Recent British Council research shows that young Ukrainians are pro-democracy, pro-European, and hungry for UK education and the English language. There are major opportunities for the UK to engage as Ukraine seeks to meet these aspirations and build a stable, fair and prosperous society. Given Ukraine’s position, strategic significance, and recent political history, the importance of doing so should not be underestimated. But big changes will have to be delivered fast if the hopes of the 2014 Maidan revolution are not to be dashed. Ukraine’s education system faces great challenges, amid major reforms initiated by a ministry determined to transform the education of the next generation and with it the country’s future. The UK education sector could make a real difference inside Ukraine at a pivotal moment for the country.

Simon Williams, the British Council’s Country Director in Ukraine, examines the plight of Ukraine’s universities in exile and the serious challenges facing Ukrainian higher education:

16 entire universities were evacuated

Since fighting started in eastern Ukraine in 2014, 1.4 million people have scattered across the country as internal refugees. But it is not just individuals who are in internal exile. In late 2014, 16 entire universities were evacuated from occupied territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, leaving behind their lecture halls, libraries, laboratories and accommodation – much of it since destroyed in heavy fighting. Some staff and students stayed behind, but many fled and are trying to continue their studies under extremely challenging circumstances.

Universities in Exile

Far from giving up, these universities continue operating in the face of massive challenges. Many are housed in unsuitable temporary accommodation. All lack equipment and libraries. Their students are often dispersed across Ukraine – including those who stayed behind in the occupied areas.

One of the largest of the exiled institutions is Donetsk National University (DNU). DNU was evacuated in September 2014 and two months later re-opened in a former factory in Vinnytsia in central-western Ukraine. Of its 14,000 students prior to evacuation, 7,000 re-registered, as did 700 employees. But DNU has had to set up new classrooms and laboratories from scratch. Many students have to travel large distances to and from Vinnytsia to attend lectures, including from Donetsk itself. International embassies and donors have provided some help, but much more is needed.

In the longer term, all 16 of the exiled institutions hope to return home, when the rebel-controlled areas have returned to normality. They - and the rest of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk - will then need massive investment to rebuild their infrastructure. Perhaps not all will survive the fundamental reforms described below, but in the meantime they have an obligation to enable their current students to complete their education.

This resilience and determination to carry on is vital for the country. For those students who stayed behind, their continuing contact with their universities - through distance learning or difficult journeys across lines of demarcation - provides rare opportunities to access impartial news beyond the heavily manipulated media in the occupied territories. And this forced internal mobility is providing a valuable opportunity for young Ukrainians to learn more about other parts of Ukraine, helping to build national cohesion.

Quality education and equal opportunity

This all comes at a time of significant change for the whole Ukrainian education system. Serhiy Kvit, Minister of Education and Science, says the government places a high priority on reform “to ensure that the education system corresponds to the needs of a modern economy and promotes Ukraine’s integration into international scientific activities. The goals of this reform are quality education and equal opportunity.” He argues that he is attracted to UK higher education because it combines the best of the ultra-independent US sector and the more state-directed European systems: a balance that reflects his vision for Ukraine.

The 2014 Law on Higher Education therefore seeks to transform Ukrainian higher education by addressing the core problems of corruption, inefficiency, and international isolation. Key elements include electing rectors; aligning degree classifications to international standards; granting universities autonomy; removing barriers to academic mobility; involving students in decision-making; and combating plagiarism. Universities will also become involved in R&D - currently the preserve of specialist academies - rather than just teaching. And their numbers will be consolidated from about 800 to 100.

Progress so far has been mixed. Rectors are now elected, degrees are internationally standardised, and the number of institutions is down to 317. But universities are still not financially autonomous, the new Quality Assurance Agency is still not functional, students are not meaningfully involved in decision-making, and websites freely offer degrees for sale.

The British Council is assisting Ukraine's government

The British Council is assisting Ukraine's government with the implementation of the Law on Higher Education. Collaboration is focusing on those areas where the UK higher education sector has relevant expertise to offer, including effective leadership, quality assurance, language teaching, international research skills, student engagement, and developing accountable and autonomous governance. It has signed a specific agreement with DNU to provide support in these areas and similar cooperation with the other exiled universities is planned. On 8 December 2015 the British Council and the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science are holding Ukraine Universities Dayin London to encourage more UK engagement. But there is a great deal more to be done if the UK is to maximise this opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of young people in a proud but battered country.