Universities in Exile: Somaliland, Belarus, and Ukraine

The term “university in exile” was introduced before World War II when a group of European scholars—mostly German—fled to several locations, including the United States, to reestablish themselves in a new academic world.1 [1] Founded in 1933, the year Hitler rose to power, a New School graduate program called the University in Exile sponsored 183 of these displaced academics.2 [2]

Today, although the concept of a university in exile may not be discussed as much as it was in the 1930s, nor is it as clearly defined as “displaced person,” [3] it implies the same idea—not of an individual but of an entire institution. The Oxford dictionary defines exile as “the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons.” In most cases a university in exile refers to an institution that is forced to relocate because of social and political change. As such it must cope with the loss of its physical infrastructure and resources, meager budgets, and credential crises.

One person is displaced in the world every two seconds, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [4], contributing to a protracted crisis worldwide. The Institute for International Education estimates that there were 1,500 to 2,000 displaced professors and 100,000 displaced qualified university students in Syria alone in 2015,3 [5] many of whom have been out of school for years and risk becoming a “lost generation.”4 [6] Currently there is no recorded total number of actual exiled universities available, but as an example, 18 Ukrainian state universities [7] were evacuated during the war in the Donbass region in 2014.

This article provides an overview of whole institutions in exile—the University of Hargeisa in Somaliland, European Humanities University in Belarus, and many institutions in Ukraine. We highlight these institutions’ credential challenges, including difficulty gaining international recognition, and their unique vulnerability to being used to make fraudulent credentials, followed by recommendations for best practices.

Case Studies

University of Hargeisa

The University of Hargeisa, a public university in the Republic of Somaliland in East Africa, opened in 2000 [8] with 6,500 enrolled students.5 [9] As the leading higher education institution (HEI) in the country, the University of Hargeisa confers both undergraduate and graduate degrees.6 [10] One cannot understand the institution’s current situation without considering its historical context. Occupied and controlled by European countries, including Britain and Italy, since the late 19th century, the Republic of Somalia became independent in 1960.7 [11] Thirty-one years later, in 1991, the Republic of Somaliland declared its own independence after a well-known civil war with Somalia. Despite its declaration, the country is still internationally recognized as an extended state of Somalia rather than as a sovereign nation—although it engages in diplomatic relations with several intergovernmental bodies, including the United Nations, the Arab League, and the European Union; as well as individual countries, such as the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Denmark.8 [12]

Geopolitics in Africa tends to follow the colonial borders laid out by 19th century European colonial powers. For Somaliland to be recognized as a nation separate from Somalia, it needs Somalia’s consent. In the meantime, most of the international community treat Somaliland as a “mischievous breakaway state,” resulting in low international investment.9 [13] As a result, the University of Hargeisa has experienced hardship. Fortunately, it has successfully brokered partnerships with institutions in the UK, Canada, and other countries on the continent. These partnerships have helped the university to acquire some international credibility.10 [14]

In 2013, the University of Hargeisa and Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University, one of the oldest, most renowned HEIs in the UK, entered into an agreement to ensure the recognition of Hargeisa’s degrees and diplomas. Heriot-Watt now supervises Hargeisa’s distance learning exams to ensure their integrity. Under the agreement the Scottish university also offers scholarships to Hargeisa students. The previous year, the University of Cambridge had decided to recognize educational credentials from Somaliland. In fact, partnerships between Hargeisa and British institutions date to 2006, when King’s College in London began supporting Hargeisa’s medical students by monitoring and administering their final exams to enhance program credibility.

Aside from forging connections and relationships with Western institutions, Hargeisa also sought partnerships with countries on the continent. In 2013 it signed an agreement with Kenyatta University, Kenya’s second-largest institution, which agreed to file applications for EU capacity-building programs on Hargeisa’s behalf. Because of Somaliland’s unofficial legal status, Hargeisa cannot file its own applications. Most recently, in June 2018, Hargeisa launched the Somali-Swedish research collaboration [15], further asserting itself in the global higher education community.

