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International students should not ‘suffer consequences’ of government action

Educators globally are grappling with how they can back Ukraine as Putin’s army continues its invasion of the country, but also ensure that Russian students and individual academics do not feel ostracised.

Outreach to both Russian and Ukrainian students is "essential", NAFSA highlighted. Photo: pexels

Individual academics may choose to remain in contact but outside the framework of an institutional agreement and without direct institutional support

“Neither Ukrainian nor Russian students studying abroad should be forced to suffer individual consequences as a result of their government’s actions,” said Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA.

“Closing off one’s country to students, researchers, and scholars is misguided and counterproductive to building long-term peace and stability,” she said.

“International educators have an important role to play as this conflict continues and during the recovery phase, as building understanding and connectedness on campus and across borders is at the core of our work.”

“It is essential to remember that Putin does not equate Russia”

“It is essential to remember that Putin does not equate Russia,” Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight in the UK, told The PIE.

“People-to-people relations are at the heart of global engagement, and these relations are likely to sustain in the long run when all else fails,” she said.

“What is most pressing is support for the Ukrainian and other students in the UK affected by the war. Many, if not all, are likely to have families trying to get to safety, stranded in the occupied major cities or fighting.

“Some might have lost their loved ones. None of them have a home to go back to. They need all the support universities and the UK can offer,” she said.

A number of institution’s have cut ties with institutions in Russia, including MIT, the Australian National University ending agreements with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the National Research University of Higher School Economics, while The University of Edinburgh and Warwick in the UK are reviewing collaborations.

Governments in Germany and Denmark said they would suspend all cooperation with institutions in Russia, while on March 4 the European Commission and the government of Norway said cooperation with Russian entities in research, science and innovation would be halted.

This includes new contracts and agreements with Russian organisations under the Horizon Europe program. Other providers such as Pearson, which runs academic testing, has suspended the sale and delivery of products and services in both Russia and Belarus.

In Germany, DAAD said it would stop applications for Russia scholarships and cancelling the selection for DAAD scholarships to Russia, but it appears that some stipends have been restored.

DAAD told The PIE News that it is stopping applications for scholarships from Germany to Russia for German student and scientists, and cancelling any further selection for DAAD scholarships to Russia. Additionally, German DAAD scholarship holders who have already been selected cannot currently receive financial support for a planned stay in Russia.

“Direct DAAD scholarships from Russia to Germany are not affected,” a spokesperson clarified. “Furthermore, all DAAD scholarship holders from Russia who are already in Germany will continue to receive funding.”

The DAAD expects German universities to “suspend their DAAD-funded project activities with partner institutions in Russia and Belarus – except individual mobility from Russia to Germany”, they added.

A Russian student in the UK studying at an institution in London told The Observer that she “felt ashamed and wanted to disappear” when a lecturer spoke about the invasion.

The ministry of Education and Science in Ukraine has also urged the international scientific community to end cooperation with Russian institutions.

Director of the UK’s Centre for Global Higher Education Simon Marginson told The Guardian that most academics would support a research boycott with heavy hearts and concerns for Russian colleagues.

Universities UK International has said it does not support the application of blanket academic boycotts that “prevent academics collaborating with other academics as a means of protest against the actions of their governments”.

It has advised members on March 3 to “review current and planned activities involving Russian partners in the light of recent developments”, using its guidance on Managing Risks in Internationalisation, while adding that decisions on collaborations be made on a case-by-case basis.

“We recognise that many education and research partnerships are often based on academic peer-to peer relationships, and note that many Russian students and academics, at great personal peril, have publicly criticised this invasion,” UUKi added.

NAFSA, too, has said that each situation needs to be evaluated carefully as the nature of the cooperation varies. Projects based on close cooperation with state institutions would raise more concerns, it said.

Industry commentator, Alan Preece, who has criticised the slow reaction of some in the sector to the invasion, said that “suspending relationships between institutions would be an immediate and clear signal that international collaboration and its attendant prestige comes with boundaries and expectations”.

However, he accepted that it is not a simple matter, there are “undoubtedly nuances” and specific circumstances which may need to be taken into account, while “some individuals on all sides may find the suspending of institutional agreements problematic”.

Asked what practical actions he would have liked to see from universities and umbrella organisations, he said that “it is possible to be decisive”, by following the lead of MIT and Warwick.

“Institutions have been slow or failed to indicate they are even considering what practical action they might take to signal their rejection of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he said.

“Umbrella organisations have struggled to keep up. Even today, the Russell Group website has no statement at all about the situation and UUK needed prodding to say something.”

Individual Russian students should still be able to study with and apply to overseas universities and be treated as any other student, he stated, while individual academics may choose to remain in contact but outside the framework of an institutional agreement and without direct institutional support.

“I am wholly sympathetic to the point that individuals in Russia may also oppose the actions of their government,” he told The PIE.

“But that is quite different to institutions continuing to engage in ways that advance the prestige and inclusion of a higher education system that is substantially funded by that government.”

UK boarding and independent schools have previously warned that Russian pupils at UK private schools ‘terrified’ of being ostracised by classmates after the invasion of Ukraine.

UK lawmakers have said that “those specifically attached to Putin” should not be permitted to enrol their children in top schools and elite universities in the UK. However, Robert Halfon, Conservative chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told i that he “would rather as tough measures as possible are put on the oligarchs, the relevant individuals, rather than the children”.

The Chronicle in the US has also reported that a suggestion to expel Russian students from the country has been panned by sector stakeholders.

NAFSA said that individual students are not government officials.

“Outreach to both groups of students is essential”

“Dealing with armed conflict at home while studying abroad is extremely difficult and disorienting,” the organisation added.

“Outreach to both groups of students is essential… Acknowledging each group’s differences but, also emphasising their shared commonalities as international students in a third country could help diffuse tensions somewhat.”

Finding ways to support both Ukrainian and Russian scholars and students through this crisis and not feel “guilty” about being away is also critical, it continued.

International education’s direct, person-to-person interaction is essential to building a “more just, peaceful world and citizenry”, Brimmer stated, adding that colleges and universities will “continue to serve as a safe haven for people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to engage”.

They are also places “where all students and scholars affected by this crisis can find support”, she noted.

Update 18:00 GMT: Russell Group spokesperson said:

The events of the last few days have been deeply troubling for everyone involved and our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. Since the start of the invasion, our members have prioritised support for staff and students in the UK or overseas who have been affected, and they will continue to do so for as long as this is needed.

 “As a matter of urgency, Russell Group universities are also reviewing any collaborations or other links they may have had with Russia and will take appropriate action.”

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