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The war in Ukraine and higher education – one year on

“If the air raid siren goes off, we have to go to the bunker. Even if you are in class, you have to go to the bunker.” 

The geopolitical tensions of the conflict played out across the international education world. Photo: Unsplash.

With so many young people leaving the country, the risk of brain drain is high

Utkarsh Singh, a 23-year old Indian national, speaks from a hostel in Western Ukraine. He is in the same region as he was one year ago, when Russian troops stormed into the country in an invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions. 

Singh was one of the displaced, fleeing the country alongside Ukrainians and other international students who, like him, had been attending one of the country’s 240 universities open to foreigners.  

In the year that passed, as Ukrainians suffered devastating losses, the geopolitical tensions of the conflict played out across the international education world. Globally, universities simultaneously took in new students and cut ties with Russian institutions. Russia accelerated its international student recruitment drive as those foreign students already in the country struggled under sanctions. 

Although much has changed, after losing the fight to continue his education outside of Ukraine, Singh is back where he started. 

One year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, The PIE looks at how the international education sector responded to the war and the wide-reaching consequences for students and academics. 

Ukrainian students and academics

As Ukrainians fled their homes in the wake of the invasion, countries opened their borders to welcome them. With an estimated 83% of Ukrainians between the ages of 18-24 enrolled in higher education before the war, students began to look for ways to continue learning. 

The European Students’ Union sprung into action coordinating with the Ukrainian union and student groups in the neighbouring countries to respond. 

“At the national and local level, [they] helped with the bulk of the welcoming and also negotiating with governments for special funds,” said Matteo Vespa, president of the ESU. 

The organisation then launched a hotline for students as well as an online repository listing all the support available from various countries for students leaving Ukraine. The student groups later worked to increase Erasmus funding for Ukrainians. 

Meanwhile, universities quickly opened their doors to both students and academics. In a 2022 survey, the European University Association found that, out of 24 respondents, 21 European countries had implemented programs to host students and academics, including subsidising accommodation and offering language courses. In Germany, “extensive counselling” has been provided to refugee students, according to the German Rectors‘ Conference. 

In the UK, Ukrainian refugees have been granted home fee status, allowing them to study at British universities without paying international tuition costs. 

Institutions in North America also launched scholarship schemes and subsidised programs for Ukrainian refugees, with Canada’s University of Alberta completely waiving tuition fees for Ukrainian international students. There have also been efforts to accommodate Ukrainian academics, with Scholars at Risk supporting displaced academics to work at American institutions. 

But, in recent months, there are signs that goodwill towards Ukrainians is dwindling in places. In Canada, pro-Russian graffiti has been found on some campuses alongside reports from Ukrainian students of verbal harassment. 

Since September, some Ukrainian students have also been prevented from leaving the country due to restrictions at the border. Some have subsequently been thrown out of European universities, after failing to arrive for enrolment. 

In Ukraine, education continues despite the destruction of war. Over 3,000 institutions have suffered damage from shelling, and Kharkiv University has been hit by Russian bombs. But many universities continue to deliver courses, with some students attending remotely. 

Over 100 British universities have now signed up to a twinning scheme to support these institutions, from sending ambulances to designing underground shelters. 

Rachel Sandison, deputy vice chancellor of external engagement at the University of Glasgow, which is partnered with three Ukrainian universities, told The PIE in February that the program had been “completely transformational” for all partners. 

“This is not something we are doing for today. This is something we are doing for tomorrow and beyond,” Sandison said.

Students from Ukraine, including Swansea University’s partner, Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, in Swansea. Photo: Swansea University.

With so many young people leaving the country, the risk of brain drain is high. The Ukrainian Global University has now been established with government support to create scholarships for students who commit to return to Ukraine after their studies to rebuild the country. “Young people and a robust academic community are critical for rebuilding countries after the war,” the Coimbra Group warned after the initial invasion. 

International students in Ukraine 

There were an estimated 76,000 international students in Ukraine at the time of the invasion, drawn to the country by the offer of comparatively cheap courses taught in English. Medical studies were particularly popular with students from South Asia and Africa, where university capacities are often low in comparison to youth population rates. 

These foreign students began to evacuate the country in February 2022, but leaving the country proved difficult. Some experienced racism at the border and were denied access to transportation. A group of African students were also trapped in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, and took to social media to beg for help. 