The University of Hargeisa’s primary challenge in gaining global recognition lies in the fact that it is considered a breakaway region of Somalia, and is thus cut off from international assistance.11 [16] In the capital city of Hargeisa [17] there are around 19 universities and colleges [18], the credentials of which are not internationally recognized. Unlike South Sudan, the youngest breakaway state [19]—which declared independence from Sudan and then soon after got mired12 [20] in a civil war, the end of which is being negotiated as of this writing—Somaliland is remarkably stable both politically and economically. This is highlighted by the contrast to Somalia’s conflicts with Kenya.13 [21]

Will Budapest-based Central European University be the next university in exile?

Questioned by the Hungarian government about its legal status and the possibility of shutting the school down, Central European University (CEU) is left in limbo and seeking help [22] from the European Commission. In May 2018 the school rector said CEU would move its “base of operation” [23] out of Hungary if the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán didn’t legalize its status soon.

Founded in 1991, CEU promotes the critical discussion of ideas, competing theories, and government policies [24], and is accredited in both Hungary and the U.S. It offers master’s and doctoral programs in the social sciences, the humanities, law, management, and public policy. It has about 1,400 students and 370 faculty members from more than 130 countries, and describes itself as “one of the most densely international universities in the world.”

European Humanities University

Founded in 1992, European Humanities University (EHU) was the first and only private undergraduate and post-graduate university as of 2012 in Belarus,14 [25] and is known as “the Belarusian University in exile.”15 [26] EHU, like many other private universities in Belarus, was forced to go into exile in 2004 when it was shut down by the Belarusian government for being “too pro-Western.”16 [27] Known as the last dictatorship in Europe [28], Belarus runs its universities according to strict state rules. Its universities lack a free academic atmosphere; students’ rights are not protected.17 [29] This restrictive environment, however, has long been resisted by many entities, including the European Students’ Union [30]and European University Association [31]. It also helps to explain why Belarus was not allowed to join the European Higher Education Area and Bologna Process [32] until 2015 [33].18 [34] All universities in Belarus must comply with the state’s accreditation process and curriculum; in 2016 there were no private universities authorized in Belarus.19 [35]

A map showing the European Humanities University's move from Minsk, Belarus to Vilnius, Lithuania [36]

Many international organizations and donors support the reconstruction of EHU. The Lithuanian government stepped in after EHU was shut down and offered the university a place in its capital, Vilnius.20 [37] By maintaining its own ideology apart from the state’s control, EHU is considered “the only truly independent Belarusian university.”21 [38] From the beginning it has received generous financial support from Western governments, international academic institutions, and private donors. The Nordic Council of Ministers, the European Commission, billionaire George Soros, and the Eurasia Foundation have all contributed financial resources.22 [39]

The university is at risk of over-relying on donations, however. If conflicts between EHU and a donor arise, they could restrict EHU’s decision-making and other prospects regarding the institution’s development; or EHU could lose the donor’s support. Donors have stated that their support is contingent upon EHU’s retaining its Belarusian identity.

Under the Erasmus Charter granted by the European Commission, EHU is to follow EU guidelines on student mobility initiatives, as well as the framework for European HEIs. With these responsibilities comes the privilege of participating in internationalization initiatives, including student and faculty exchange programs supported by the EU.23 [40] As the only Belarusian university that provides European degrees—though the degree is not recognized in Belarus itself—EHU offers students the benefit of a smooth admission to graduate school in Europe and the U.S.24 [41] As a result, EHU has attracted lots of Belarusian students. Its proximity to Minsk and the recognition of its diplomas by the EU make it appealing. It also costs less than Western universities.16

EHU offers a variety of programs from undergraduate to PhD levels, in the liberal arts and humanities; and courses are taught in both Russian and English.25 [42] There are currently 850 students [43] studying at EHU, and most are Belarusian. Students often have to commute across the border—such is their commitment to studying in a democratic environment.

