War and Education in Ukraine
Today we look at education in Ukraine during times of war. With me is Anatoly Oleksiyenko, who was born and raised in Soviet Ukraine and is a leading scholar in post-Soviet higher education systems.
Anatoly Oleksiyenko is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong. He is also the director of the Comparative Education Research Centre. His latest article is Ukrainian Academics in the Times of War, which was published in Academic Praxis.
Citation: Oleksiyenko, Anatoly, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 279, podcast audio, May 2, 2022.https://freshedpodcast.com/oleksiyenko/
Will Brehm 1:10
Anatoly Oleksiyenko, welcome to FreshEd.
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 1:12
Thank you very much, Will. Hello, everyone. And thank you for inviting me.
Will Brehm 1:16
So, can I ask you where you were when you learned about the recent Russian invasion into Ukraine?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 1:16
I was in Hong Kong teaching in their math program, and I received this news about the invasion. My brother, his family, cousins, my elder son were all in Ukraine at that time. So, it was horrible news and frankly speaking over the last two months, I was not able to comprehend what was going on there. Just under that pressure. Calling my family, raising funds, trying to continue teaching my classes in Hong Kong, also trying to keep in touch with my friends and colleagues who were teaching in Ukraine and living through that horrible time. So, it was very painful.
Will Brehm 2:03
I’m so sorry. I mean, it just sounds so tragic. Is your family safe right now?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 2:08
Thank you for asking. They are safe at the moment. My brother lived in Irpin next to Bucha, and he left one week before the genocidal actions began in the city. So, he fled to the west as part of the population evacuation plan. It was implemented by the mayor of Irpin. And he’s still in shock but he’s safe and contributes to civilian work in western Ukraine.
Will Brehm 2:08
I mean, what an absolute nightmare. You have such obviously strong connections to Ukraine. You grew up in Soviet Ukraine, if I’m not mistaken. You’ve worked and been educated in Ukraine. So, you sort of know the country, the higher education system, the schooling system extremely well. And so, this is why I actually wanted to bring you on the show to get a sense of what’s happening in Ukraine in terms of education, right? Like what has actually happened to schools and universities since this war has started?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 3:08
The Russian invasion started with annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas in 2014. Over the following eight years, there were more than 750 schools damaged or forced to closure as was reported by the UN organization for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. So, parents were afraid to send their children to schools for obvious reasons because of continued shelling in the east of Ukraine. So, that feeling of uncertainty and fear prevailed primarily in Donbas and the southeastern parts of Ukraine. But on February 24 of this year, the Russian invasion expanded, and Putin claimed it was Ukraine’s fault in disrupting the Minsk Agreements. He denied Ukraine’s legitimacy and agency. And in the end, he concluded it was important to obliterate the Nazis as he was saying to people who resisted his narrative of the Great Russia of the Imperial narrative. So, schools and universities in Ukraine have tragically, and unavoidably become an inseparable part of the infrastructure that was bombed and shelled by the Russian army. Many campuses were ruined, turned into rubble, practically.
Will Brehm 4:18
The destruction is quite immense. Do you know if there’s teaching that’s still going on? I mean, are all students out of school and out of university or are there some places that are still operating trying to have some sense of normalcy?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 4:32
Many schools were closed temporarily. Children were fleeing with their parents going west, crossing borders. You’ve probably heard stories about how massive the refugee flow was. But in the eastern parts of Ukraine, many of the schools were ruined. In fact, children didn’t have the opportunity to study. Many spent a long time in bomb shelters underground, so they had no access to online resources. In other parts of Ukraine, schools reorganized themselves to become shelters for refugees. They organized their campuses to accommodate people coming from the east. Most of teaching in Ukraine has been done online now.
