UK universities commit to ‘long haul’ on Ukraine twinning

Organisers look to expand programme beyond existing 110 UK-Ukraine partnerships into Europe and North America

June 7, 2023

A year and a half on from the start of the war in Ukraine, the creators of a twinning initiative between Ukrainian and UK institutions are looking to cement dozens of collaborations for the long term – and searching further afield for more prospective partners.

Established shortly after Russia’s invasion in February 2023, the Twinning – Supporting Ukrainian Universities programme provided immediate humanitarian assistance to institutions there. Now its organisers hope it can be a springboard for lasting institutional relationships.

Since its establishment, the programme has gained the support of Universities UK (UUK) and Ukraine’s education ministry. It currently supports 164 Ukrainian institutions, with 110 of them twinned with British universities. Ukrainian demand for partners, though, has outpaced supply, leading organisers to put a temporary cap on the initiative while they find new participants.

Charles Cormack, chairman of the Cormack Consultancy Group, which set up the project, said it arose at a time of critical need.

“We had a call with rectors in Ukraine in March, when Kharkiv was under attack and Sumy had been destroyed…it was a very powerful call that galvanised the UK involvement,” he said.

The programme put together institutional partners with similar sizes and missions – key to fostering long-term interest, according to Mr Cormack – to address Ukrainian universities' needs. “We said ‘if you need computers, ask for them. If you need databases, ask. Don’t be embarrassed about asking for help.’”

The initiative seeks to link up institutions at all levels – from top university brass, to faculty, to professional staff in libraries, IT and mental health, to student councils. While commitments vary by institution, it has supported faculty exchanges, access to databases and joint degrees.

Mr Cormack said: “We’re now looking at how to push this wider. We’ve got almost as far as we’re bound to get [in the UK], because those who haven’t joined are unlikely to join.”

He added that, with Ukraine on the “fast track” to European Union membership, it was important to link up Ukrainian universities with Europe-based counterparts.

Organisers are starting to approach European institutions and have already gained interest from a couple of North American universities. Among British institutions, many look to be in it for the long haul, said Mr Cormack.

“This isn’t about short-term humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” he continued. “In five years we want these to be good standard academic partnerships of like with like. If you don’t get the matching right, the danger is you might get initial enthusiasm from the British side, but if the academic community can’t lean into the relationship…it’ll wither and die.”

So far, though, the initiative seems to be delivering. A recent satisfaction survey showed that most institutions were well matched and on the path to implementing joint activities, with key barriers including lack of adequate funding on the UK side, despite £5 million in initial funding from Research England and additional support from private backers.

Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology and pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the Royal Agricultural University, which is paired with the Sumy National Agrarian University, said he was positive about their partnership. Since a student and alumni fundraiser to help repair damage to Sumy’s greenhouses early in the war, RAU has hosted a Ukrainian academic, started a dual degree in sustainable agriculture and co-hosted a research seminar on landscape remediation.

He said the collaboration had clear benefits for UK partners. In his case, he said, it had given his institution an opportunity to take part in research on a “really pressing” global issue: impacts on farming in a globally critical wheat-growing region.

“There’s been very little coverage on the impact on the agricultural sector, which is very surprising given that agriculture is the largest industry in Ukraine,” he said.

For organisers, the takeaway offers hope for similar initiatives in future.

“We’re thinking about...the legacy of this response, not just in Ukraine,” said Mr Cormack, citing an initiative to use twinning in educating Afghan women. “I hope it’s not just a flash in the pan.”

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