Ukraine: International Students Still Need More Support
In Ukraine, Dipam Thakur, a medical student from India, was counting the days till graduation when his career plans were violently upended. With the outbreak of war in Ukraine severely damaging some educational institutions and forcing many more to close, thousands of domestic and international students in Ukraine, including Thakur, dropped out of school and left the country in a hurry.
Over the previous decade, Ukraine had grown into an attractive hub for international students, particularly those who, like Thakur, hoped to study medicine. In 2020, the number of international students enrolled in Ukrainian higher education institutions reached 76,548, up 50 percent from 2011. Nearly a third (32.3 percent) were enrolled in a medical program.
International students choose Ukraine for many reasons: plentiful options for English-language study, reasonable tuition fees compared to those of other European countries, and more lenient student visa requirements. But the ongoing war has forced thousands of current and prospective students to head elsewhere. While some countries and institutions have welcomed them, others have been reluctant to open their doors.
Thakur is one of about 18,000 Indian students who were studying in Ukraine when the war broke out. Like thousands of his peers, he fled across the border into Hungary in search of a safe haven after hostilities began.
“It was a tough and unexpected time, to leave suddenly without preparation when the school year is almost over. The war is scary and so is the unknown future,” Thakur said.
While many of his classmates returned to India, he preferred to stay and look for an opportunity to complete his studies in another European country. “I did not want to return, knowing that it would be difficult to enroll in a university in India because of the different teaching methods and curricula, the high cost, and the great competition for academic seats,” he said. “I preferred to stay and continue my experience in Europe, especially since I was about to graduate,” he added.
Thakur was eventually able to complete the exams for his fifth academic year, as his university in Ukraine provided the opportunity to attend lessons and submit exams online.
One Step Back
Back in their homeland, many students faced difficulties continuing their studies. In India, many officials supported measures to facilitate the absorption of displaced students in the country’s national medical education system. The National Medical Commission (NMC), India’s medical regulatory body, called on the government to exempt returning students from any evaluation or admissions exams, while the Ministry of External Affairs urged private Indian medical institutions to register returning students. Still, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ruled otherwise. It said medical students from any international institutes could not be “admitted or transferred to Indian medical colleges.”
India is not the only country where displaced students struggle to complete their studies. In other countries, such as Morocco and Egypt, students face similar difficulties, such as differing admission standards and medical curricula. (For more about the plight of these students, see “Mired in War, Ukraine Starts a New Academic Year.”)
Despite ongoing hostilities, these challenges have pushed some students to return to Ukraine.
Farid, a young Moroccan man who asked that we not reveal his full name, said, “After two years of studying medicine in Ukraine, and as a result of the war, I returned to Morocco. But I was unable to complete my studies because I did not pass an assessment exam organized by the Ministry of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Professional Training.” He explained that there are limited seats in Moroccan universities, and the assessment exam did not take into account the difference in language and curricula.
With some Ukrainian universities resuming classes this year, Farid decided to take the risk and return to his university in Ukraine. “I am happy to be able to go back and complete my studies,” he said, “but I don’t deny that I am nervous all the time and find it difficult to focus while the bombing continues.”
Another Indian student, asking that we not disclose his name, said, “I returned at my own risk, I have no other choice. My parents paid a lot of money for me to be able to study here, and I am supposed to graduate this year.”
Arriving in Budapest, Thakur did not think he would be there for long. After receiving basic humanitarian aid, he began to search for a suitable European university to complete his final year. He contacted universities in Germany, France, and England, but received no positive response. “There were complications related to the type of documents required and the language of study. Some insisted that I enroll in the study from the first year again, which was very frustrating.”
Disappointed, Thakur fortuitously learned about the possibility of continuing his studies in Budapest. “There was a team from Semmelweis University that provided medical services to cross-border arrivals, and I learned from them that I could join their university to complete my studies. It was one of the best things I have ever heard,” he said.
According to Alán Alpár, Vice-Rector for International Studies at Semmelweis University, the university has about 13,000 students, a third of whom are international. “Our university welcomes students from more than 109 countries, so we did not think twice about including students fleeing from Ukraine, whether they were local or foreign students,” he said. (Read related article: The War in Ukraine Raises New Questions About How Best to Support Affected Students.)
Although the university had already admitted a full cohort of students, the decision to reopen the door to admit students fleeing Ukraine was easy, Alpár said. “It is a humanitarian crisis and everyone should help,” he noted.
Last year, Semmelweis University received about 2,000 applications. While examining and screening these applications was difficult, university administrators decided to accept as many students as they could into a one-year academic program. At the end of this year, the university issued detailed certificates to the students which explained the nature of their study and could be used to complete their studies in Ukraine or in their home country. However, the continuation of war required a more sustainable option.