The school’s national identity is also aligned with the initiative of rebuilding EHU and providing young Belarusians with opportunities to fully embrace education in a democratic setting. EHU must also adjust to its new environment and navigate the difficulties of having its credentials recognized—a problem all exiled universities face—since its master’s degrees are not recognized in its home country.26 [44] On the other hand, EHU benefits from the support of the EU and its affiliation with the European University Association and the European University Foundation, which lend further credence to EHU’s international standing27 [45].

Ukraine’s Exiled Universities

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, 18 Ukrainian state universities have been displaced and forced to go into exile.28 [46] A peninsula between the northern coast of the Black Sea and southwestern coast of the Sea of Azov, Crimea had been an autonomous republic under the sovereign administration of Ukraine since 1954. Russia had passed its governance of Crimea on to Ukraine after the latter became independent.29 [47]

A map showing the locations in Ukraine of the break-away cities of Luhansk and Donetsk [48]

The autonomous republic status gave Crimea the right to a self-governed parliament (in regard to agriculture, public infrastructure, and tourism).30 [49] The prolonged tension [50] between Ukraine and Russia escalated in early 2014 when Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow supporter, was removed from office in the wake of massive violent and non-violent protests in Kiev known as the Maidan Revolution. [51]

Seeing Yanukovych’s ouster as one of many intrusions from the West, Russia responded by annexing Crimea.31 [52] However, the scheme did not go quite as planned in that the U.S. [53] does not recognize the annexation, nor does the European Union, France [54], or a number of other countries. Nor is Russia’s 2014 referendum recognized by the majority of U.N. nations.32 [55] Consequently, Crimea has become a disputed region and is likely to remain one: During a recent visit to Austria, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed no intentions of ceding Crimea.33 [56]

The idea of annexation soon spread to eastern Ukraine, however, where “pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk” declared the region’s independence.34 [57] Even though Ukraine has attempted to win back its occupied land, little has been achieved.35 [58] In a recent move, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the “Donbass reintegration law” and determined that Russia was an “aggressor.” The Russian ministry responded by calling the legal framework “preparation for a new war.”36 [59]

As the first school in exile in Ukraine, Donetsk National University was forced into exile when Donetsk was occupied in September. Because of the occupation, the university relocated its campus to a diamond-cutting factory in Vinnytsia, located in central Ukraine, with the approval of Ukraine’s Education Ministry. Of the university’s 18,000 students, only 100 went to the new campus to continue their education; 30% of the students stayed in Donetsk because of political and financial reasons. Students from the occupied areas had to register online to continue their education in Ukraine or be expelled. Ukraine’s Ministry of Education will not recognize diplomas issued by universities that remain in the disputed area.37 [60]

Adjacent to Donetsk, universities in Luhansk, which borders Russia, faced a similar fate. Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National University, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Ukraine, had a large student body of 20,000 domestic and 800 foreign students before it was displaced. The occupation has caused the school to lose its campus and facilities, half its student body, and 20% of its staff and faculty members, as well as official papers, student records, etc., nearly overnight.38 [61]

In addition to dealing with difficulties accommodating staff and students, the loss of students and faculty to other institutions, and its limited budget, the university became vulnerable to being used by bad actors. Fake universities reportedly stole the brands of exiled universities to issue fraudulent diplomas, some of which were accepted by Russian HEIs.

Despite the difficulties, Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National University has managed to continue offering the majority of its master’s and PhD programs online, and is now the leading institution in Ukraine providing online learning.

Initiatives Taken by Organizations and Beyond

European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) opened in the late 1970s and established a network of 95 NGOs in 40 European countries. It advocates protecting the rights of displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers. It also seeks to influence EU policies on asylum procedures and foreign policy through research.39 [62]

European Students’ Union (ESU)’s goal is to represent the interests and needs of all students in Europe, and to promote their voice for “sustainable, accessible and high-quality higher education” on the continent.40 [63] ESU has been active in the European Humanities University case, calling for a free academic environment in Belarus and promoting students’ right to protest.41 [64]

IIE_Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) is a program dedicated to providing funding and fellowships to threatened academics around the globe.42 [65] It advocates the establishment of more programs in support of displaced scholars in the U.S.

