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Combating Ukraine’s Brain Drain

Taras Dobko

Senior Vice Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University

Both Ukrainian and international universities have roles to play in building academic collaborations and encouraging Ukrainians to return after the war, Taras Dobko writes.

Ukraine keeps losing its talent. On the battlefield, in the forced migration to other countries, in the transition to lower-skilled jobs forced by the collapse of businesses, in the flight of qualified expats, in the designation of Ukraine as a high-risk zone for work, investment and travel. This is a fate of any country affected by a calamity of this scale. The real question is what a country—its people, institutions, government, as well as its partners and allies—can do about it.

A United Nations Refugee Agency survey shows that the majority of the millions of Ukrainian refugees in Europe hope to return home as soon as possible. Two-thirds are going to stay in their current host country until basic safety in Ukraine is re-established. Another recent survey found that only 7 percent of Ukrainians do not plan to go back to Ukraine at all.

This is good news. There is a risk, however, that as the war continues, the number of refugees who do not plan to go back to Ukraine could rise.

According to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, almost 700,000 secondary school students have left Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February. Educational Ombudsman of Ukraine Serhiy Horbachov estimates that the number could be even higher—that up to 1.5 million Ukrainians of school age are abroad. Horbachov also estimated in August that almost 20,000 schoolteachers are abroad, which is 5 percent of Ukrainian pedagogues.

Many Ukrainian universities have shown resilience and solidarity, engaged in global advocacy for Ukraine, and supported their students and faculty in this time of trial. Many welcomed displaced students and faculty, and some even became new academic havens for students and faculty from the temporarily occupied areas of Ukraine. Despite the war, Ukrainian universities were able to admit a similar number of full-time students as in the previous year, though the distribution of students clearly moved in a westward direction.

Nevertheless, with the protracted war, the risk of brain drain will become imminent, and universities might be heavily hit by it. Faculty salaries even before the war were noncompetitive both on the national and international markets. Universities have been losing younger faculty with good knowledge of English and strong soft skills to private sector businesses. Senior scholars with international connections secured arrangements that permitted them to spend most of their time abroad teaching at other universities while maintaining loose nominal affiliation with their Ukrainian institutions.

It would be nearly impossible to preserve the best faculty without raising salaries or pursuing other opportunities to offer competitive compensation. But with the raging war, it is difficult to imagine what resources could be at hand to make this happen. With the loss of 30 percent of GDP this year, 30 percent inflation forecast and 30 percent currency devaluation, combined with the growing needs for the rebuilding of the devastated country, we can only imagine how fierce the competition will be for public funds and international aid. It is quite likely that higher education will not be able to win this competition against the pressing needs of secondary education, health care, security and reconstruction.

I believe that Ukrainian institutions of higher education can do something meaningful about the brain drain issue and contribute to its solution. It is up to Ukrainian universities to exercise moral imagination and think beyond the present predicament to imagine what Ukraine will look like in its postwar future. It is heartening to know that despite all the tragedy, more than 90 percent of the Ukrainian population believes in Ukraine’s victory in the war, and a majority are positive about the future of the country—but this hoped-for positive future should be turned into reality.

Moreover, Ukrainian universities could make a strong case that postwar Ukraine will be one of the most interesting places in the world to research and learn about. Nowadays, there are many research areas that are ripe for exploring in Ukraine: building resilient institutions and communities, coping with trauma, urban reconstruction and planning, just peace and security challenges, environmental damages of war, international law enforcement and transitional justice, economic (re-)development, recovery of the cultural heritage, and the ethics of remembering, migration management and aid coordination—the list goes on.

American universities could seize this opportunity as soon as the security situation in Ukraine is stable and students and faculty can travel there safely. One way will be to include Ukraine as a destination in study abroad programs. Exposure to Ukraine may help talented American students develop a commitment to contributing to the country’s postwar recovery and modernization.

To prepare well for such encounters, it is important to start now to shape the narrative and deepen knowledge about Ukraine in the university setting, going beyond the headlines and providing a platform for Ukrainian voices. A consistent effort to get to know Ukraine on its own terms is long overdue. American universities can include a Ukraine-focused component in student capstone projects or theses, in social entrepreneurship courses, in core curriculum themes, etc.

U.S. universities have already started to revisit their Eastern European studies curricula by allotting more space for studying Ukraine. The Association for Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies will engage closely with Ukraine at its annual convention in Chicago next month. It has also dedicated a yearlong article series to the topic of “de-colonizing Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in undergraduate teaching and graduate training,” reflecting the need for decentralization of the dominant Russian perspective exercised at the expense of all other regional voices.

One of the most astonishing developments in Ukrainian higher education in wartime has been an exponential increase in contacts, projects and collaboration with international partners. Ukrainian universities engaged in many international academic collaborations dedicated to enriching students’ learning experiences and compensating for inevitable disruptions to their education: examples include the Ukrainian Global University, the Network of Solidarity and Strategic Partnership with the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU), and the international campuses of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Among American universities, the University of Notre Dame demonstrated extraordinary solidarity with Ukraine by opening its doors to 30 UCU students to spend a semester at Notre Dame’s campus during this academic year. It also created many other academic opportunities for mutual benefit and collaboration for students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members, including research grants for collaboration between UCU and Notre Dame faculty members and research stipends for UCU faculty in residence. We witness several other initiatives of this kind in North America and Europe (e.g., at the University of Toronto).

Ukrainian students abroad need to keep close connections with their home institutions. Michael Pippenger, vice president and associate provost for internationalization at Notre Dame, says that “U.S. universities should recognize that any assistance they provide to Ukrainian students such as enabling them to be a visiting student during the war should be for a finite period of time. Given the tremendous needs that Ukraine will face in its rebuilding efforts in the future, it’s imperative that students understand that the benefits of studying abroad in these tumultuous times demands that they use the knowledge gained for the common good.”

Volodymyr Bugrov, rector of Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, believes that it is also extremely important to grant Ukrainian scholars who remain in Ukraine access to library resources and other electronic resources of foreign universities, and to establish microgrant programs for Ukrainian researchers.

The story would be incomplete without a reference to the low-hanging fruit provided by online education and distance learning. Students’ educations in Ukraine are continuously disrupted by air-raid sirens, electricity supply shortages, shelling, etc., depending on a higher education institution’s location. Only a few universities have fully resumed in-person education. Many universities offer a hybrid format, and some have been forced to stay fully online. Many students in Ukraine are deprived of normal learning experiences and are looking for alternatives abroad. One way to enhance their education in Ukraine is to enable their enrollment in online courses at international universities and grant Ukrainians a chance to earn academic credits. It worked well with DePaul University, which enrolled more than 100 Ukrainian students in 42 online courses last semester.

What also works well are co-teaching models in which two professors—Ukrainian and international—come together to conduct joint online courses for a joint student audience from their home institutions. With a little effort and ingenuity, it is possible to create a win-win educational situation and bring some normality into the academic lives of Ukrainian students.

No doubt, a significant proportion of Ukrainian young professionals, including students and scholars, will be inclined to seek their fortunes abroad, whatever the outcome of the war. It is important not to be afraid of this phenomenon, but we must also have a plan for encouraging Ukrainians to return to their home country—or at least keep their connections with Ukraine alive. Both Ukrainian and international universities have roles to play to make this happen.


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