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On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: A Call to Action for the UK Higher Education Sector

  • 9 March 2022
  • By Uilleam Blacker

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Uilleam Blacker, Associate Professor in Comparative Russian and East European Culture, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. Dr Blacker is on Twitter @BlackerUilleam.

From the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has been heartening to see the global community of scholars of Ukraine and Russia mobilise not only to disseminate their expertise, but also to coordinate help for those in need. Individuals and groups of scholars are working tirelessly on many fronts. Students, including those within the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at my own institution, UCL, have thrown themselves into volunteering projects.

Responses to the crisis on institutional or national levels have, however, been slower. Colleagues across the UK have been working flat out to find ways of supporting those in need, but these early initiatives have largely been bottom-up, involving trying to scrape together resources from existing budgets or repurpose scholarships and fellowship schemes at short notice. These improvisations have been impressive, and institutions are working relatively quickly on them. More substantial, dedicated schemes will be in place soon. I have also, however, heard from several colleagues that institutional management has been slow or reluctant to respond. Even taking into account the excellent efforts already under way, it is clear that we are lagging behind neighbouring countries. Schemes at both institutional and national level were announced within days of the start of the war in EU countries and elsewhere, and scholars and students from Ukraine are already in place in universities in countries like Germany or Poland. 

Why should this be? It could be related to a combination of budget restraints, bureaucracy, long decision-making pathways and cautious leadership at UK universities. Many European universities, while they may be less wealthy than UK ones, are less driven by the pressure to be efficient and so have slack in their system and can mobilise resources at shorter notice. Where UK universities may struggle to free up accommodation, for example, given our over-inflated student accommodation market, EU universities, who generally manage accommodation directly and are not so concerned with maximizing usage, can pivot quickly. Similar problems apply in everything from making scholarships available and waiving fees (on which UK universities depend so heavily) to finding office space. 

Despite delays, however, it does look as though we can expect a substantial response from UK universities. Yet this is moot, because at the time of writing academics fleeing Russia’s war are unable to enter the UK because of visa restrictions. While Poland has received around one million refugees, the UK retains strict visa controls and, as of Sunday 7 March, had issued just 50 visas. Only Ukrainians with family ties can apply, meaning the vast majority of scholars are unable to travel to the UK even if they have an offer of affiliation and support. I know of one case where a Ukrainian colleague had an offer of support at a UK university but had no guarantee of not being turned back at the border, and in the meantime received concrete offers from both Poland and Germany. Colleagues are now discussing how UK-gathered resources may be deployed at EU partner institutions: a sensible solution to a difficult problem, but also one that potentially makes the UK look as though it is outsourcing support for those in need. 

Universities must continue to lobby hard to change the Home Office’s policy. Failure to open safe paths to the UK for Ukrainian refugees, including for academics and students, escalates the risks to those fleeing, increases the burden on other countries (and their universities), and could be disastrous for the reputation of the UK and the UK higher education sector. The problem is not only one for the Home Office, however, but one which requires joint action with the Department of Education (which has not yet announced any action). Sadly, a national higher education response of the kind seen in Poland, which already has a functioning government website with resources and support for students and academics from Ukraine, does not seem to be on the table.

Ukraine has a huge pool of academic talent, and scholars and students displaced by war will greatly enhance whichever institution and whichever society hosts them. For years, most Ukrainians have been effectively excluded from UK academic life by a combination of high student fees and complicated, expensive visa procedures. Ties between the two countries, and mutual understanding, could be much stronger than they are now if it were not for these factors. It is time to rethink the relationship. Simplifying visas for all, waiving fees, providing government scholarships must surely be on the table to help students and academics in the short term, and to help Ukrainian society rebuild in the long term.

 Alongside practical support, the UK academic community’s response should also entail moral support. This includes naming and condemning the perpetrators of the crimes that are being committed: the Russian Federation. In addition to voicing a principled stance on Russia, institutions should also put this stance into practice. Many UK businesses and organisations, including universities, have benefited from the movement of state-linked Russian oligarch money in the UK, while these wealthy individuals use universities to enhance their reputations. Such links must be severed, and universities must be wary of being seen to equivocate for fear political or financial reasons. They should also carefully review collaboration with Russian state institutions and all connections with Russian state money, while making sure to support and protect Russian colleagues and students, who also find themselves in an extremely difficult situation.

It is still not too late for the UK to take more decisive, concerted action and a more principled stance in support of the academic community of Ukraine. Within days, we will see the fruits of the excellent efforts of academic and administrative colleagues across the country. The response would be more effective, however, if it were not left to individual scholars or institutions. Now is the moment for leadership from the very top: fee-waivers, government studentships and fellowships, nationwide coordination of efforts, and, most of all, the cancellation of visas must be urgently considered.

Ukrainian Institute London provides information on what you can do to support Ukraine and Ukrainians during Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Science for Ukraine collects information about practical support for students and researchers directly affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Science for Ukraine is on Twitter @Sci_for_Ukraine.

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