Since then, many students have struggled to continue their studies, particularly those enrolled in medical courses. While the Irish and Moroccan governments announced that they would integrate students who were studying in Ukraine back into their country’s institutions, governments in countries like India, which is home to a much larger affected cohort, said they didn’t have the capacity to let medical students continue studying there. 

“They were basically excluded from education”

“Even if they had a safe country to return to, they were basically excluded from education,” said Vespa. 

The Indian government also said that the qualifications of medical students studying at Ukrainian institutions remotely would not be recognised, as they would lack clinical experience. For Singh, five years into his degree, the news that he would not be able to practice medicine in India was devastating. Out of sheer desperation, he returned to Ukraine in October 2022, flying to Poland and travelling by land to Ukraine. 

Five days after he arrived, there was an attack on Ternopil, the city he lived in. 

“After that, there is a lot of problems with electricity, because Russia targeted all the infrastructure,” he said, adding that, for the next few months, air raid sirens were going off four or five times per day. 

Singh and his peers students have been told to be on high alert for an attack from Russia this week, given the symbolism of the date. “If there is a massive attack on Ukraine on February 24, then eventually we’ll have to run once again,” he said. “This time, the Indian government is not going to evacuate us, because we came here on our own.”

International students in Russia

The lives of the estimated 315,000 international students in Russia also changed overnight when the invasion happened. Students on short-term exchanges evacuated, with some facing convoluted journeys home, while swiftly-imposed international sanctions meant that students who remained in the country could no longer receive bank transfers from their families. 

The challenges continue for international students in Russia. Ongoing financial sanctions make international payments difficult while the cost of living has increased significantly. One Vietnamese student told The PIE in December that her friends were relying on exchanging cryptocurrency to access money. Flights are also limited, making travel in and out of the country challenging. 

Despite this, Russia has upped its recruitment drive, increasing state-funded spots for international students, renewing efforts to recruit from Africa and planning exchanges with Iran.

“Russia continues to partially subsidise the education of most international students with the goal of formation of pro-Russian elites abroad,” Igor Chirikov, senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, told The PIE last year

“About one-third of international students in Russia are fully funded by the state. Tuition-free education could be quite attractive for some students, especially from developing countries.”

But Russia’s treatment of international students continues to cause controversy. One university has reportedly offered foreign students up to $5,000 to join the army, while a Zambian student who had been in prison for drug offences was offered amnesty in exchange for joining the Russian army. He subsequently died fighting in Ukraine. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s normal, people just got used to it”

“I wouldn’t say it’s normal, people just got used to it,” the Vietnamese student said of living in wartime Russia.   

Russian students, academics, institutions

When the war began, debate broke out over cutting ties with Russian universities as many institutions began to freeze research partnerships and exchanges, fuelled by the Russian Union of Rectors publicly backing the war in early March. In April, both Russia and Belarus were suspended from the Bologna process, a European network connecting universities. 

Kateryna Suprun, national representative of Ukraine in the Bologna Process, said at the time that the process was meant to promote trust between countries. “This trust has been lost for Russia and Belarus after all the crimes against humanity they are committing in Ukraine. Many thanks to all members of the Bologna Process who found the courage to resist evil,” she said. 

Russian universities have also experienced brain drain as students and faculty have left the country “to avoid military draft or to protest against the invasion in Ukraine”, according to Chirikov.   

In the face of international isolation, Russians looking to study abroad have also begun to consider less traditional destinations, such as Turkey and Dubai. One education agent said in August that demand from Russian students remained “steady” but that travelling to major study destinations was complicated and expensive. Efforts to study abroad have been further hampered by institutions cutting ties with Russian agents, with some universities publicly blaming this on payment complications. 

Russian students who were already abroad feared abuse and struggled to access their funds. There were also controversial calls from politicians in the UK and US to expel Russian students, which were ultimately rejected. 

Long-term impact

While still ongoing, the responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are now looked to as a model for how the education community should act in the wake of an international crisis. There have been pleas for students from other war-torn countries to be treated with as much hospitality as some Ukrainian refugees have been, and, after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, some looked to the Ukraine response for examples of how the world can help. 

“We have enough experience that if such another crisis would happen, we would know how to mobilise, especially the first steps – which many times are actually the crucial ones in order to steer the course and be able to help,” said Vespa.  

But the war rages on and, for those living in Ukraine, continued support is vital. “You can’t predict where a missile is going to fall,” said Singh.

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