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One year of UK university support to Ukraine: a reminder of HE’s collective good

A key part of the purpose of UK universities is to transform lives and change the world for the better. The UK to Ukraine university twinning initiative is an incredibly impactful example of universities truly living this purpose – showing significant solidarity along the way.

Swansea welcomed a group of 16 students from its partner institution, Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University in the city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine. Photo: Swansea

"We must find a way to collectively build strong narratives around the positive impact universities are delivering"

“I have a feeling that our people have started to breathe again. They’re getting hope. It’s because of your university that they start to smile again,” said Tetyana Kaganovska, president at Karazin Kharkiv National University, addressing a colleague at their UK twin, the University of York, several months ago. These are words that have stayed with me ever since.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the UK higher education sector stepped up to support their counterparts in the country. The most significant development of this has been the twinning initiative.

Developed by Cormack Consultancy Group and Universities UK International, twinning enables UK universities to support their Ukrainian colleagues through short-term aid and longer-term strategic activity, via institution-to-institution collaboration.

Today marks one year of the initiative, which has seen the University of Sheffield help to rebuild air raid shelters at their twin, Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic’s campus, facilitating the return of in-person teaching; the University of Glasgow fully fund 100 students from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy to study with them, empowering those students to continue their education; and the University of Liverpool provide an extensive database of online learning materials through a purpose-built platform for over 100 academics at their twin, Sumy State University, so they can continue to teach.

The impact on transforming Ukrainian lives is evident – from enabling efforts to preserve vital rail networks, to training up Ukraine’s next generation of psychologists to fix the country’s mental scars – UK universities have played a pivotal role in helping to support Ukraine.

“The #TwinForHope campaign was designed to open a window into extraordinary things”

But has the work of UK universities brought other impact; impact on our own reputation as a sector, for example? As Rachel Sandison, deputy vice-principal (External Engagement) at the University of Glasgow recently said, perhaps the best way to maintain and enhance reputation is to be true to who we are, to understand our mission and purpose, and to really live it.

The #TwinForHope campaign was designed to open a window into the extraordinary things that are happening right across the universities involved in the initiative. As we reflect on the impact of a year of twinning, there are now over 100 UK to Ukraine university partnerships, most recently funded by a £5 million investment from Research England.

With all the criticisms levelled at universities, it would have been a tremendous shame if no-one saw the wonderful way in which they have stepped up to work with Ukrainian colleagues. In fact, there has perhaps never been a better time to openly live our purpose and tell, proactively, the positive and powerful stories of just how UK universities can best serve society.

And we should not limit this storytelling to schemes such as twinning – there are so many stories about how universities are changing the world for the better; stories that we can come together as a sector to speak of. From universities developing cures for cancer, and treatments for many other illnesses, as global health becomes a significant challenge for governments around the world; to developing technologies that will enable us to move toward a more sustainable future, aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Whether it’s scientists at the University of Manchester making breakthroughs in the treatment of breast cancer, Cardiff University furthering research to stop the onset of dementia, or academics at the University of Bath harnessing soil to generate green energy – we must find a way to collectively build strong narratives around the positive impact universities are delivering.

I once heard Vivienne Stern, CEO of Universities UK, quote from the University of Aberdeen’s founding statement: “…to found a university, which would be open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others.” Through higher education, we have the power to change lives.

Let’s remember our true purpose, focus on championing the work we do to live it, an communicate to the wider world what we already know – that we are truly a solution to the global challenges of today.

About the author: Andy Howells is the Assistant Director of External Affairs at Universities UK International, and has worked in senior marketing, communications and leadership positions in higher education for over a decade, winning multiple awards for his campaigning work.

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