European funding mechanisms must be adapted to support Ukraine

Flexibility, speed and resources are needed to ensure that refugee scholars and students can continue their work, says Jan Palmowski 

March 1, 2022
Refugees in the cold
Source: iStock

When the European Commission published its European Strategy for Universities only a month ago, higher education institutions were identified as “lighthouses of our European life”. That life is distinguished by, among other things, “democratic practices” and “fundamental rights”.

The Russian war on Ukraine has quickly brought into sharp focus the question of how, in practice, universities can stand up for these values – which, incidentally, are not just European but should be universal. The invasion has triggered resounding condemnation from universities and science organisations across Europe, which is an important start. But it is essential this is now followed by concrete action.

As an immediate response, universities have rightly concentrated on their own communities. The attempts to support their Ukrainian staff and students must be tangible. A crucial test for universities will be not only how they can develop flexible and immediate forms of assistance where needed but their ability to ensure that all campus communities are safe and thriving – including students from Russia.

Now is also the time to plan for what happens when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees are welcomed. Here, universities can play an important part. They have rich experience of supporting refugee students. They have programmes in place, they can provide linguistic support, and they can provide the appropriate mentoring.

But universities have also learnt that supporting refugee students appropriately is very resource-intensive. Hence, governments must urgently set in place adequate support mechanisms that allow universities to rise to the challenge, catering for numbers that may well exceed any our universities have dealt with in the past.

We do not know the outcome of this war or when freedom will return to Ukraine. So there is also an urgent question of how we can create remotely delivered academic programmes for Ukrainian students (preferably employing Ukrainian refugee academics) so they can access free education even in occupied areas. Work on this will need to begin now, and it will require urgent resourcing.

European funding programmes were not created for a crisis like this. But the question arises whether they can be adapted flexibly to support staff and students in need. The principle behind the Erasmus+ programme, for instance, is international mobility and exchange. Clearly, exchange visits by students of universities hosting Ukrainian refugee students will not be possible, but the European Commission could set up a special Erasmus+ Ukraine programme flexibly and quickly to allow Ukrainian students to continue their studies in European Union institutions anyway, at least for an initial year.

Providing for academics who are forced to flee is always beset with particular difficulties given the rigid nature of the academic labour market and the precarity of employment for many junior researchers striving for a permanent position. Nonetheless, could national governments and funders create short-term research fellowships – for a couple of years, say – to which universities could apply if they were able to accommodate a refugee scholar of the right calibre? The aim should not be charity. It should be about enabling Ukrainian academics to continue their contribution to science  – as well as add to their networks and capacities, which will help them rebuild their country once freedom returns.

The commission could help here, too. It has created the possibility, within the “widening” part of Horizon Europe, of “hop-on” grants, allowing outstanding scholars from lower-performing countries to be brought into collaborative grants that have already been awarded. This mechanism could easily be used to bring at-risk Ukrainian scholars into existing collaborative research projects – regardless of where in the EU or an associated country they find themselves.

Moreover, last November the Strategic Forum for International Scientific and Technological Cooperation, composed of delegates of EU member states, recommended a dedicated fellowship scheme for academics unable to carry out free research at home. The ideas are on the table, and the money is there, for instance through unspent money in Horizon 2020, which is yet to be allocated. There is every opportunity for bold action.

Finally, the EU has reinvigorated the European Research Area and has created the European Education Area. Both of these recognise the importance of the EU’s actions beyond its borders, and their existence means that the mechanisms exist for dialogue to progress quickly on how best to assist Ukrainian scholars and students.

We are just at the start of our attempts to grasp how universities can and should respond to this crisis. But it is already clear that the Russian aggression against Ukraine has united Europe’s universities, within and beyond the EU.

Europe’s universities can and do feel a responsibility to do everything they can to support Ukraine. They should now be empowered to do so.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

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Reader's comments (1)

Posted yesterday on another article, but I suspect no-one reads these comments: It would not be difficult for each University to offer a small number of no-fee places to Ukrainian students. Perhaps even a modest bursary. Obviously they'd have to meet the academic and language requirements (otherwise they'd struggle and it would not be helpful). Will one University step up and set an example? Would others then follow?