Cara, a charitable organization founded in 1933, is deeply rooted in the UK’s higher education system and research community. Cara provides help to displaced academics and those still in danger in their home countries.43 [66]

Recommended Practices for Exiled Universities

Recommended Practices for Higher Education Institutions and Organizations Supporting Exiled Universities

Higher Education Institutions

For institutions that work with exiled universities, best practices involve advocacy to help them attract international attention, joint programs, and initiatives to assist in rebuilding these universities’ credibility and credentials. Initiatives may be as simple as monitoring courses or exams for quality control; or training exiled universities’ teaching staff through joint research and projects. Once trust is established, a further step could include launching short-term programs for students to study at your campus, or even enroll top candidates in degree programs. This level of partnership, however, requires consistent commitment and effort on the part of both institutions.


Organizations can be influential and persuasive as advocates and promoters of exiled universities, as well as sources of financial support. EHU would still be looking for a place to relocate if it had not been for the critical assistance provided by the Lithuanian government.45 [68] Likewise, it would have been much harder for EHU to recruit and retain students if it had not been granted the Erasmus Charter by the European Commission, which extends privileges such as EU-supported international exchange programs and streamlined pathways to European institutions.

Consistent, long-term support is crucial in helping exiled universities to reestablish themselves and recover their credibility. While providing this support it is important to avoid unnecessary interference in the school’s operations to allow for its autonomous development.

Given the history and global politics entangled in universities in exile, the recognition of an exiled institution is the result of long-term effort that requires consistent advocacy, support, and practical assistance from the international community.

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7. [80] https://www.britannica.com/place/Somaliland [81]

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16. [97] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22254545 [98]

17. [99] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265610.pdf [100]

18. [101] https://www.politico.eu/article/academic-freedom-in-belarus/ [102]

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23. [110] http://en.ehu.lt/international/erasmus/ [111]

24. [112] http://www.dw.com/en/a-free-thinking-belarusian-university-can-only-operate-outside-of-belarus/a-5867846 [113]

25. [114] http://en.ehu.lt/about/ [115]

26. [116] https://voxeurop.eu/en/content/article/67541-university-exile [117]

27. [118] https://www.4icu.org/reviews/universities-english/9794.html [119]

28. [120] http://euromaidanpress.com/2017/02/25/displaced-universities-how-18-ukrainian-colleges-from-donbas-and-crimea-are-living-in-exile-in-their-own-country/ [7]

29. [121] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/02/27/to-understand-crimea-take-a-look-back-at-its-complicated-history/?utm_term=.42abe6fefa7b [122]

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32. [127] https://www.polygraph.info/a/crimean-annexation-baltic-state-independence/29221929.html [128]

33. [129] http://tass.com/politics/1007961 [130]

34. [131] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27308526 [132]

35. [133] https://eadaily.com/en/news/2018/04/21/ukraine-recognizes-it-cannot-bring-crimea-back [134]

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37. [137] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/18/ukraine-life-donetsk-university-exile [138]

38. [139] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/luhansk-taras-shevchenko-national-university-starts-from-scratch-in-exile [140]

39. [141] https://www.ecre.org/our-work/ [142]

40. [143] https://www.esu-online.org/about/ [144]

41. [145] https://www.esu-online.org/?news=esu-stands-in-solidarity-with-belarusian-students-and-calls-for-the-end-of-suppresions [30]

42. [146] https://www.iie.org/Programs/Scholar-Rescue-Fund [147]

43. [148] http://www.cara.ngo/what-we-do/ [149]

44. [150] https://www.hw.ac.uk/study/why/global-reach.htm [151]

45. [152] https://www.dw.com/en/lithuania-supporting-a-belarusian-institution-in-exile/a-2195264 [153]