Ukraine seeks international support to stem brain drain

Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Education and Science, Mychailo Wynnyckyj, has called on Western universities to stem the drain of talent over its borders by refocusing support on study and research programmes in Ukraine.

“We have a war to win and a country to rebuild and we need our best brains here,” he said.

This could be done in particular by supporting joint degree programmes, as opposed to supporting more students leaving Ukraine.

Ukraine has seen 60 higher education institutions damaged since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022 and six destroyed. Additionally, 2,638 schools have been damaged and 437 completely destroyed.

The minister was speaking on Monday 23 October at the Anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum conference in Lodz, Poland, on the theme of “Universities and Reconstruction of Cities: The role of research and education”, hosted by the Magna Charta Observatory and the University of Lodz.

Addressing more than 100 university leaders from around the world but mostly from Europe, Wynnyckyj repeated many times how grateful he was for the extraordinary support given by European universities – especially those in Poland – for students, academics and university staff from Ukraine since the full-scale invasion.

But he made an impassioned plea for support now to be focused on Ukrainian talent in Ukraine.

Wynnyckyj said: “We believe the future is with joint degree programmes. We believe we can counter the risk of brain drain by using modern technologies, particularly collaborative online international learning at BA level.

“What is extremely important is targeted funding for Ukraine-based programmes at masters and PhD level.”

He said Ukrainian higher education will definitely require infrastructure and capacity building, and targeted funding for joint research.

“However, at this point we ask for help in creating non-resident fellowships so Ukrainian researchers can continue their research in Ukraine.

“This is extremely important because [although] we see at this point a very large number of students and faculty returning to Ukraine, many are not returning due to economic hardship reasons rather than for safety reasons.”

He added that twinning for Ukrainian higher education institutions is also vital.

Ukraine’s higher education system is facing “massive financial issues”, with international student numbers having plummeted from 73,000 to 8,000 and state funding for higher education cut by 40% in 2023, which has made “many Ukrainian higher education institutions unsustainable”.

Wynnyckyj said: “Admission of Ukrainian students abroad reduces tuition incomes to higher education institutions in Ukraine which obviously causes some financial stresses.”

However, Ukraine is “extremely grateful to the early and rapid relief efforts of our international partners, particularly from the European University Association, but also from the United Kingdom”.

Uneven impact of war

The minister stressed that the impact of the war on higher education institutions was extremely uneven with some universities, such as Mariupol, destroyed completely, although it has relocated to Kyiv. Others, like Kherson, have been occupied then liberated but damaged again recently and relocated.

Others, such as Kyiv University, were closed for some months but are now back in operation, although under constant threat of rocket attacks.

Still others – such as Lviv, Vinnytsia, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk universities in Western Ukraine – are continuing online largely uninterrupted.

Wynnyckyj said war related challenges including the relocation of students and faculty had led to some distorted learning, distorted research and obvious problems for administration.

The “risks to the coherence of academic communities” had been compounded by the earlier impact of COVID-19.

“So, in many cases we see students now in their third year of online learning, [with] 1.5 years due to lockdown during COVID and 1.5 years due to the full scale invasion. And it is quite possible some of those students will have completed their bachelor programmes without ever having entered into a classroom. These are very big challenges for us and are leading to brain drain,” said Wynnyckyj.

Wynnyckyj said Ukrainian higher education institutions have benefited from a “very successful” twinning programme put together by Cormac consulting. Additionally, Erasmus+ has turned out to be “not just about international mobility and exchanges but in fact was an instrument for helping to house many of our students last year”.

The COVID-19 pandemic actually helped Ukraine to prepare for the online education that would be needed – although they didn’t know it at the time – under the full-scale Russian invasion. There has now been a massive influx of online webinars, open lectures and joint research projects.

Polish universities offer support

Elzbieta Zadzinska, rector of the University of Lodz, said Ukraine’s cities and universities will require painstaking reconstruction. “We have demonstrated our support to your cause from day one and it continues unwavering.”

Arkadiusz Mezyk, president of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland – CRASP – said around 48,000 students from Ukraine were studying in Polish universities last year at a cost of €4 million (US$4.2 million) and CRASP is supporting Ukraine’s efforts to integrate into the European Higher Education Area and the European Research Area.

He expects partnership arrangements between Polish and Ukraine universities and between their national rectors’ conferences will lead to the inclusion of rectors of higher education institutions in the European University Association.

“We will also intensively support the accession of Ukrainian universities into different international organisations, increasing their participation in Erasmus+, reconstruction of damaged infrastructure and restoration of full university activities,” he said.

Mezyk emphasised that the issue was not only damage to facilities in Ukraine but that the “omnipresent danger to life takes a toll on the mental health of young people”, both aspiring university applicants and students.

Russian institutions expelled

Wynnyckyj said Ukraine is very grateful that Russian higher education institutions and quality assurance agencies have been removed from European organisations.

“I believe this has been very important not only as a symbolic gesture of support, but also because the Russian higher education system has proven itself to be a failure if we believe higher education is about creating or engendering certain values and world views. Democratic values are not something Russians have been demonstrating in Ukraine.”

The minister acknowledged that movement towards strengthening university autonomy is a work in progress with various initiatives being tabled that will increase the flexibility of learning programmes “aimed at students’ agency and responsibility” and at the merging and modernising of the university network.

For CRASP, Mezyk said: “We are convinced that soon higher education and vibrant research and innovation centres will play an important role in the recovery of Ukraine’s economy from the devastation of war and from Ukraine’s [desired] membership of the European Union.”