More than 2.5 million Ukrainians have left their country in the two weeks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February. Most of them, nearly 1.5 million, crossed into Poland, which has a 330 mile long common border with Ukraine and is a member of the European Union.
Among the people fleeing the war is a large group of students from the non-European countries. The war caught them totally unprepared; some fled in just the clothes in which they stood, with no belongings.
A group of students from Ethiopia who studied in Kyiv managed to escape to the city of Lviv by train, but it took them four days to walk on foot the last 100 km to reach the Polish border. They did not sleep, did not eat and were cold, as some escaped in bathrobes. They were finally picked up in such a state by volunteers on the Polish side.
The war in Ukraine has radically changed life in the neighbouring countries as well. As Olga Tokarczuk, Polish winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, put it in her lecture at the University of Warsaw: “The attack on free Ukraine is an attack on Europe.”
Why is Poland a prime destination
Almost as soon as the Russian assault begun, Poland opened its doors wide for those fleeing Ukraine. They enter Poland through eight border points by train, and by car but many just walk through on foot. Most are women, children and the elderly since Ukrainian men of recruitment age (18-60) are not allowed to leave the country.
Given the huge dynamics of events and the dramatically growing number of people in need of immediate humanitarian aid, local authorities and NGOs have stepped in. Local authorities, with the help of an army of volunteers, opened dozens of reception points where immediate aid can be offered.
Large cities such as Warsaw and Krakow converted sports arenas into centres where refugees can find free shelter and food. Many Poles, in a gesture of solidarity, are offering fleeing Ukrainians accommodation in their homes and apartments.
United States Vice-President Kamala Harris, visiting Warsaw last Thursday, applauded this unprecedented effort with great appreciation. “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” she said.
On Wednesday night, the lower house of the Polish parliament practically unanimously passed a bill on assistance to refugees from Ukraine. Ukrainian students will be able to continue their education in Polish schools and universities. Ukrainian academic teachers can be employed at Polish universities.
In addition, people who have sufficient knowledge of the Polish language can work as teachers to support students who do not speak Polish. Schools may open special classes to provide education for Ukrainian kids. Among those who have fled from Ukraine, some 600,000 are school age children, which shows how big a problem it is for Poland.
Ukrainian citizens, who can now stay legally in Poland for 18 months, have free access to the public health care system, on the same terms as Polish citizens. Some financial aid, especially to children, has also been provided.
These measures, however, are limited to Ukrainian citizens, and they do not extend to citizens of other countries fleeing from Ukraine, including international students.
Universities as aid centres
Admitting 1.5 million refugees within two weeks is a challenge that no European country has faced for many, many years. Under these circumstances Polish universities cannot stand aside; they are actively involved in helping to accept and accommodate refugees from Ukraine.
Student dormitories, sports halls, university cultural centres and clubs have been offered for temporary housing.
Help coming from Polish universities has many forms. Thousands of students are active as volunteers. The Medical University of Gdansk, realising that there are many pregnant women among those fleeing Ukraine, started an initiative called ‘Midwives for Ukraine’.
In addition to initiating a fund in support of, including transport for, Ukrainian women who are pregnant or in the post-natal period and mothers with young children, the Medical University of Gdansk created a website with a database of questions and answers on medical services in the Ukrainian language.
The University of Lodz is helping its Ukrainian students by offering to provide housing at university dormitories for members of students’ families who escape to Poland.
Students of the University of Warsaw are collecting medical supplies such as surgical gloves, elastic bandages, tourniquets, painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs and sending them to Ukraine. They also offer free legal aid for students and doctoral students who want to legalise their stay in Poland.
As Polish universities join in the aid effort, the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland authorised Professor Jerzy Lis, rector of AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow, to coordinate matters related to the crisis in Ukraine.
Lis, who stays in daily contact with the country’s educational and administrative authorities, emphasises: “Never in the 21st century have Polish universities faced such a great challenge and never has cooperation between the academic staff and students been so great!”
Students from Ukraine at Polish universities
Students from Ukraine represent the largest group among international students in Poland. In the academic year 2020-21 there were 38,473, over 45.4% of all international students in the country.
Students from Ukraine are now actively involved in the aid effort. We spoke with Anton Blazheyev, who works at Lublin University of Technology, and he told us that Ukrainian (and Belarusian) students at his university are engaged as volunteers in many ways.