Will Brehm 5:18
And the internet is still working?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 5:20
The internet is not always accessible. You might have heard that Elon Musk has provided Starlink for Ukraine. So, it gave access to the internet in many cities and villages. It was a very generous act of donation, this satellite internet, which enabled access to many schools and students. And in that regard, I guess that improved the situation. But we also have to remember that COVID actually spearheaded all of that online education before. So, COVID played a role in terms of reorienting the educational infrastructure for online learning. The war has actually improved it further in terms of making it a new normal, but a new way for students and teachers to really work with online resources. But in the Ukrainian situation, many teachers are still in Ukraine, while their students are abroad because they crossed the border. They might be living in Poland or Germany, but teachers continue to teach from Ukraine. And students sometimes hear these air raid alerts on Zoom because when they hear the air raid alert, teachers have to leave the room and go to a bomb shelter. So, you can imagine how these students comprehend the idea of teaching and learning. Many students cannot switch to another language while they’re abroad because they don’t have skills in, let us say, German or Dutch or even English is not always an easy language to use in schooling. Besides, many parents still believe that the war will end soon. So, they don’t want to settle in other countries. They have anticipation of going back home soon. So, they prefer to use Ukrainian as the language of education, so the online resources provide for that type of support to many of these school children, as well as teachers.
Will Brehm 7:24
It’s quite amazing the resilience that was built into the system because of the previous emergency of COVID. I mean, that’s quite a telling story. Ukraine, from my understanding, had a lot of international students studying in universities in particular. Have most of those students left the country or are they fleeing to neighboring countries or staying in Ukraine? Do we know anything about them?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 7:50
We had a webinar yesterday with my colleague from Kharkiv University and she was asked the same question. Their university in Kharkiv had the largest population of international students. So, she was saying that there were students who didn’t want to leave and stayed in the city despite the aggression and shelling. One Syrian student said he already lived through that horror before, and he didn’t want to leave. They finally urged him to rethink his attitude or approach to where to stay. And so, he’s in Germany now. But as you might have seen in the news, there were a lot of reports on problems for international students crossing the border. Many of these students didn’t have the same conditions as Ukrainian students and that was caused primarily by different visa status. Ukrainians had the privilege of visa-free travel in Europe while many international students didn’t have that privilege. So, they were discriminated by immigration officers. But there were also ridiculous situations when these massive flows of refugees, 5 million people are reported now, who have fled across the borders were sometimes chaotic and messy. And reports on this kind of racist attitude was also expressed which is just disgusting, actually. But in terms of when I tried to kind of clarify those issues, some people said it was such a horrible whole condition where people were angry, frustrated -and angry at each other, not necessarily at a foreign citizen, but at each other when they had to travel for 15 hours in the train standing. So, you stand in the packed car of the train without the ability to use a toilet or have food as the trains are stopped because of the bombing. And you don’t know if the train will be bombed or will be shelled. So, these trains were stopping for quite some time and people would continue traveling and then when they arrived at the border, they would still wait for three, four days without knowing whether they would be admitted as a refugee. So, international students were a part of that horrible, actually what it was, it was this kind of horrible human flow of desperate asylum seekers. And from that point of view, it’s frustrating that it happened to international students. Luckily, the Indian government played a great role in accommodating the return of their students to India. They sent humanitarian flights to take students back to India. We also have good stories about universities in Hungary or Bulgaria admitting students to their universities to continue degrees that they already began in Ukraine. So, they would be able to continue their studies in Hungary and Bulgaria, Romania. So, that was also a positive change of minds over time. I guess the crisis made everyone learn anew in terms of how they respond to this human crisis regardless of race, belief, gender, any other nationality, other conditions.
