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International education’s continuing response to the war in Ukraine

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The war in Ukraine has had wide-ranging impacts on international students and the organisations and institutions that support them
  • Relief efforts are mobilising in communities and campuses around the world for affected students and their families

“Currently, the cities that you probably visited during education fairs are being destroyed. People, who you visited during your business trips live in the bomb shelters,” says a joint statement from a group of Ukrainian education agents earlier this month. “Today we need your help to raise awareness for preserving the future. We invite educational organisations worldwide to support Ukraine and its people.”

The answer has come quickly and from all parts of the world as institutions and organisations throughout our sector have responded to the crisis.

Students in Ukraine

International students have figured prominently in the war in Ukraine. First and foremost, in the tens of thousands of foreign students in Ukraine, many from Africa and South Asia, that have struggled to find shelter or to evacuate since the Russian invasion began on 24 February. And most tragically in the deaths of at least two visiting students in the early days of the conflict.

As the war enters its third week, there are growing reports of students who are now being cut off from evacuation routes, and who are making desperate appeals for assistance. The Guardian reported late last week that an estimated 1,200–1,500 international students were stranded in Sumy, a Ukrainian town near the Russian border.

Some foreign governments have been scrambling to assist their students in evacuating. After criticism over its initially slow response, for example, the Chinese government arranged several chartered flights late last week to get Chinese students out of Ukraine and back to China.

Students in Russia

American and European universities, meanwhile, have been abruptly suspending or cancelling exchange programmes in Russia, and advising their students to leave the country as soon as possible. In a stark warning on 5 March, the US State Department advised American citizens: “Do not travel to Russia due to the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine, the potential for harassment against US citizens by Russian government security officials, the Embassy’s limited ability to assist US citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions, terrorism, limited flights into and out of Russia, and the arbitrary enforcement of local law. US citizens should depart Russia immediately.”

Those students, however, make up a relatively small proportion of the foreign students in Russia, most of which come from China, India, and from the former Soviet Republics, notably Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Russian students abroad

Any Ukrainian or Russian students currently studying abroad are also being profoundly affected by the war, and fresh financial concerns now loom over their continuing studies. With the collapse of the Russian rouble – which has so far lost half of its value –– and new limits on access to foreign exchange and international banking systems, many students will struggle to access funds and pay their school fees and living expenses.

Communities around the world are rallying to raise funds in relief of any affected students, and special relief measures are being putting in place in many institutions.

Other industry bodies have weighted in as well, including the US-based Institute of International Education (IIE), which has mobilised its existing relief funds in support of students in crisis. IIE has also established a special Ukraine-stream within its IIE Emergency Student Fund “to provide financial support to Ukrainian students studying at US colleges and universities.”

Shutting down academic ties

In a rather head-turning moment this week, the Russian Union of Rectors, a group representing more than 700 higher education executives, offered its endorsement of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In a letter with nearly 180 signatories, representing some of the country’s top universities, the rectors said, “This is Russia’s decision to finally end the eight-year confrontation between Ukraine and Donbas, achieve the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, and thereby protect itself from growing military threats…It is very important in these days to support our country, our army, which defends our security, to support our president, who, perhaps, made the most difficult, hard-won but necessary decision in his life.”

On 7 March, Universities UK International wrote to the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) in response, and to sever ties with the group by suspending “a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between our respective organisations. This decision was taken in light of the RUR’s recent support for the invasion of Ukraine. In suspending the MOU, we outlined that we unequivocally condemn the invasion, and that following the RUR’s statement, we cannot maintain our links with the RUR at this time.”

The move follows a March 4 decision by the European Commission to suspend cooperation with Russian institutions and organisations in research, science, and innovation.

Opening doors to Ukrainian students and refugees

Meanwhile, a number of governments around the world, including the UK, Canada, and Ireland have all eased visa requirements for Ukrainians, allowing them to more easily acquire or extend visas or to change visa classes.

In a related development, the European Commission also activated its Temporary Protection Directive on 4 March. As the official announcement explains, “Temporary protection is an emergency mechanism which can be applied in cases of mass influx of persons and which aims to provide an immediate and collective (i.e. without the need for the examination of individual applications) protection to displaced persons who are not in a position to return to their country of origin. The objective is to alleviate pressure on national asylum systems and to allow displaced persons to enjoy harmonised rights across the EU. These rights include residence, access to the labour market and housing, medical assistance, and access to education for children.”

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