Higher education can help to rebuild society after war

With war ravaging the social institutions of Ukraine, over six million Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring countries. People’s lives have been impacted by the crisis in devastating ways. For those who have fled, the choice has been between staying and risking injury, or leaving and going into exile.

Millions of people have opted for the latter option, seeking safety and security in Poland, Germany and Russia, among others. As a result of the refugee crisis, these countries have had to provide asylum and food for exiles.

The unprecedented wave of migrants from Ukraine has pushed the number of refugees worldwide to the highest level since the Syrian conflict began, leaving the United States, Canada and other countries scrambling to find ways to help. The crisis has also strained relations between Ukraine and its neighbours, which have imposed restrictions on migrants’ ability to travel freely.

Following the devastation caused by war, nations have to rebuild their economies and societies. Within this context, higher education plays an important role in the process of reconstruction as it provides opportunities for education and training that can assist nations in recovering and developing.

Education in Ukraine

Ukraine’s education system has suffered major damage due to the war.

Schools have been damaged, teachers have been killed or displaced and classes have been cancelled. Most schools are currently closed and those that are operating are barely able to function. Most students have not been able to attend school for months, if at all, and those who have been able to attend have received only a few hours of instruction per week.

Fields such as education, teacher education and educational administration have been negatively impacted by the displacement of people and the destruction of educational facilities.

A total of 1,735 pre-schools and schools (ages 3-18) have been damaged, while 200 have been completely destroyed, according to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine.

Moreover, the ministry reports that only five out of 25 regions are experimenting with face-to-face or blended learning as of 23 May 2022. Some parents have decided that it is safer to keep their children at home instead of sending them to school, which has had an adverse effect on the educational system. The disruption of education services has negatively impacted the ability of schools to provide a quality education for their students.

Dealing with disruptions

War or pandemic-related disruptions in schools and universities have the adverse effect of reducing the amount of content covered during teaching, which in turn reduces the opportunity for learning.

In this regard, schools and universities should be prepared to deal with disruptions in a variety of ways. A war requires developing plans to protect students and the integrity of the education system and to allow a swift return to normal operations afterwards.

More specifically, when schools are closed, students should still be able to receive instruction through remote methods, such as online classes or video lessons. These should be ready and planned as part of the institution’s policy and contingency plans. This allows students to maintain their learning opportunity regardless of the physical space where the school or university is operating.

Teachers must be capable of adapting their pedagogy to meet the needs of their students. Teachers must also be capable of teaching in damaged or overcrowded classrooms.

Continued education and training will help educators meet these new challenges and will help improve the education students receive.

Adapting to new realities

Displacement of people and the physical destruction of educational facilities are common consequences of conflict. Education systems are often further challenged by low resilience when faced with conflict.

Conflict can have devastating effects in contexts where education systems are fragile or under-resourced. For example, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the chaos that led to the displacement of millions had a significant impact on higher education. This resulted in the destruction, looting or burning of 84% of higher education institutions.

The conflict in Syria has resulted in more than half a million students being displaced, with many forced to flee to neighbouring countries. In addition to physical damage, higher education institutions have been used as military targets or as evacuation points, causing students and other civilians to be displaced, as in the case of Libya and Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, higher education institutions will be forced to adapt to new realities and opportunities. The devastation left behind by conflict will offer universities the opportunity to rethink their roles and their place in society.

These changes will also bring new challenges. Currently, the uncertainty caused by conflict has led to the closure of universities and has prevented students from pursuing their educational and career goals.

In the face of limited funding, institutions are forced to reorient their priorities and adjust their courses to meet the needs of their students. Challenged to redefine their roles in society, they will need new ideas and new directions, such as the development of humanitarian and peace-building programmes as well as the development of new relationships with neighbouring countries.

Rebuilding and recovery

As part of the post-war reconstruction process, the purpose of the education system should be to aid in the recovery process. Education is the key to unlocking the potential of a country after a conflict, providing the knowledge and skills needed for progress and laying the foundations for the future.

Through education, people can develop and share ideas, which can help a country prosper both economically and socially. In addition, education plays an important role in the peace process, contributing to the development of trust between parties and preventing future conflicts.

Higher education has played a significant role in rebuilding and recovering post-war countries. Initially, higher education was viewed as a means of providing new employment opportunities for demobilised soldiers and those who had been displaced by war. Higher education can also help affected countries diversify their economies, strengthen their technological capabilities and build a skilled workforce.

Rebuilding post-war countries requires the provision of basic services and infrastructure, as well as the development of skills and knowledge that will benefit the economy and society in the future. Social services are also required for the reconstruction of post-war contexts, covering, for instance, the care of the elderly, the education of youth and the rehabilitation of prisoners.

To these ends, the role played by higher education in rebuilding society and creating a sustainable economy is vital.

Sameerah T Saeed is funding coordinator, Monitoring and Quality Assurance Agency, Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research – Kurdistan Region, Erbil, Iraq. Patrick Blessinger is president and chief scientist at the International HETL (Higher Education Teaching and Learning) Association.