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The European University Association reflects on how the higher education sector has responded to the war in Ukraine and the attack on Europe’s fundamental values.

Writing about universities and values does not come easy these days. Because Ukrainian universities and university communities – like the entire country – are under violent attack. Because of deeply concerning reports of Russian university history teaching being turned into a vehicle for state propaganda. Because the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) issued a statement effectively supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And because the European University Association (EUA), which is founded and defined on cross-border understanding, tolerance, and dialogue, has had no option other than to suspend most of its Russian members for supporting the RUR statement. This is a grim tally – for little over a month.

Even before the surreal and devastating events that have transpired since 24 February, values were besieged in several European countries. Academic freedom and university autonomy seemed on a downward trajectory, in parallel with growing pressures on democratic systems, erosions of the rule of law and the curtailing of fundamental human liberties. The Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Hungary of Viktor Orbán and the Belarus of Alexander Lukashenko bore out some or all elements of this trend.

But maybe – just maybe – there is truth in the saying that the night is always darkest before dawn. Policy actors have certainly woken up to the problem. The European Higher Education Area, with its long-standing experience of cooperating across widely differing (values) systems, has been a true pioneer: following a re-affirmation of fundamental values in the 2018 Paris Communiqué by Bologna ministers, a working group dedicated to promoting and monitoring these values was set up later the same year.

The European Union has sprung into action. University values in general and academic freedom and institutional autonomy in particular are highlighted in both the recently published European Strategy for Universities and the European Research Area Policy Agenda. The European Parliament has become a strong ally to the cause, pushing for systematic monitoring and high-level dialogue with other EU institutions.

Shocked into action by the sight and plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees, a dedicated fellowship scheme for researchers at risk is now being pursued with renewed energy at EU level. This is gratifying, seeing as EUA and its partners, including Scholars at Risk and others, have been advocating for just such a mechanism for years.

There has undeniably been a step change in terms of political awareness and will – and this is both significant and welcome. However, the rapid multiplication of statements and support initiatives has also led to fragmentation. It is time to take stock of existing activities and develop a structured approach to protecting fundamental values. No one actor can do this alone; universities, researchers, human rights actors, and political decision makers must all pull in the same direction.

Politicians should also be mindful that a regard for fundamental values cannot be externally imposed. (Events of the past month should have made this abundantly clear.) If they are well-reflected and properly implemented, legal and regulatory frameworks can be useful tools. But ultimately, values must be strengthened at the institutional level. Universities and their communities are the first line of defence. Never has this been more evident than over the past month.

The European higher education sector has responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by expressing its solidarity with Ukrainian universities (1 | 2), and providing support in a myriad of ways. The reaction of the countries closest to Ukraine has been astounding and humbling. Universities, their staff, and students have done their best to tackle a daunting double challenge: a refugee crisis of devastating proportions and the forced exodus of Ukrainian university staff and students.

Of course, this crisis will persist long after the war has ended. To overcome it, (far) more resources, flexible frameworks, and a long-term vision will be needed. For now, university communities are responding to the most immediate needs: they are collecting and transporting donations of all kinds, providing basic medical and psychological support to those fleeing the war, and arranging emergency accommodation, often on university campuses.

Many displaced students are able to continue their studies in receiving countries (mid-way through the academic year), fees are being waived, and language training and other practical support offered. Authoritarianism and violence have been met with solidarity and openness, true European values.

EUA will be holding its 2022 Annual Conference from 28-29 April at Budapest University of Technology and Economics. The decision to address the topic "Values: what, why and how" in EUA’s first major in-person event since early 2020 long predates the Russian aggression against its neighbour. It was born out of a desire to talk about fundamental values even when they are not breaking news.

Sadly, we have been overtaken by events. Ukrainian voices will be integrated into the programme as much as possible and ways of supporting the Ukrainian university sector in the short, medium, and long term will be addressed during the proceedings.

Beyond that, EUA also wants to engage university leadership in a reflection on and articulation of fundamental values. Policymakers and state authorities create incentives, but in the first instance values must be cultured and embraced within universities and by university communities.

Approaches for embedding the respect for values in everyday practices is what the EUA conference will address in sessions on academic freedom policy and practice; free speech on campus; and values in international higher education and research cooperation. In so doing, we hope to add a more positive and hopeful tone to a largely negative discussion that – understandably – tends to revolve around violations and crises.

By exploring how fundamental values are anchored in university operations and activities, we hope to contribute – however modestly – to cultivating an environment where values are lived and where, with time, immediate crises become less frequent.

This article was first published on The Parliament Magazine on 29 March 2022.


Monika Steinel
European University Association

Monika Steinel is Deputy Secretary General of the European University Association.

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