid experience that this has serious consequences for students’ effective learning and the likelihood of continuing study. Against a background of war with all its complications the impact on university staff and students is obviously even greater.

The reality for students and staff is that daily life almost anywhere in Ukraine is constantly interrupted by air raid sirens, meaning that shelter needs to be sought. The Christmas attacks on Lviv in the West of Ukraine illustrate that no area in Ukraine can be understood to be truly “safe” anymore. Students’ family members may be more directly affected also, with brothers, fathers and friends being drafted into military service, or worse, having lost family members or friends to missile or other attacks.

University education is disrupted, but depending on geography, so are healthcare, childcare, transport and supply infrastructures – affecting everyone’s life in a multitude of ways. Very many students have relocated in-country for (family) safety reasons or due to the loss of their housing. In total six to eight million learners across the entire education sector are displaced in-country, and a similar number now lives abroad.

And yet, the higher education community in Ukraine is showing the resilience we have seen from the whole of Ukraine over the last two years. Universities followed President Zelensky’s now famous words “miy tut” meaning “we are here” and continued their work. Some universities immediately affected by war have moved and been welcomed in other cities, supported by local universities. Others have welcomed staff into their communities. In-country, many displaced students have been accepted by other universities while internationally displaced students continue to study online. Many have been transferred to universities where they now live and within the UK and other countries, universities have been equally generous in offering funded places, for staff as well as students.

Much has been done and more can be done

Some specific efforts in the UK have been created by Ukraine to support academics and students in the UK. One is the Fund of the President of Ukraine aimed at building global Ukrainian talent. It funds – among other things – the Ukrainian Diaspora Network for Ukrainian academics in the UK. The network is an excellent way for the displaced academic community to connect, share opportunities and link to Ukrainian HE interests. From within the UK, the British Academy together with CARA launched the Researchers at Risk Fellowship scheme which has supported 117 academics and 200 dependents with employment in UK universities, working with 77 UK institutions.

The British Council and the President’s Fund are currently piloting Leaders of University Transformation for Ukraine’s Reinvention (LUTUR), at Cardiff University, whilst the University of Warwick is supporting a programme for education leaders on educational transformation during war time – funded by the university itself. This programme is working in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Sciences, the Ukrainian Leadership Academy, Ministry of Digital Transformation and the Western NS Enterprise Fund. Many other universities have twinning arrangements with Ukrainian institutions and are working in various ways to continue to support the sector under fire.

Whilst the ongoing war requires universities to change considerably, such change sits against a longer process of educational transformation which started for higher education around 2013. Harmonisation of standards with Europe rather than Russia were introduced, alongside considerable changes to the financing of institutions. New quality assurance mechanisms were set up and mobility and internationalisation became a focus for both teaching and research. Various HE related laws have been introduced since then and change continues.

Even without the war and its constant impact, Ukraine has such a variety of institutions and challenges that policy driven nationwide change is exceptionally complex. The sector has relied on private as well as state institutions, with sizeable differences in quality and standards, and a legacy of Russian bureaucratic systems and processes. Following a stream of corruption incidents, the university sector (with a few exceptions) is not seen to be trustworthy, and in recent years several high-profile national figures have rescinded their degrees due to plagiarism and corruption. Governance and senior appointment structures of universities and related institutions are part of the vexing problem of seeking greater transparency and integrity, and these are all aspects that successive governments have focused on.

As Ukraine moves ever closer to the EU, the emphasis on changing sector provision, governance, transparent funding arrangements, access to HE and the quality and standards of academic programmes has gained considerable speed. In one aspect particularly progress has already been made: institutions now have an autonomy which before 2014 would have been impossible. Not unrelated, there is now a stronger “core” of HEIs which aids the modernisation of the sector.

At this moment a new law is going through its second reading in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) which recasts the HE sector’s financing, access and responsibilities. In a future article, the Deputy Minister of Education and Sciences in Ukraine, Dr Mychailo Wynnyckyj, will provide a fuller insight into the intended changes. In the coming weeks, other colleagues will also share their expertise on Ukrainian HE. Ivanna Kurtyk, deputy chief executive of the influential Ukrainian Leadership Academy has given an insight into development opportunities in Ukraine for educational leadership. Tetiana Vakulenko, the chief executive of one of the quality agencies will describe the challenges her organisation faces, and how she believes UK institutions and colleagues can be of support in new thinking about quality and standards – which will be closer to the UK model than before. An esteemed academic colleague, Dr Dmytro Chumachenko, National Aerospace Kharkiv Aviation Institute, will give an insight into the importance of UK-Ukraine research collaborations. Several other colleagues will also share their knowledge and expertise, all with the intention of ensuring the UK and Ukrainian sector can continue to work together and support the independent future of Ukraine.


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