Will Brehm 11:10
Wow. I mean, I’m sure as time goes on, more and more of these stories are going to come out and they’re just so traumatic and horrific. And what people put up with and how they survive is just a testament to, I think, us being humans in a way. You brought up Russian aggression from 2014 and how the recent invasion sort of was building on that to some extent. It made me wonder, historically speaking, what has the connection been between the Russian universities and Ukrainian universities? I know, Soviet Ukraine obviously had a lot of connections. But since independence, what has the interconnection looked like between Russia and Ukraine in terms of higher education?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 11:54
Oh, you’re right. Connections, go back to the times of the Soviet Union. So, when I did my research on international student mobility, I noticed that Ukrainian students continue to go to Russia to study even after 2014. The number of Russian students studying in Ukraine declined over the same period of time. But these data were published by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, and it is not clear to what extent the data from the occupied Donbas or annex Crimea became part of those calculations. I can’t really say if the data are accurate. But if you look into the collaborative research between Russian and Ukrainian scholars, you will notice we just read the databases of the Web of Science, or Scopus, you will say that there were very few papers written together, written in collaboration. Although there were papers in the fields of nuclear physics, for example, which were traditionally, I guess, this continued type of discussion about Chernobyl and recently in Zaporizhzhya. So, you would see that Russian and Ukrainian scholars would collaborate in larger teams, including American scholars, German scholars, and many other scholars. So, this has been a tendency in sciences in general to have multiple authors involved. But in social sciences, in general, when I looked last time, I saw that there were only two or four papers a year during the last five years, maybe. Primarily in archaeology or anthropology. I remember one paper was on the ancient pottery from the Black Sea region. So, the Ukrainian and Russian scholar has probably worked on that for quite a long time. And they continued to publish on the same issues which were not as political, I suppose, as they might have been in other areas. But in sociology, or in other fields, I can’t see any papers in internationally influential journals. So, the indexed types of journals. It seems to me that, in general, you may find some collaborative processes, outcomes among elite scientists who are committed to their area of science and continue to do their work on particular research, and they might still continue relating to each other. But after February 22, I’m afraid this type of tendency might cease completely.
Will Brehm 14:36
And what about the Ukrainian students who were studying in Russia? Do we know what happened to them after February 23, or 24th?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 14:45
In general, Ukraine had a number of people who spoke Russian, who had family relations in Russia, and who prefer to go and live in Russia. So, sending their children to study in Russia, these families, these households had some idea of living in that part of the world. But in general, what we see as a sea change, is increasing number of people going to study west and particularly in Poland. There is an increasing number of students going to Poland after 2014. To answer your question, there is no news about students who study in Russia. They have most likely assimilated with the Russian population. They were already part of the Russian culture and the Russian discourse,
Will Brehm 15:35
Because it sort of brings up this issue about, as you’re talking about some of these university collaborations. But also, this reality that students themselves are quite mobile and build ties and relations across borders. And the question is something around to what extent can professors and academics, and students who are internationally mobile be used in ways to maybe create peace or be levers towards peace in some way? And I just wondered, to what extent do you think that might be possible in this particular crisis in Ukraine?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 16:13
It’s a very good question. I took part in several webinars with Ukrainian scholars discussing some of the issues and this question tends to come back. The most surprising discovery of the recent time is that the Ukrainian scholars who are in the areas most affected by the war, in Mariupol or in Kharkiv, they say no. They don’t really want to have any peace building with Russians. One scholar, who was Russian herself and, in the webinar, she was trying to speak Ukrainian and you could hear this Russian accent behind her. Every time she would fail to find the equivalent in Ukrainian, she would take a pause, and wait and try to find it and speak Ukrainian instead of switching to Russian. And when others in this webinar were asked about peacebuilding or conversation or dialogue with Russians, most of these people coming from the Western Ukraine, which is least affected. So, they would hesitate, but they would say maybe they should speak. But the scholars in the East, they had these trembling voices saying it’s impossible, like these Russians are inhumane, you cannot speak to that. So, where I see this kind of the consensus building up at the moment is that yes, you have to speak to Russians about the Russian genocide. You have to show to them the atrocities and the results of the bombing and discuss how they alienated the Russians in Ukraine. So, you have to expose to them these facts. You gotta tell them these stories, show them the results of what happened in Bucha, Mariupol, with the mass graves, this genocidal type of impact that it had on the modern nation. So, that’s pretty much where I can see where this type of peacebuilding is emerging at the moment.
