Displaced universities face looming identity crisis

For many decades, universities across the world have been frequent targets during violent conflicts and wars. A significant number of higher education systems are currently operating in a situation of crisis in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

National and international conflicts have caused major challenges for higher education systems, such as infrastructural destruction, loss and massive displacement of academic populations and psychological damage.

Given the frequent occurrences of conflicts and the scale of their impact on higher education, one would expect to see a vast body of research about it. However, little is known about the destructive impact of armed conflicts on higher education. This is certainly the case in the context of Ukraine.

This article is based on one part of a comprehensive study of the impact of armed conflict on higher education in eastern Ukraine.

Universities displaced from their home communities

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has forced 18 public universities into exile. The evacuation of academic institutions in eastern Ukraine into Ukraine-controlled territories has directly threatened the institutions’ primary functions. A new type of institution has emerged as a result – the ‘displaced university’.

The conflict has resulted in the relocation of around 40,000 students and more than 3,500 research and teaching staff and has disrupted the delivery of educational services, but most importantly, it has detached the universities from the communities they served.

Almost all displaced universities have resumed educational and research activities, although each has left behind a duplicate in the occupied territories of Donbass. Eighteen duplicate universities are functioning outside Ukrainian law and about a third of the universities’ employees and students attend in the occupied territories.

Some displaced universities have acquired property in their new location. The ongoing conflict, now four years old, and the displacement of universities may threaten the prospects of their return home if peace is restored and may lead to the loss of their regional identity.

Integration vs institutional identity

About half of the displaced universities were relocated to their branch campuses within the same region which allowed them to continue serving the needs of their communities. However, for those universities which have transferred to more distant territories, integration into a new social and cultural environment has created numerous challenges.

The research reveals displaced universities face significant challenges to be relevant and add value in their new environments. The process of evacuation from eastern Ukraine was hectic, unplanned and sometimes random.

While policy-makers and university leadership hoped the conflict would rapidly subside, universities were often transferred to areas with little or no infrastructure, with no consideration for their suitability in terms of the universities’ missions and the needs of the new communities in which they found themselves.

Some specialised displaced universities with a focus on coal mining, steel or agriculture were transferred to locations which were oversaturated with similar universities. In other cases, universities were moved to communities that did not require the industry knowledge they had due to the specifics of the region.

In both cases, this created unnecessary and unfair competition for already weakened and struggling universities. When universities are placed in an environment that neither needs nor can support the technical disciplines they offer, there is a significant risk of losing industry knowledge, research and years of expertise.

The findings also suggest that those displaced universities that anticipate a swift return home may not prioritise the needs of their new communities and may ignore them, preferring to focus instead on long-term strategies.

Those universities that have adapted to the instability caused by the conflict may focus more on growth and development, updating their strategies, missions and educational programmes. The evidence indicates that some of these universities are looking to collaborate with local governmental and non-profit organisations to position themselves as active members of their new communities.

They also recognise that a new educational market requires them to compete for students through more proactive recruitment strategies which may occasionally divert them from their previous educational priorities.

Thus, forced displacement from familiar markets leads some to introduce innovative practices and expand the array of educational programmes they offer to generate demand in the new environment.

In a few years, these institutions may risk losing their regional identity. However, if the displaced universities overemphasise preserving their identity at the expense of establishing closer integration in their new communities, surviving for a long time on scarce resources will be a challenge.

Nevertheless, displaced universities that learn to assess the needs of their new environment and make strategic adjustments may be more adaptable and resilient to change. Ironically, institutions that integrate well within their new environment may have an enhanced capacity to transition to their home communities more smoothly if peace is restored.

What can government do to help?

Government can play a crucial role during such conflicts, one that can determine institutional continuity. The Ukrainian government was not adequately prepared to respond to the destructive manifestations of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In the absence of an explicit state strategy for stabilising and developing the crisis-affected universities, the state overlooked an opportunity to streamline the universities’ resources by merging and reorganising some institutions to safeguard their identity and ensure their growth.

The study reveals that the actions of the government have been inconsistent with the practical reality on the ground. While too much emphasis has been devoted to prioritising a reintegration strategy for the future, the integration of the displaced universities in their new communities has not been adequately addressed.

The lessons from the history of armed conflicts worldwide should prompt the Ukrainian government to take immediate action to provide strategic solutions and commitment with regard to displaced universities’ integration, stability and development in their new communities.

Uliana Furiv is a recent graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters Programme in Research and Innovation in Higher Education of the University of Tampere, Finland, and Danube University Krems, Austria. Her masters thesis is titled “Ukrainian Higher Education in the Time of Armed Conflict: Perspectives of crisis management”.