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For Oksana Seumenicht, it is imperative that the focus of the international community’s support to Ukrainian higher education now shifts to long-term goals. New academic links to Ukraine, forged by thousands of displaced Ukrainian academics, offer unique opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration.

Ukrainian universities in wartime

24 February 2024 marks two years since the illegal full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. This also means that Ukrainian universities have already admitted the second cohort of students in wartime.

Since the start of the war, the Ukrainian higher education sector has fought to survive and remain operational, but it has also done much more. While many university employees and students volunteered to serve at the frontline, many more had to flee. Moreover, the meaning of their universities’ third mission has transformed dramatically.

Universities quickly became centres for multifaceted humanitarian support to their communities. They offered their dormitories to accommodate internally displaced Ukrainians, coordinated local voluntary humanitarian support and offered psychological and medical support services.  Indeed, the European Association for International Education (EAIE) conferred its 2022 Award for Vision and Leadership to Ukraine’s higher education sector, a truly deserving awardee.

Moreover, universities have collected for medical equipment, digitised museum collections, and researched how to make Ukraine’s energy system more sustainable and reliable. Scientists also actively contribute through their research to supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces, e.g. through a novel blood-activating coagulator and AI-driven drone technologies allowing remote diagnostics of critical infrastructure facilities.

International solidarity must now shift to long-term goals

Faced with the ongoing war, links to the international academic community through partnerships and mobility programmes have offered a lifeline to many Ukrainian institutions.

While the international community initially, and rightly, focused on addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis caused by the invasion, the focus has now to shift towards longer-term goals. Instead of ad hoc “Ukraine emergency” funds, which are drying up in any case, support must now predominantly come through existing funding schemes aimed at strengthening European higher education and research.

The many well intentioned international emergency support programmes that enrol Ukrainian students at foreign universities do help individuals. However, they also hold unintended negative consequences by affecting the operational capacity of Ukrainian universities. A fall in the number of enrolled students in Ukrainian universities has resulted in a decreased teaching load, in turn leading to reduced salaries of teaching staff. The redirection of state funding to security programmes reduced already measly infrastructure and research funding. The drop in numbers of international students further exacerbates this situation.

One solution could be that international fellow and grant programmes would offer the Ukrainian students and researchers who they host the status of ‘visiting academic’, using existing provisions for academic mobility and support. When possible, they may also include formal enrolment/double affiliation at both the hosting and Ukrainian higher education institutions.

The development of joint certificate/degree programmes may also be an important measure in the long term, as it would both support Ukrainian institutions and contribute to the internationalisation of foreign institutions. The EU’s Erasmus+ programme has been offering a significant range of flexibility measures, additional calls for proposals, the possibility to join European university alliances, etc.

Furthermore, national initiatives, such as the German Academic Exchange Service – DAAD’s ‘Ukraine digital: Ensuring academic success in times of crisis’ programme and UK-based Ukraine Twinning Initiative, have been extremely valuable. These programmes have already fostered the establishment of hundreds of new partnerships, many of which will hopefully continue long after the war has ended.

Elevating Ukrainian voices

While the level of solidarity has been extremely high, and a multitude of offers have been aimed at Ukrainian academics, the voice of those most affected has not always been heard. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation aimed to address this issue by organising a recent series of HUMBOLDT4UKRAINE events, bringing together over 120 researchers and experts from Ukraine and more than 20 other countries. The participants’ recommendations stressed the need to better support researchers and organisations in Ukraine, so a critical mass capacity for any future rebuilding efforts can be maintained.

Another key point that emerged from these events was the priority given to Ukraine’s deeper European and global integration, which should be linked to the country’s EU accession plans. Furthermore, supporting international cooperation between research teams (in addition to individual researchers) was highlighted as particularly important, as it is essential to (re-)building academic capacity and expanding international professional ties. Indeed, this is also the main message of a set of recommendations on supporting the Ukrainian university sector published by the European University Association in 2023.

The path forward for Ukraine and Europe

Encouragingly, there have been some positive developments in Ukraine, notwithstanding the ongoing war. National legislation has recently been adapted to enable joint calls between the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU) and international partners. Two such calls have already been launched: with Switzerland and the Netherlands. The latter call is analogous to the Horizon Europe Hop-On Facility, which allows Ukrainian research organisations to join some existing European research consortia.

The grim realities of the war are also catalysing rapid developments in some research fields, such as data science and artificial intelligence, e.g., for drone technologies, but also in fields of digital governance and digital forensics. Dealing with public and mental health challenges, as well as war crimes on an unprecedented scale, is extremely urgent. In this regard, the importance of social sciences and humanities, both in Ukraine and globally, is evident. Indeed, some previously rather theoretical questions in fields such as political sciences, media studies and gender studies are proving to be extremely pertinent. The almost non-existence of Ukrainian studies in Europe and the de-colonisation of Slavonic/Russian studies have become, surprisingly for some, topics of relevance to national and international security. In many of these rapidly developing or emerging areas of research, cooperation with Ukrainian researchers is not just desirable, but indispensable.

In my view, these developments not only signify our will to overcome adversity but underscore our joint vision for the future of Ukraine: as a member of the European Union and a country with a thriving knowledge-based economy. They also offer an opportunity to build a more integrated European higher education and research sphere and, as a result, a stronger Europe. To achieve this, cooperation based on common values and of mutual benefit is a key.

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”, as is often attributed to Albert Einstein. In my view, even in the current terrible and tragic situation, there is a unique chance to achieve ‘post-traumatic growth’, both for Ukraine and for Europe.


Oksana Seumenicht
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

Oksana Seumenicht is Programme Director for MSCA4Ukraine at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Co-founder of the German-Ukrainian Academic Society and UKRAINET (The UKRainian Academic International NETwork).

Picture copyright: David Ausserhofer

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