How to rebuild Ukrainian universities?

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears its fourth month, the focus remains on fighting and survival. When can we talk about the reconstruction of Ukrainian higher education?

“Now, I think, because we have to understand that the reconstruction will be done in stages,” said Inna Sovsun, a professor at the Kyiv School of Economics and the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

In addition to tens of thousands dead and millions forced to flee to the relative safety of western regions or beyond Ukraine’s borders in the east, at least four universities were destroyed – in Luhansk, Donetsk , Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia – and 25 damaged.

Kharkiv, the student capital of Ukraine, is home to 54 public and private higher education institutions, and it has been particularly hard hit. “In terms of physical damage, I think the most painful is the damage to Kharkiv Karazin University, which is one of the best universities in Ukraine,” said Professor Sovsun, former deputy minister of education. ‘Education.

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If thoughts must soon turn to academic reconstruction, how best to achieve this? Ukraine could look abroad, with Tempus, a forerunner of the European Union’s Erasmus mobility programs, having proven itself after the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, according to Ivanka Popović, rector of the University of Belgrade .

The projects aimed to strengthen institutions and systems, create offices for international relations and technology transfer, strengthen central administration, improve student mobility and develop new bachelor’s and master’s programs. “It was a systematic approach by the European Commission,” Prof Popović said. “You had people who again built bridges, contacts and exchanged experiences with colleagues from Western Europe.”

But the recovery was tough. At the University of Sarajevo, buildings had been destroyed or lost across new borders. Years later, visa issues hampered efforts to reverse the brain drain, said Enita Nakaš, the institution’s vice-rector for international relations.

Ukraine dwarfs the Western Balkans in the size and development of its higher education system. It is also to wage a very different war. Perhaps lessons should instead be learned from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued occupation of Donbass.

In government at the time, Professor Sovsun said efforts to relocate universities had had mixed results. Donetsk National University moved successfully, she said, but others faced the “heartbreaking” prospect of being uprooted again as the front lines shifted.

Still, she thinks university reconstruction should start in cities under Ukrainian control, like Chernihiv. This will lead to difficult decisions for many. Buildings are a costly investment for a decimated economy, but people must also return to rebuild an institution.

After coming to a complete halt in the first weeks of the invasion, by mid-March universities in most regions had resumed distance or blended in-person learning, often building on lessons learned from the pandemic.

No one knows yet what registration will look like in September. Kseniia Smyrnova, vice-rector for education at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, said volumes could be less than a third of previous years.

Few expect Ukrainian international students to return without security guarantees, a blow to income. Additionally, parents of fee-paying domestic students might not be able to work, which means some will have to put their studies on hold, said Denys Smolennikov, head of benchmarking and statistics at the State University of Sumi.

The government in April estimated the cost of damage to schools, colleges and universities at more than $5 billion (£4 billion) and said the war could eventually cost the country at least $1 trillion, five times the value of all final goods and services. he produced in 2021.

Professor Sovsun, who is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament, said there had been no political discussion about a dedicated reconstruction fund for higher education, which Professor Nakaš from Sarajevo said was important when housing reconstruction and manufacturing are higher priorities.

But Professor Sovsun saw hope for a better future for his country. “With all the societal structures broken by the war that’s going on right now, I think it’s a great chance to actually do the reforms that we’ve been afraid to do for years,” she said.

A rejection of Russian-language journals and a shift towards Western contributors would help raise standards, she said, although “for that, of course, the West will have to be open and patient.”

Universities’ development of trauma psychology programs or military medicine courses “trains them to be institutions that respond to such rapidly changing demand,” a departure for many, she added.

Six of Ukraine’s public universities are in talks with the ministry and the European Commission to create an open Ukrainian university, partly modeled on a network of 32 universities that have been sharing and linking digital learning materials since 2000 under the name Virtual University of Bavaria. . “There are discussions about how it would work, and now we’re looking at capabilities and experience,” Prof Smyrnova said.

Professor Sovsun said now is the time for Ukrainian policymakers to be “supportive but tough”, push through long-neglected reforms and resist the temptation to let quality assurance slip or return to the status quo before the war. “What’s the point of all this fighting if we end up with shoddy programs? she says.

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