Universities start scoping out how to help Ukrainian academics fleeing the war

08 Mar 2022 | News

Universities in Central and Eastern Europe have already begun helping students, academics and researchers affected by the war – but the scale of the problem is still unknown

Kharkiv National University on fire after Russian bombings. Photo: Olga Polotska, Head of Ukraine's research agency NRFU.

As Ukrainian refugee numbers mount, universities in Europe are starting to grapple with how best to help the Ukrainian academic community.

After just 13 days of war, many universities have started providing money, legal advice and other forms of support to Ukrainians already working or studying in the west. Others are helping Ukrainian academics who have newly fled the country, and are calling for a more coordinated European Union response to help the country’s scientific talent. But, many say, the war is too young to gauge clearly how much help will be needed, and in what forms.

As refugee numbers reach an estimated 1.7 million, Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, a country which shares a 97 kilometre border with Ukraine, is already lending a helping hand to its Ukrainian and Russian students affected by the conflict, and is open to receiving refugee scientists from Ukraine.

 “We received some isolated requests from some students and from some academics from universities that would wish to continue their work at our university, and we are doing everything we can to make this happen,” says Radomír Masaryk, vice rector at the university.

So far, the requests are few and far between, and mainly ask for a place to stay and administrative support, notes Masaryk, as “most people would wish to continue their work in Ukraine, and only wish to come here for shelter.”

But with so much about this war uncertain, it’s impossible to do much planning ahead. Says Przemysław Wiszewski, rector of the University of Wroclaw in Poland, the country which has so far received the largest influx of refugees: “We can’t even assess how many of such students will be in Poland in a short time, not even to think how many will stay in Poland.” But if Ukraine is defeated, he says, “we would of course be open to accept as many students as possible.”

Grassroots campaign

As refugees flock to neighbouring countries, researchers across Europe have put together a grassroots campaign to help Ukrainian colleagues. Shortly after the war started, Sanita Reinsome, a science communicator working on a COST Action project in eastern Europe launched the Science for Ukraine account on Twitter and called on European research organisations to help Ukrainian colleagues.

Dozens of organisations replied and the initiative snowballed into a global project, with its own website where people can post jobs in academic and research institutions across the world. Hundreds of jobs have been posted so far. Some universities have repurposed existing vacancies, while others had the funding available to create new positions or increase the number of PhD grants for the 2022-23 academic year.

Now the campaign has many national chapters that collect and disseminate information on the various positions available for Ukrainian students and researchers directly affected by the Russian invasion. The team has 30 people coordinating the effort.

One challenge is understanding how many need help.  Maryna Shevtsova, a Ukrainian social scientist at the University of Ljubljana who leads the Slovenian chapter, says it is very difficult to say how many researchers have left Ukraine and are looking for a job. According to the United Nations, more than 1.7 million people have left the country since the war started. But “there are no statistics on how many of them are scholars willing to relocate,” said Shevtsova.

According to 2019 data, Ukraine has around 80,000 researchers, 44% of whom are women. Oleksandra Ivashchenko, a medical physics researcher at the Leiden University Medical Center, says the careers of Ukrainian researchers are in limbo. “The situation is really unclear: they fight, hide and live from day to day.”

Shevtsova says her university has established a working group to make sure Ukrainian students receive support, including money, legal advice and psychological counselling.

Many universities are also offering accommodation and help relocating, including for families of existing university staff and students. “Some of the family members expect to come to Estonia, so we are trying to organise financial support,” says Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu in Estonia. The university is also providing financial and psychological support to its Ukrainian and Russian students.

At the same time, Tartu is preparing for an influx of students from Ukraine. “We are trying to make some space for them, to give them an option,” says Asser.

Too early to tell

What’s happening to Ukrainian researchers is, unfortunately, not unique; among Syrian refugees, for instance, there were many academics. “From what I know from other crises, this is what happens at the beginning: there’s very high level advocacy, you try to find out what is happening on the ground in terms of humanitarian needs,” says Vivi Stavrou, executive secretary of the Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science at the International Science Council (ISC),

Next, she says, with scientists fleeing, in the next few weeks or so, requests for support will start rolling in, giving a clearer picture of the situation. “If they stay longer – and it’s hard even for those individuals themselves to judge [if they will] – we hope to set up a whole lot of hosting, and those cost enormous amounts of money and good will,” she says. And it’s unclear how much governments will ultimately pay for that.

Meanwhile back in Ukraine, the focus is on preserving scientific infrastructures, libraries and training institutions, as well as protecting the scientists who choose to stay. Last week, the Kharkiv National University was badly damaged by Russian missiles, with at least four deaths reported in the area. Inevitably in war, “scientific infrastructure gets destroyed and science systems get destroyed, and those can take decades to rebuild,” says Stavrou.

A worst-case scenario?

One extreme option is relocating entire universities. But for now, despite some reports of informal inquiries from Ukrainian institutions, there’s little appetite for this. “I think that most Ukrainians want to stay home and defend their country,” says Masaryk.

Still, if the need arises, Vilnius University in Lithuania says it is ready to share resources. If that happens, it should be a European effort to help, says Rector Rimvydas Petrauskas.

In neighbouring Belarus, the European Humanities University went into exile 18 years ago as the country’s authoritarian government cracked down on its autonomy. It was shut down in 2004 by the regime of president Alexander Lukashenko, and then relocated less than 200 kilometres away, to Vilnius.

Today, the university is ready to share its experience and digital tools to help Ukrainian universities continue their work abroad, assist scholars and faculties at risk, and help with paperwork. Back in 2004, it took EHU around six months to restart operations in another country, with the help of the local government and donors around the world, which continue to support the university today.

“It is not the easiest way, but we believe that one of the most important [things] today is the peace and safety of the academic community, students, faculty,” Anastasiya Radzionava, the university’s spokeswoman, says.

She adds that working in exile does not mean cutting ties, which is why being close to the country is important. “For the universities in exile, one of the important things is not to sever ties.”

Wiszewski of Wroclaw notes that Ukraine is still a democratic country and it’s too early for talks on wider relocation, which would be detrimental to Ukraine. “From my point of view, there is no democratic society without democratic universities. They are seeds for democratic societies,” he says. “Accepting that democratic universities will flee and leave Ukraine: that is hard to believe.”

As for the Ukrainians themselves, many are grateful for the help so far, says Shevtsova, the Ukrainian social scientist in Ljubljana. But they want more:

“We ask you to go to protests, write official letters, and address your country's leaders to demand from them more support for Ukraine and, most importantly, to close the sky over Ukraine,” she says. “I understand why the West does not want to interfere, as nobody wants a third World War to start. But guess what: nobody wanted the first and the second World Wars to start either.” 

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