Ukraine’s ‘sanctioning frenzy’ will bring no HE benefits

The United States and the European Union have sanctioned Russian oligarchs and politicians in response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Academic ties with some Russian universities have been severed and educational and research projects and exchanges put on hold or cancelled altogether.

On the very first day of war, the German government instructed its universities to freeze academic relations with Russia. European international research institutions and programmes have also been considering sanctions against Russian universities. It is not clear how many of these have already been enacted. Their effectiveness and impact on Russia is not clear either.

The US government announced sanctions against Russian universities only in June, leaving it up to each American university to decide whether they want to join in. US government labs “have been advised to curtail interaction” with the leadership of Russian government-affiliated universities and institutions “as well as those who have publicly expressed support” for the war.

Moreover, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said it will “wind down” government-to-government research collaboration in Russia with no new projects planned, but it is allowing existing projects with Russia to be completed.

New sanctions on Russia

Ukraine has decided to do something similar, introducing sanctions against numerous Russian universities and their leaders. Compared with the patchy international response, the sanctions imposed by Ukraine appear to be much more blanket-like and far-reaching.

On 9 June Ukraine’s president signed an order imposing a set of restrictions on Russian academia. The sanctions will last indefinitely, targeting 261 university rectors and 236 universities. The number of sanctioned rectors and universities is impressive, but the goals and expectations of this move remain unclear.

Will Russia’s numerous universities from St Petersburg and Moscow to Vladivostok and Chechnya really suffer because of the Ukrainian sanctions? Or is this just a much delayed response to the Russian union of university rectors’ letter in support of the military aggression? There is no word on the rationale or any selection criteria used for the sanctions lists.

The restrictions against universities include termination of cultural exchanges, scientific cooperation, educational and sports contacts and entertainment programmes with foreign states and foreign legal entities.

Restrictions against university rectors include freezing of assets; preventing the withdrawal of capital from Ukraine; the suspension of economic and financial obligations; the prohibition of participation in privatisation plans and the lease of state property by residents of a foreign state and persons directly or indirectly controlled by residents of a foreign state or acting in their interests; the prohibition of technology transfer and of rights around intellectual property; the refusal to grant and cancel visas to residents of foreign states; the application of other prohibitions on entry to the territory of Ukraine; a ban on Ukrainian state awards; and a ban on the acquisition of land.

A long and surprising list

The list of Russian universities now under Ukrainian sanctions is so long that it is supplied as a separate attachment to the order. This list contains all sorts of Russian higher education institutions, from Lomonosov Moscow State University and Akhmad Kadyrov Chechen State University to St Petersburg Theological Academy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

But there are surprises as well: the sanctions list includes the Higher School of Economics. Unlike many other Russian universities, the National Research University Higher School of Economics (its official name), located in Moscow and known by its abbreviation HSE or Vyshka, has a reputation as a more-or-less liberal place to the extent that this is possible in modern, authoritarian Russia.

Ironically enough, just a few hours prior to the publication of the order in the media, I sent a draft of my book on Ukraine to my publisher with a dedication to the National Research University Higher School of Economics for its “daring aspiration to compete with world-class universities and to become one”.

My book has nothing to do with politics, but has suddenly become the subject of potential political indoctrination. The book dedication issue will be easy to correct in compliance with the newly introduced sanctions by simply removing the dedication from the next draft. Correcting other issues produced by the order will not be as easy.

Scholars currently or previously engaged with HSE or other Russian universities should be concerned, as should scholars and students who plan on such engagements in the future.

Will academic isolation work?

The sanctions are reflective of the desire to block Russia from access to Western education, research and scholarship, fencing Russia off from the rest of the world.

Whether the policy of academic isolationism is a productive and well-justified strategy remains an open question. No university in Russia enjoys the benefits of true autonomy, with all subjected to politicisation and governmental pressure. No university in Russia is protected from political interference.

How just is it to sanction academics who have no autonomy and cannot express their opinions freely? This is no longer a rhetorical question as sanctions directly affect universities, students and academics.

The Ukrainian authorities have gone a step further, asking Western democracies to join in with these sweeping sanctions. The Presidential Order orders Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform the American, European and other authorities about the application of sanctions and to suggest imposing similar restrictive measures on Russian universities.

The list of restrictions imposed on both university rectors as private individuals and universities as legal entities appears to be quite comprehensive, if not exhaustive. Nevertheless, the order itself raises plenty of questions and concerns.

How painful will these Ukrainian sanctions be for Russian universities? Will Western governments cooperate and impose sanctions against hundreds of Russian universities and their leaders? If so, then international programmes, scholars and students may lose the opportunity to cooperate with Russian academics through research and exchanges.

A ‘sanctioning frenzy’

This sanctioning frenzy does not bring any solutions to the challenges that Ukraine’s higher education faces. The situation in Ukraine’s higher education, impacted by the pandemic and the war, has gone from bad to worse. Some colleges and universities became refugees over the course of the Russian aggression in 2014, while others have lost their homes to the war in the past few months.

In fact, some universities have now become refugees twice, first relocating in 2014 and now relocating once again. As a result, universities have lost faculty and students and face many risks and uncertainty. With many displaced and weakened universities, it may be a good time to reshuffle the whole system and try to make it better and more viable.

The World Bank approved a US$200 million loan for Ukraine’s higher education improvement about a year ago, but that project is not moving anywhere. The World Bank is simply rechannelling half of the project money to stipends for emergency relief.

It is understood that the World Bank is concerned with safety, but there are plenty of regions in Ukraine where there are no battles raging and where it is safe to advance the university restructuring agenda.

Ukrainian higher education needs restructuring, but instead of using the war as an opportunity for reform, the authorities are just trying to save universities on paper. The idea of university optimisation is being replaced with distance learning, disregarding possible compromises in the quality of online learning.

It was initially justifiable to move courses online due to the pandemic and it is now also justifiable to do so in the midst of war, but the quality of education being offered is likely to suffer immensely. This distance learning mode is not a replacement for standard teaching in classrooms and labs.

The Ministry of Education and Science and universities are now discussing the possibility of starting the academic year in universities in person and a month earlier than planned, on 1 August instead of, as is traditional, 1 September to save on fuel and energy during the winter months.

The entire focus of the government is to assure the public that the educational process continues as normal. However, this ‘business as usual’ approach is a road to nowhere. Instead of rescuing, reshaping and improving its universities, Ukraine is preoccupied with sanctioning its Russian counterparts.

Ararat L Osipian is a founding fellow of 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.