International HE cooperation ‘vital to post-war recovery’

The global higher education system has been going through major transformations over the past decade. Substantial changes have been brought about by structural shifts in the labour market, expanding employer demands and a growing trend for project- and innovation-oriented businesses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a profound impact on education by accelerating the development of digital learning environments, with tools that were hard to imagine some 20 years ago now being widely put to use.

While most changes in higher education systems – whether they are evolutionary or revolutionary – are global in their sweep and common to many countries, there are also nations that currently deserve special attention from the international community.

These nations are experiencing enormous hardships and are forced to fight for their right to sovereignty and peace, while the resilience of their social, economic and environmental systems is being challenged in the most fundamental way. We are, of course, talking about nations at war.

A test of endurance

A prime example is Ukraine, which is now undergoing the worst crisis in its history since it gained independence. Over the past five months of full-scale war that was launched by the Russian Federation, the Ukrainian people have been fiercely protecting their right to live and thrive in a free and sovereign country.

Amid relentless Russian attacks wreaking havoc in virtually every region of Ukraine, the country’s critical infrastructure continues to operate, ensuring that production, trade, medicine, research, education and other processes that are essential for post-war reconstruction remain robust.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science has published an interactive map that shows the damage inflicted upon the country’s education and science system as a result of Russian aggression.

As of July 2022, as many as 2,104 education institutions have suffered bombing and shelling and 215 of them have been destroyed completely. This is the new reality under which the Ukrainian nation needs to continue working, creating and innovating. Among other things, efficient approaches must be found to hasten the recovery of the country’s education system.

A dialogue with university students

In May-June 2022, a period of intense military activity in Ukraine, a survey was conducted among students of one of the country’s largest higher education institutions, the National Technical University of Ukraine ‘Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’. The survey leader was Anna Kukharuk, an associate professor at the department of international economics, and its aim was to capture students’ perspective on the current state and prospects for education.

The survey sought to address the following overarching question: What exactly can the global community do right now to support the Ukrainian education system?

The 61 survey respondents included students from the faculty of management and marketing, the institute of mechanical engineering and the faculty of sociology and law.

Using Google Forms, they were invited to answer 12 multiple-choice and open-ended questions, which covered issues such as the students’ mental state and motivation, their communication with the university, the quality of teaching and the fairness of the university’s requirements for students learning under extreme conditions.

A separate set of questions focused on the students’ suggestions for improving Ukraine’s education system in the context of war with help from the global community.

The main findings of the survey were as follows: 77% of the respondents were undergraduates; 28% of them were working; 85% remained in Ukraine, while 15% were living abroad; 66% continued to actively pursue their studies; 34% found it difficult to concentrate on specific tasks; 30% found it difficult to even start working on a task; and 100% were planning to finish the semester on schedule.

As their main sources of moral support, the survey respondents cited their families, classmates, social networks, teachers, self-motivation, a desire to obtain a higher education qualification and a belief in Ukraine’s victory over Russia.

From problems towards solutions

The students’ belief in their country’s victory and its subsequent economic growth was so strong that they not only reported continuing to take a robust approach to their studies, but also eagerly offered suggestions about how to improve the quality of teaching and learning at their university in anticipation of the post-war recovery period.

A large portion of these suggestions concerned boosting Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’s cooperation with its international partners with regard to teaching joint courses.

It should be said that such suggestions fully correspond with the university’s official internationalisation programme, while also coinciding with the sentiments expressed by its international partners in the multiple letters of support that the university continues to receive.

Worthy of note is the fact that, according to the survey’s findings, most students wish to be active participants rather than passive observers of their university’s international cooperation processes.

For instance, a number of respondents suggested that both bachelor and masters level students should be offered more opportunities to become engaged in international collaboration projects.

Other suggested activities that require further support from the international community using volunteer and grant-based resources included interpretation and translation assistance, educating students on foreign grant and mobility programmes, organising university events aimed at introducing students to foreign cultures and improving resources for distance learning.

This last point seems of particular importance in view of the fact that many students now live in high-risk areas and the likelihood that they will be able to attend their classes in person come the new semester remains unclear.

One potential solution proposed by the students is promoting international collaborations that would aim at creating English-language video materials to accompany courses taught at the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

Distance learning platform

The university has developed and maintains its very own Sikorsky Distance Learning Platform and has been administering online classes throughout the COVID-19 crisis. A large percentage of its academic staff possess high levels of English proficiency and most have authored multiple teaching materials.

Remaining resilient in the face of the Russian military aggression, this intellectual capital is the foundation for building the university’s research and education capacity that will hopefully allow it to withstand any wartime challenges.

An ambitious international collaboration project that is currently being considered by the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute concerns the establishment of an innovative laboratory for distance learning.

This lab will be used to train a new generation of highly skilled professionals who won’t be dependent on the fluctuations of the labour market in Ukraine where nearly 50% of enterprises have now halted their operations due to the war.

After having undergone a dual-language study programme with major courses taught in English by foreign professors, the aim is that students will be able to make a meaningful contribution to Ukraine’s post-war recovery by creating jobs themselves instead of seeking employment opportunities.

Dr Anna Kukharuk is an associate professor at the Department of International Economics at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine. Anastasia Kharchenko is an advanced translator working in the international projects department at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.