Ukraine needs, in general, a decolonial peace. Decolonial peace is built on the recognition of asymmetries in power and the legacy of discrimination by the imperial forces, imperial governments, or pro-imperial governments. And then building peace is built by the kind of recognition of equality and justice, but where the perpetrators, the discriminators recognize their mistakes before the whole conversation starts. So, that’s pretty much I would argue to be a proper position at this point in time. But in general, yes, the conversation should take place. I just read recently a post on Twitter from a scholar in southeastern Europe talking about how the intellectuals and Germans were taken to Buchenwald after the Second World War and how the Americans took them to Buchenwald to show the atrocities of the Nazi government. And these people were shocked and fainted. The intellectuals were not able to believe that their government would treat the Jewish population and other minorities in that way. So, that kind of comprehension of shock, comprehension of genocide, comprehension of evil that should take place in the Russian population, especially among Russian intellectuals first.
Will Brehm 19:49
It’s quite interesting. I mean, some sort of notion of like, a truth and reconciliation commission of some sort. You know, exposing what happened and opening it up for dialogue and conversation. I mean, to what extent does something like that not only have to be placed on the shoulders of Ukrainian academics but are there connections to global academics that could also be part of that movement, in a sense, and support that work?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 20:16
That’s what we are expecting to happen surely in coming months and years. We, Ukrainians, are very grateful to all scholars of the world who offered immediate support in various ways -donations, scholarships, hosting students and scholars in their home. So, there was a lot of that type of solidarity that emerged over time. But we also saw the references to “whataboutism” right? Like, what is special about the Ukrainian case? Why should we treat them in a special way? Because what are they? Should they have a better status? I think it’s a cynical attitude and morally corrupt approach in terms of how we compare suffering of different people. And we should ask ourselves in the West, in terms of what we have learned from the previous genocidal acts. Why didn’t we do better, right? And every time something like what we observe today should be an opportunity to rethink about previous miscalculations, mistakes by Western intellectuals. Why didn’t we do enough when the Syrian crisis happened? Why didn’t we continue talking about what happens in Syria? Or maybe even in Georgia. There were so many of these aggressions produced by Russians on the continent and beyond probably. But the center, we never had enough of that commitment to continue the intellectual conversation, critical inquiry in terms of what we have done to prevent the fascist type of development. These types of imperialist types of progressions, and so on. So, that is pretty much where we need more of that type of international dialogue, global solidarity, against fascist and imperialism in general.
Will Brehm 22:00
And it raises an interesting question about Russia. If we want to have this conversation, and we want to make it global and not make it a race to the bottom, but actually a race to the top and sort of treat each other better, have these deeper conversations. What surprises me when I read the news outside of the academic space, but I see like Russian athletes being uninvited from sporting events, and Russian musicians being uninvited from different international concerts, and I think certain composers not being allowed to be expressed in some musical venue. And I mean, it sort of gets a little absurd. And I just wonder is that also happening in the academic space? Are Russian academics being sort of excluded from some of these conversations? And if that’s the case, I mean, should it be the case? I mean, how can we sort of live up to that global ideal if we might be excluding certain people based on their nationality, regardless of what their government does?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 22:56
I agree. It’s a very challenging question. For people in Ukraine, it’s an extremely challenging question. I believe this is a very challenging question for people who live elsewhere, in terms of whether uninvitations can be a good way to resolve some of these problems. I understand the anger that exists in the beginning of the crisis, in the time when people observed the atrocities taking place in Ukraine, and especially when the Russian University rectors expressed their support for these atrocities. That was something that was difficult to comprehend. It was impossible to comprehend because they could say nothing. They could have kept quiet as they used to do in the past. They would never confront the government in any way. They would never criticize the government in the civil situation. Suddenly, they became this very strong, patriotic voice, right. So, in a way, the democratic world responded, probably justifiably. But in the future, in terms of how that goes with relations in the future, it’s, -again, when I look back in the Soviet times, if the government, this fascist regime in Russia continues as it is. In the Soviet times, the academics were traveling in pairs, or groups, and thus would have to snitch on each other and report on each other about who said what and how it might have been associated with the governmental propaganda. And the informants would also collect intelligence on foreign scholars in efforts to recruit what Lenin was calling as useful idiots for their soft power projects, right? And one has to remember that the authoritarian regime sends out their scholars for soft power assignments, otherwise their travels abroad will be regarded as a waste of governmental budget. So, for Western conferences and associations that are populated with these delegations, there would be a big question, do they act as legitimizers of the Russian regime? Or would they create some problems for the Russian dissenters who will speak on critical issues, and then they would risk their own safety? So, in science and technology, this might be easier, but we increasingly see that open science had a little period of time when we enjoyed that belief in the future of science being borderless. But recently, we see this reversal effects in terms of science, again being mindful of espionage and military industrial secrets, and the implications for R&D projects that work for the future technology. So, we definitely see that belief that we had in the early 2000’s -that belief is eroding. And this type of discussion about the futures of Russian scholars as representatives or participants of these projects might be really related to that larger discourse and concern in the global science.
