The UK higher education sector has been vociferous in its response to the invasion of Ukraine.
There were statements made in support of the people and universities of Ukraine, and robust condemnation of Russia. Sanctions followed shortly after. Projects were paused and agreements were suspended. At UUKi, we wrote to the President of the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) to suspend a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between our respective organisations. Hardship support was offered to students and funding provided for displaced researchers.
Early in the conflict, UUKi convened a cross-sector group on Ukraine to identify issues affecting staff, students and institutions as a result of the invasion – and, more importantly, to help coordinate efforts to resolve these problems. The group brought together universities, government departments, charities, sector agencies and funders to work out who needed to do what in response to the crisis. It was all vitally important but necessarily reactive work, and there was a nagging suspicion that there had to be a better way of using the immense outpouring of support and goodwill in more coherent, coordinated way.
The question that kept arising was: what do institutions, students and academics in Ukraine need?
The twinning concept
Enter the indefatigable Charles Cormack and the team at CCG, who had extensive links in the region and who first came up with the idea of twinning institutions. Along with several UK universities, they were keen to offer material assistance to the higher education community in Ukraine – but given the scale of the disaster being inflicted it wasn’t clear what practical, tangible support would have a genuine impact. Given the uncertainty, the best option was to ask their institutions what they might need from the UK, and so on 15 March UUKi joined with CCG to convene a meeting with Ukrainian universities.
The stories of courage, fortitude, and downright tenacity in the face of unimaginable horror are simply incredible. As the world watched in horror as the invasion unfolded, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv was closed for barely a half-term. By April, they had not only reopened but planned and launched a completely new exhibition exploring how the experience of conflict affects the interpretation and understanding of art. The message we received was, therefore, clear: they wanted to continue operating, they wanted to avoid the loss of the future talent that would be vital to the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war, and they wanted (as far as possible) to get back to doing what they were meant to be doing. And the UK could help them do this.
It was from these conversations that the UK-Ukraine University twinning initiative took shape, and the basic idea is relatively simple. Universities that want to take part in the scheme are matched with a partner. They agree a tailored package of support and commitments, which is then formalised in a five-year twinning agreement. The partnerships are facilitated in their first year by CCG – with a rolling programme of intensive support and coordination in the early months to help ensure that twinning process proceeds as smoothly as possible.
So what have the 70+ partnerships committed to do?
The list is long and varied. They are helping to physically rebuild campuses of Ukrainian universities that have been damaged and destroyed. They are enabling Ukrainian academics to continue teaching and undertaking research, hosted in UK laboratories and classrooms. They are offering access to academic resources such as libraries and to technical equipment, and helping to preserve Ukrainian archives and cultural assets. And more than 1,500 Ukrainian students are expected to attend summer schools at UK campuses. But the aim is that while these partnerships offer short-term relief, they can become long-term strategic partnerships that grow to play a key role in the reconstruction of Ukraine – hence the five-year commitment. Beyond universities themselves, the wider sector response has been equally positive, with the likes of Jisc and Sconul playing a key role in facilitating access to electronic resources.
The progress that has been made in such a short time, the breadth and scale of the commitments being made, and the energy and enthusiasm with which these partnerships are being pursued by the academic communities in both Ukraine and here in the UK all represent a great start – but more is needed. Over 140 Ukrainian institutions have expressed an interest in the twinning scheme, and as the war continues the need for long-term investment in and support for the relationships will become acute.
The UK government has announced support for the twinning scheme and a welcome expansion of the Researchers at Risk scheme, while private donors have established funds to support students and researchers. Refugee Education UK is developing a platform to make it easier for displaced students – and not just those from Ukraine – to find information on scholarships from across the UK sector, hopefully providing a legacy that will continue to have an impact beyond the current crisis. And organisations such as the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) – which has been supporting displaced academics since the 1930s regardless of geography – continue to provide an invaluable service, and it’s one we could all do more to support.
And this, I think, is the crux of the matter. There are other conflicts, there will be other humanitarian disasters in the future. The incredible response to the crisis in Ukraine has shown the impact that the sector can have when the ambition, energy and expertise of universities are in sync with government policy and public opinion. It is incumbent on us to learn from the response to the invasion of Ukraine to see how universities, government, and civil society can – collectively – be better prepared to respond to crises in the future.