The World Bank’s approach to universities needs a rethink

Many words, concerns and sentiments have been expressed and exchanged over the last two months in support of Ukraine and against Russian aggression.

Such verbal statements of moral support are a nice first step, but now is the time for action rather than words. Ukraine’s universities, faculty and students need help. Support is needed from democratic countries as well as international organisations and individual institutions of higher learning.

One would naturally assume that the World Bank should serve as one of the leading international agencies when it comes to the provision of aid to Ukraine’s universities. But the history of World Bank-funded educational projects in Ukraine is not particularly strong.

Just recently, the World Bank launched its first project in Ukraine’s higher education sector. The five-year project, entitled “Ukraine Improving Higher Education for Results Project”, comes with an approved US$200 million loan.

Through this project, the World Bank aims to improve efficiency and the conditions for quality and transparency in Ukraine’s higher education system. The project is also focused on increasing the relevance of Ukraine’s higher education in respect of the needs of the national and global labour markets.

The World Bank loan will be spent on the modernisation of teaching and research facilities and of the digital learning infrastructure of Ukraine’s universities, including infrastructure for distance learning. In addition, it will fund the creation of advanced teaching and research laboratories and learning support facilities.

Historical lack of support

But what about the lack of support previously? The Donbas war that started in 2014 has left several universities from Donetsk and Luhansk regions homeless. A handful of humanitarian organisations stepped in to help.

Unfortunately, the World Bank was not among those helping these forcefully relocated higher education institutions. Some of them have already disappeared or are about to disappear.

Others, such as Donetsk National Medical University, still have no home even eight years after the start of the Donbas war. The World Bank has indicated no interest in helping to restore higher education in Ukraine-controlled parts of Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

Depending on the outcome of the current war, this will have to change. The international community should call the World Bank to task when it comes to Ukraine’s educational infrastructure, particularly its crisis and post-crisis restoration.

For Ukrainian universities, temporary closures and having the educational process put on hold is nothing new. Many Ukrainian universities were closed for various periods of time due to coronavirus-related health and safety concerns in 2020, 2021 and 2022 and have been trying to organise online courses and distance learning.

A humanitarian crisis in education

Before that, some Ukrainian universities were closed due to their inability to pay their utility bills, especially for heating during the winter months. However, today’s situation is different. The war has added a humanitarian crisis to Ukraine’s educational problems.

Many international students have managed to escape bombarded cities and be evacuated, but many more students are still under fire. They are simply trying to survive in war conditions and under continuous intense bombardments.

While international students in Ukraine’s largest cities spend terrifying days and nights in cold and crowded bomb shelters, universities are unable to function. Academic life in Ukraine has stalled, with the ministry of education and science ordering the cessation of the educational process in schools and universities throughout the country due to the war.

The World Bank higher education project does not focus on contributing to the development of physical infrastructure. It will fund cosmetic repair and light refurbishment, but not capital investment in the construction or building of new educational and research facilities.

Bureaucratic delays along with general inefficiencies are cited as reasons not to invest in university infrastructure. This is due to past irregularities that are typical in the country’s construction industry. Simply put, the World Bank is aware of the high level of corruption in Ukraine’s construction industry, which usually involves endless contractors and subcontractors.

A leading role for the World Bank

More effort will be required from international organisations to help Ukraine. The World Bank will have to reconsider its approach to investment in university construction, especially when it comes to restoring universities which have been destroyed by the war. International help will be needed to form autonomous world-class universities in Ukraine.

This will be a lengthy process that will involve reconstruction, reform and development. The World Bank should take a leading role in the recovery, restoration and rebuilding of Ukraine’s education sector.

Just a few days ago, Ukraine received a tranche of US$88.6 million from the World Bank to cover the costs incurred by the Ukrainian government when it comes to academic and social stipends. Given that US$10.5 million has already been spent on the World Bank’s higher education project, this constitutes half of all the project funds of US$200 million.

In early March 2022, the World Bank approved the restructuring of the project, with support for academic stipends provided by the ministry of education and science as well as social stipends provided by the ministry of social policy for students of higher education institutions added.

This, however, is an emergency relief issue and should not replace the money needed for the restructuring, reform and development of Ukraine’s higher education that was initially planned.

Ararat L Osipian is a founding fellow at the New University in Exile Consortium, New York, and is working on the book project World Bank Comes to Ukraine: University mergers, protests, and corruption.