One alternative is Students at Risk, a scholarship program developed by the Hungarian government. The program provides scholarships for studies in Hungarian higher education institutions to students fleeing the war in Ukraine. Although the program is currently open only to Ukrainian citizens, it had previously accepted third-country nationals. This year, Semmelweis University admitted 124 students through the program, including Thakur.
“Because of the different curricula, I was asked to repeat the fifth year, which I found acceptable compared to universities in other countries, which required that I start again from year one to be accepted,” Thakur said.
For the university, the biggest challenge remains maintaining the quality of education, according to Alpár. As for providing psychological support and helping new students to integrate into university life again, that was the responsibility of the student union.
“Student unions did a great job from the first moment, and we all cooperated to identify the needs of the international students and meet them. We are an international university experienced in working with students of different nationalities, but of course the shadows of war are heavy.”
Some believe that remote learning offers an opportunity for students to continue their studies. For example, the University of the People, a non-profit, tuition-free, online university based in the United States, offers open access higher education programs globally to help qualified high school graduates overcome financial, geographic, political, and personal constraints keeping them from collegiate studies. The university has already offered up to 1,000 scholarships to Ukrainians impacted by the war.
“The people of Ukraine are suffering tremendously, and we want to provide them with educational lifelines so they know they will have a better future when the fighting ends,” said Shai Reshef, president of University of the People. “We have learned that the best way to support displaced students around the world is through online education because it is the most affordable and accessible form of higher education. Our students can study from anywhere in the world at any time,” he said.
Still, many students, especially those in programs that require practical experience, do not consider online learning a viable alternative.
“The practical part is essential in studying medicine. I need to go to hospitals and deal with patients. This means that I have to master their language, which is what I am trying to do now. Although I study in English, I will eventually deal with local patients,” Thakur said.
While students fleeing Ukraine found opportunities in some countries and universities, they faced difficulties meeting visa and admission requirements in others.
In Germany, some cities granted non-renewable visas for a period of six months to international students who can prove their previous enrollment in Ukrainian universities. But many universities and government authorities in the country did little to help Ukrainian students enroll in German universities.
Zaid, an Iraqi student who did not give us his full name, was studying in Ukraine and went to Germany after the outbreak of the war. He said, “I came here hoping to complete my studies, but I did not get any chance of admission, especially since many universities require proficiency in the German language. Universities deal with us as any normal international students coming from their home countries, and not fleeing from a fierce war.”
The situation is not much different in other European countries. For example, the Netherlands has stopped processing visa applications submitted by non-Ukrainians who have safe countries to return to. In France, immigration authorities have hesitated to relax their strict visa requirements—which include proof of funds well in excess of what international students fleeing Ukraine typically have. As a result, just 200 international students have been admitted to French universities since the war began.
Constant Need for More Support
Because of the war, studying at a university in Ukraine was not easy for Patricia Crentsil, a doctoral student at Sumy National Agrarian University. She came from her home country of Ghana to achieve her dream of graduating from a European university. “I have been seeking to study abroad for a long time at a reasonable cost. But as soon as the first semester ended, and during my travel to visit my family in Ghana, the war broke out and my study has been disrupted.”
Crentsil is among 26,500 Africans who were studying in Ukraine before the war broke out, according to a media report. She completed her second semester online, but last summer, communication with the university ended abruptly. Until today, none of the dozens of emails Crentsil and her classmates have sent to their supervisors and university administrations have received a response.
After the war began, some of Crentsil’s international colleagues fled to neighboring countries in Europe. Although today they are stuck, trying to find a way to enroll again at universities there, they may have been fortunate to be admitted to these countries in the first place. Some reports have highlighted racist treatment directed toward African and other non-European students at Ukraine’s borders where they had been prevented from crossing. Unlike her colleagues, Crentsil decided to go to the U.S. to look for an opportunity to complete her doctoral studies. “My classmates failed to find a university due to the language barrier and lack of papers, so I decided to come here and seek an opportunity.”
“I hope universities don’t turn me nor my international colleagues away. I know there are some opportunities for Ukrainian students, which is great. But we—international students—need some as well. I have crossed a long distance to come here and I hope I can resume my study soon and not be back empty-handed,” Crentsil said.
Accommodating the sudden influx of thousands of displaced students is an undeniable challenge. However, with the war in Ukraine in its second year, institutions and policymakers must take serious steps to help rescue these students from the chaos.
“Humanitarian crises are always unanticipated, and because they are humanitarian, they require quick and flexible action. It is a difficult challenge, but it should not be overlooked,” Alpár said.