Academic partnerships are key to helping Ukraine’s HE – EUA

Concerned about Ukraine’s growing ‘brain drain’, the European University Association (EUA) has issued recommendations to help guide universities wishing to support their Ukrainian counterparts.

Among the recommendations is the call for universities to establish inter-institutional partnerships with Ukrainian universities through joint programmes, joint classrooms and, importantly, remote fellowships that support Ukrainian scholars – 80% of whom remain in Ukraine – in situ.

Conscious of the fact that most male academics in Ukraine are barred from leaving the country and, thus, are unable to take part in the conferences that have restarted now that the COVID-19 crisis has subsided, the EUA also calls on universities to develop remote (digital) non-residential fellowships that will provide “peer contact”.

Ivanka Popovic, the EUA’s vice-president, told University World News that “in certain parts of Eastern Europe, even before the Russian invasion, there was a serious ‘brain drain’, people were leaving Ukraine for economic reasons”.

Popovic, who as a young academic lived through the Balkan wars in the 1990s, said: “The consequences of the war in the Western Balkans showed that when people relocate, a very small percentage come back. We are talking about ‘brain circulation,’ but it’s a lopsided brain circulation.”

Supporting the Ukrainian diaspora is important, but “we also have to support those who remain in Ukraine now”, said Popovic from Belgrade.

‘Brain drain’ getting worse

While statistics are not available, university leaders in Ukraine told University World News that compared with last year, the first year of the war, especially among the STEM fields, the ‘brain drain’ has become more pronounced.

Tymofii Brik, rector of the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), said: “Although we don’t have the hard numbers, I think the ‘brain drain’ has gotten worse compared with the previous year.

“Last year we had some preliminary hypotheses of what could happen. But now we see empirically a lot of universities that were physically damaged or destroyed, and the professors had to flee those places.

“A lot of them received invitations from abroad. They had a preference to stay in Ukraine but, unfortunately, economically it was very difficult for them,” he said.

“In my discipline, social science, it’s easier to convince them to remain because from the perspective of work space you just give them a laptop and they’re happy. But when we’re talking about engineers, physics, chemistry, biology, they need real space, real laboratories.”

‘Brain drain’ is mostly female

Iura Perga, the vice-dean at the National Technical University of Ukraine, Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute (IS-KPI), is also worried about the ‘brain drain’, which, he notes, is largely composed of female professors because males are not allowed to leave Ukraine.

He, too, pointed to the discrepancies between salaries in the European Union, the United States and Canada as a major contributing factor to the decision to remain abroad or return to Ukraine.

Unintended consequences

Tymofiy Molovanov, president of KSE and a former minister of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture, began by noting that the ‘brain drain’ being experienced now is “an inadvertent or unanticipated consequence of the educational support offered to Ukrainian scholars at the start of the war,” which in large measure was focused on (mainly female) academics who could leave Ukraine or scholars at risk.

Accordingly, he welcomed the “very clear statement on the importance of institutional support of education in Ukraine”.

He said the principles of the EUA recommendations point out some measures that can address these issues. “It is critically important that Ukraine has the intellectual capacity for post-war reconstruction and these recommendations address that by talking about the importance of institutional support and development.”

Since they are designed to help hundreds of universities in dozens of countries organize themselves to support Ukraine, of necessity, the EUA’s recommendations are written at a general level: Recommendation 5, for example, reads: “Enhance information sharing, cooperation and coordination among major stakeholders.”

Access to journals ‘vital’

Subsections are more specific, with the one for Recommendation 2, ‘Develop virtual exchange and cooperation, including digital infrastructure’, listing a number of multi-million Euro projects, including a €5 million (US$5.6 million) Erasmus+ structural project grant to the Ukrainian Open University, and a European Civic University and Rectors’ Conference of French-speaking Universities in Belgium joint call on academic publishers to enable Ukrainian universities to access scientific publications.

“Access to academic literature,” Popovic said, “is vital to maintaining research capacity”.

One way KSE is maintaining research capacity, Molovanov explained, is through more than 50 bilateral agreements on comprehensive joint programmes.

One is with the University of Toronto.

“Our students go there for a year and work on a research project jointly with faculty there and our faculty. Then they come back and finish some credits here and get a dual diploma; students who are unable to leave Ukraine study at University of Toronto online,” Molovanov said.

KSE has a dozen fellowships with the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). “Our faculty work there on joint projects and on papers and present them at conferences. Anything that leads to publication or grants, projects or research, is great,” he said.

At KSE’s business school a programme with Milan Polytechnic University has courses co-taught by a KSE professor and one in Milan. Molovanov says that KSE is working to scale up its portfolio of agreements with other universities.

The boom in IT security and relocation of manufacturing plants that produce radar, for example, from areas the Russian have occupied to Western Ukraine provides some jobs for engineers and scientists displaced from destroyed universities. To pick up some of the slack, KSE has just opened a new programme in applied mathematics.

“We know it's not going to be super popular because usually kids want to study law and psychology, not applied mathematics. But we did it because we can hire some professors,” said Molovanov.

For his part, Perga began explaining the IS-KPI’s linkages with other universities by matter-of-factly outlining how Leeds University (LU, Britain) provided a £100,000 (US$ 129,000) grant to outfit the school’s bomb shelter with furniture and WiFi. He then went on to say that LU is supplying on-line infrastructure linking IS-KPI Rocket Science Program with LU’s aircraft and space development programme, as well as several other educational and research programmes as well.

The University of Sheffield provides IS-KPI with an online data centre and specialised software.

The negotiations between IS-KPI and York University (YU, Britain) are exactly what the framers of the EUA’s recommendations intend in Recommendation 3: “Provide placements for Ukrainian academics and students abroad, including as part of partnership and exchange initiatives.”

The plan is to send all of the university’s PhD students in law, sociology, history, and public administration to study on-line with YU professors; there are some travel grants available. In the academic year that has just ended, a number of students spent one semester studying at Tokyo University.

Such programmes are vital to keeping Ukrainian scholars up-to-date in their various fields. Nor are they likely to contribute to the ‘brain drain’ because of their relatively short duration and the fact that they are embedded in programmes being taught in Ukraine.

Lasting role for humanities

Towards the end of the discussion, Popovic was asked, with a view to post-war reconstruction, if the EUA was mainly concerned with preserving STEM fields. Her answer could not have been more dfferent from headlines seen regularly in the United States and, more broadly, in the Anglosphere, announcing the death of the humanities.

“First of all,” she said, “Ukrainian higher education has a long tradition, and Ukrainian social sciences and humanities have a very responsible task to maintain the tradition of analysing Ukrainian society and to reflect on its future development.

“So, I think, for this group of scientists, interaction with foreign colleagues can be very stimulating, because you can test various approaches and see whether you agree with them or not.”

In place of the constant drumbeat that the humanities are irrelevant to the average man and woman, and STEM is where it’s at, Popovic offered a bracing fillip.

The social sciences and humanities are important not only because of their place in the university’s scientific purposes.

“They are important for the common man, for the voting individual, to provide an adequate analysis of the circumstances in the country so that the country can move forward. As we’ve seen globally, the role of the social sciences and humanities is on the rise because technology itself will not resolve social issues,” she said.

“I am an engineer, but I think that the future really is in the hands of the social sciences and humanities if this world is going to survive.”