Ukrainian higher education in distress
Higher education in Ukraine in peril: 'I’m the only specialist here'
Higher education and research are under pressure in Ukraine. Last year, the national budget for scientific research was shifted suddenly to the coffers of the Ministry of Defence. Rockets damaged educational institutions and laboratories as well. The few remaining students and staff are under great mental pressure.
A quarter of the population has fled to another country. Mostly women and children, and some pensioners. Adult men are conscripted into the army. Some academics have left the scientific community to fight. The remaining Ukrainian scientists are trying to keep research and education going. How has the war changed their lives and their view of science? An academic who stayed and an academic who fled tell their stories.
Universities displaced as well
Universities have been displaced as well, explains sociolinguist Viktoriia Ryhovanova (45). In 2014, she was working at the Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages in Horlivka, in the Donbas, when soldiers suddenly arrived and forced all the staff to swear allegiance to the separatist ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’. “We refused, departed in a hurry and had to leave all the books there, along with our syllabi, the libraries, the laboratories, everything…” In the days that followed, the whole university relocated to the city of Bakhmut, further inland. “We queued for hours to pass though the checkpoints in order to get to work”, she says.
The university was forced to relocate once again last year during the battle of Bakhmut, she adds. “That’s characteristic of what has happened in the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. In the meantime, more than 3,000 educational buildings have been damaged and institutions have had to find a new location or close their doors.” She says that around 25 institutions have closed. Some universities have merged with other institutions.
To flee or not to flee
Ryhovanova has been living for more than a year with her school-age daughter in Leiden where, as a visiting researcher, she is focusing on the language of the Ukrainian diaspora. In March 2022 she fled the capital, Kyiv, where she was a working for an institute for intellectual property rights, and via an international network for linguists she came in contact with a professor in Leiden who offered her and her daughter accommodation. Her husband, who is fighting in the army, and her student son remained behind in Ukraine. “It was hard to leave, but it’s better for my daughter.”
By contrast, the 64-year-old Ígor Órzhitsky, a specialist in Spanish language and literature, decided to stay when Russian soldiers entered the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, in February. “I wanted to be there for my conscript son.” The many enemy rockets did not land in the centre, where he lives; during the months of their offensive, the Russians mainly attacked the city’s outer suburbs. “Fortunately, my intuition hasn’t let me down yet.”
Órzhitsky has been working for decades at the Vasily Karazin University and stayed there to give lectures during the war. “I’m the only lecturer left that has a degree.
When the war began, there was no teaching for a month and many people left, but afterwards everything resumed online”, Órzhitsky says. “The switch to online teaching was a major challenge, but the rocket attacks made it too dangerous for a lot of people to gather together in one place”. Since then, the literary scholar has been teaching five courses, each of which has an average of ten students.
Vasilij Karazin University in Kharkiv. Foto: Creative Commons
Ryhovanova too continued to give lectures to her Ukrainian students after she arrived in Leiden, but she was not able to carry on with them. “Many staff that have fled have been dismissed, partly because the government would have preferred them to stay in the country, but also because there is not enough money available to pay their salaries.” In particular, professors and researchers with foreign language skills have left the country. “It’s a sort of brain drain that will have a huge effect on the system in the long term.”
“In general, there has been a great shortage of funding for teaching and research, but salaries are still being paid here”, says Órzhitsky. He says that there was never enough money for conferences in other countries, but now the situation is affecting research too. “Chemists, for example, complain that they cannot do experiments because they don’t have the things they need.”
Until 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and was ruled by Moscow. The current war actually started in 2014, when an uprising began against the incumbent president Viktor Yanukovych, who wanted to get rid of the popular association agreement with the EU. The Russians annexed the Crimean Peninsula and supported the pro-Russian separatist militia in Eastern Ukraine.
According to Ryhovanova, the Russian language, which used to be spoken widely in the east of the country, is increasingly regarded as the language of the aggressor. People now prefer to speak Ukrainian, for reasons of national solidarity. In fact, it represents something bigger: because of the war, the orientation of the Ukrainian people seems to have shifted totally towards the west, towards Europe.
Órzhitsky used to publish frequently in Russia, but when in 2015 one of his good Russian friends asked if he wanted to contribute to a publication, he refused. “For Russians the war is something more remote: for them it’s political, for us it’s personal. For example, we recently buried a student of mine who had gone voluntarily to the front to fight.” Now, there is no contact at all. Russian colleagues are afraid to correspond with him, he says, because of the censorship in their country.
The hope is that academics in Europe can help the Ukrainians. “When the war stared, nobody could predict how long it would last, so research projects were budgeted for six or twelve months”, says Ryhovanova. “They are now coming to an end. Ukraine cannot continue providing funding on its own.”
In the past year, the European Horizon programme gave additional support. But there’s more that could be done. The ties between institutes and universities in Europe and Ukraine need to be strengthened, in the opinion of Órzhitsky, who is currently in discussion with the Spanish embassy. “It was always very hard for my students to go to Spain on a foreign exchange programme. If that becomes easier, we will feel more like we are part of Europe.”
Author Peer van Tetterode