What is the cost of war on Ukrainian Higher Education?

Wednesday 8 May 2024

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The impact of the armed conflict in Ukraine on higher education is profound and multifaceted. Beyond the immediate consequences, the country continues to experience a loss of talent due to casualties on the battlefield, displacement, emigration of experts, and disruptions to educational services. This loss not only affects individuals but also undermines academic values, which is considered a fundamental democratic right. Academic freedom encompasses the autonomy of the academic community to research, teach, and disseminate knowledge both within and beyond the confines of higher education.

Recent data indicates that the Russian invasion of Ukraine since February 24, 2022, has inflicted significant damage on the country’s higher education institutions. Approximately one-fifth of Ukrainian universities have been damaged or destroyed. The eastern regions, where Russian attacks are concentrated, are particularly affected. Despite this destruction, most Ukrainian universities have remained operational throughout the conflict. Surprisingly, the admission of new students has remained steady across the country, defying expectations. Some students continue their studies from bomb shelters, while others have turned to distance learning for safety. Many who fled Ukraine due to the conflict have found refuge in European universities, with around 80% of European institutions offering support to Ukrainian students, staff, or institutions (University World News, 2024).

However, Ukrainian university administrators express concerns about the sustainability of this support amid ongoing violence. The conflict has taken a heavy toll on civilians, with tens of thousands killed or injured since the invasion began. While there was a slight decrease in the number of applicants in the 2022-23 academic year compared to the previous year, some universities, like the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), have experienced growth due to new programs and initiatives. KSE’s president noted that although initial enrollment dropped by 10% at the start of the war, it has since increased significantly

Unfortunately, Ukraine is presently unable to fully uphold academic freedom due to the prevailing circumstances. The brain drain currently experienced by Ukraine poses significant challenges to its higher education sector and overall development. The displacement of academics and students, coupled with disruptions to education, had far-reaching implications for Ukranian societal progress and economic prosperity.

The mitigation of these effects is what brought the FreeAc project to life. FreeAc adopts academic freedom as its cornerstone to be part of the European Union’s broader initiative to mitigate the adverse effects of the conflict on Ukraine’s higher education sector and to support its reconstruction in accordance with the values of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The intertwining of democratic and academic values is emphasized, as a truly democratic society depends on the full realization of academic freedom, and conversely, academic values find their true expression within a democratic framework. Therefore, promoting and safeguarding academic freedom during times of conflict is vital for laying the foundations of a democratic future.

The project takes a long-term perspective, focusing on the integration of Ukrainian HEIs into the EHEA and developing post-war strategic outlooks to mitigate the lasting impacts of the conflict. Through collaborative educational activities and strategic planning, the project aims to empower Ukrainian HEIs to overcome the challenges posed by the conflict and build a resilient higher education sector that upholds academic freedom and democratic principles. Drawing on the experiences of past conflicts in Europe, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo, the project seeks to provide immediate assistance to Ukrainian HEIs and establish sustainable mechanisms for ongoing support. By addressing the immediate needs of displaced academics and students, such as facilitating career progression and continuing education, the project aims to mitigate the loss of talent and operational capacity within Ukrainian HEIs.

At the end of February we met at the University of Graz with other NGOs and Higher Education Institutions to discuss how we can contribute to the mitigation of the brain drain that has been happening having a direct experience and insights from Ukrainian Universities that joined us to understand how it is possible to create new opportunities for Ukrainian members of academia and keep the research free from the tangles of the armed conflict.

About the project

FreeAc – Promoting Academic Freedom in Ukraine is a project funded by the Erasmus + Programme: Key Action 2 – Cooperation partnerships in higher education.


For further information

Read more about the project.

Contact Marco Gennaro: marco.gennaro@cesie.org.

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