A group of students working in shifts drive twice daily to the border crossing points to be interpreters and help in finding transport or lodging for those who do not have any contacts in Poland. Others help in aid centres at train or bus terminals (Lublin is a large city close to the border). Ukrainian student volunteers are also helping at the university hospital in Lublin.
In the 2020-21 academic year, 84,689 foreign students from 189 countries were studying in Poland, 2,495 more than the year before (an increase of 3%). The upward trend has continued since 2005, when the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland (CRASP) and the Perspektywy Education Foundation launched the long-term ‘Study in Poland’ programme.
International students in Ukraine
Among the refugees from Ukraine who crossed the Polish border were probably about 12,000 students from non-European countries. Some of them left on chartered flights to their countries of origin, prepared by their diplomatic services or agents who recruited them to study in Ukraine. But not everyone was so lucky…
A significant group of those who managed to leave Ukraine, often in dramatic circumstances, and make their way to neighbouring Poland would now like to continue their studies at Polish universities.
CRASP holds that helping these people to continue their studies at Polish universities is its elementary humanitarian obligation, as they abandoned the current mode of study through no fault of their own. It is also important as it would contribute to the internationalisation of Polish universities and to the development of the country.
However, the so-called special bill in the Polish parliament applies to Ukrainian citizens only. Therefore, recruitment agencies, who have so far focused their efforts mainly on Ukraine, are already contacting Polish universities. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of this ‘redirection’ of the flows of international students to Ukraine’s neighbouring countries, but such a process can already be observed.
As of 25 January, there were 77,986 undergraduate and graduate international students from 155 countries in Ukraine. If students from preparatory language courses and doctoral students are included, the total is 84,136. The largest group came from India (22,819), Morocco (9,296), Nigeria (6,802), China (5,323), Turkmenistan (4,392), Azerbaijan (4,077) and Turkey (4,045).
Polish academia against the war
A few days after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education severed all contacts with its counterparts in Russia and withdrew Polish scientists from several joint scientific organisations, including the intergovernmental Joint Institute for Nuclear Research based in Dubna, Moscow region.
Rectors of Polish universities are completely shocked. They have not expected Russian universities to publicly oppose the war with Ukraine, but they find the Russian Union of Rectors statement of support for the war unacceptable and inhumane.
However, the indignation at the actions of the Russian authorities has not translated into a negative attitude towards Russian students in Poland (there are more than 1,500).
According to Professor Rafal Witkowski, vice-rector of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan: “On the third day of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, I met a group of some 30 Russians studying at our university. They were convinced we were dismissing them from their studies ... instead, I asked if they face any problems, and if possibly they needed help from our side!”
What will the impact be on Polish higher education?
There can be little doubt, the exodus of students and academic staff from Ukraine will bring changes to higher education in Poland. There will be more Ukrainians among students, but also among PhD students, in the post-doc group, as well as among the staff with the highest qualifications.
The majority of visitors declare that they will return to their universities in Ukraine on the first occasion but, first of all, who knows when it will be possible, and secondly, support programmes being launched will offer an attractive path for Ukrainians to study or develop a scientific career.
Staff of international offices in Polish universities in these difficult days are available 24 hours a day. Conversations with students from Ukraine who can be reached through colleagues or agents are not easy.
As Liliana Lato, director of the International Office of the University of Lodz, explains: “Some of the visitors are simply incredibly tired. But also, many of them show extraordinary excitement and enthusiasm – they are convinced that their country will surely win, and that it will happen soon.”
The Polish National Agency for Academic Exchange, acting on behalf of the minister of education and science, is launching the ‘Solidarity with Ukraine’ programme (similar to the ‘Solidarity with Belarus’ programme). It provides for 1,350 scholarships for studies at Polish universities and scholarships for PhD students and junior academic staff.
Another example of support is that the Cracow University of Technology plans to launch in the academic year 2022-23 free engineering studies in Ukrainian for candidates. They will be educated in the fields of construction and transport.
“The country destroyed by the war will need many professionals to lead its reconstruction. We want to help in the preparation of such personnel,” declares Professor Andrzej Szarata, dean of the faculty of civil engineering. Academics from Ukraine will help launch this programme, which will probably be followed by similar ones in other Polish universities.
Every war at some point comes to an end; everything that has been destroyed must be rebuilt…