Will Brehm 26:16
Yeah, it’s such a really interesting point about open science and the ability to understand and evaluate if a scientist is basically the voice of the state. And that is probably a really, really difficult thing to uncover. I mean, it would be really hard to figure out and in certain countries, I’m sure even more so. So, what do you think, we’re talking on April 22, what is the future here in your mind? How do you see this playing out? How do you see this war potentially ending?
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 26:48
Ukrainians believe in their victory. They refuse to accept any of those suggestions by some Western intellectuals about concessions. That’s been Ukrainian history for quite a long time. Ukrainians were always resistant. They were always anti-imperial. Now their futures is pretty much about building solidarity with the rest of the world in terms of how they decolonize the discourse and practice and contribute to deconstructing those center peripheries that we have seen being developed in the discourse as a hierarchical normal. And some of these scientists were urging us to comply with that type of normalcy of these center-periphery relations for scholars of Ukraine, as many other scholars who were on the periphery before, they would definitely have to flatten that imperial knowledge empires as Philip Altbach called them before. So, they would need to break those types of hierarchies and open the borders for more discussion, critical inquiry, and so on. But I’m sorry, I can’t answer this large kind of geopolitical question about how the war may end. It’s difficult to say. I hope that Ukraine wins, and the democratic world wins as well.
Will Brehm 28:08
Well, Anatoly Oleksiyenko, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. I hope you and your family, your friends, and all your colleagues can stay safe during this really tragic moment in the Ukraine.
Anatoly Oleksiyenko 28:22
Want to help translate this show? Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
World-class Universities in the Soviet Legacies of Administration
Is Academic Freedom Feasible in the Post-Soviet Space of Higher Education?
Displaced Scholars and Identities in Embattled Ukraine
International Students and Ukrainian Universities: Dilemmas of Agency and Change
UNOCHA Report on Crimea and Donbas Annexation
Global Flow of Tertiary Level Students
The Future of Research Collaborations involving Russia
Russian Rectors’ Union Echo Kremlin Propaganda on Ukraine
UK Universities Cut Links with Russian Institutions
The Imperial Tongue: English as the Dominating Academic Language – Phillip Altbach
Education under attack 2018 – Ukraine
Impact of Russian Invasion of Ukraine on the Ukrainian Higher Education Sector
The Educational Opportunities of Ukrainian Children at the Time of Russian Invasion
How Do We Count the Education Impacts of the War in Ukraine
Education: Impact of War in Ukraine
Will the War in Ukraine be a Pivotal Moment for Refugee Education in Europe?
Teaching during the Wartime: Experiences from Ukrainian Medical Students
Ukraine: Keeping Education Alive
A Pamphlet on Ukraine, Education, and Catastrophe
War on Ukraine: Impact on Ukrainian Medical Students
Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War
Resources to Help Displaced Scholars from Ukraine
Have any useful resources related to this show? Please send them to email@example.com