What can universities do to improve routes into HE for displaced academics?

Efforts to support Ukrainian academics offer lessons in how individual institutions can improve pathways into UK higher education for displaced scholars now and in the future


University College London
30 Jun 2022
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Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, UK higher education responded with a range of initiatives to support the Ukrainian academic community – from fellowship programmes to student bursaries, fee waivers to twinning initiatives, collection drives to government advocacy. These efforts have arguably been more extensive, with more high-level institutional support, than those following any previous geopolitical crisis, including Syria and Afghanistan, exposing the sector to possibly justified criticism.

Ukraine has a comparatively large higher education sector with multiple, often smaller institutions and significant pre-existing links. The scale of the population movement, including displaced academics, has dwarfed most others in Europe since the Second World War. Based on this recent experience, we can identify good practice on how individual institutions can improve pathways into UK higher education for displaced academics to be applicable in a range of scenarios.

Institutional governance

Combining clear leadership with a truly cross-institutional approach can make all the difference. A nominated individual from senior management can lead a small group of staff drawn from relevant offices – global engagement, HR, fundraising, admissions, student services, widening access. These staff own different work streams, leveraging operational know-how and delivery expertise. This way, an ad hoc crisis response can turn into agile crisis governance. This is particularly the case if the institution can draw on an already established crisis management protocol, located in an identified institutional unit. Knowing who to turn to and how to manage workflow reduces turnaround time, which is crucially important to those whom universities seek to help. Above all, it means we can rely on and optimise our efforts based on the lessons learned the hard way in the past, including some very recent ones, such as during the pandemic.

The university community

In addition, it is vital to bind in the wider university community. First and foremost, ensuring academic buy-in is essential. At UCL, we were fortunate to be able to rely on an advisory “huddle” of academics with outstanding expertise on the region, authoritarianism and political violence. They explained, informed, assessed, critiqued, pointed out pitfalls and helped with scenario planning. Unsurprisingly, many of our scholars maintain close links to the region. They also lead on collaborative teaching or student mobility schemes with partner institutions there. They are thus critical to surfacing important concerns. In this crisis, certainly, the institutional disposition itself was important, with academics and enabler roles alike feeling enfranchised to act outside of their normal roles and take on additional responsibilities.

Similarly, integrating the skill sets, inside knowledge, connections and networks of students empowers inclusive and effective decision-making. Staff gain significant insights consulting with student groups to identify and then address immediate concerns of students from the region currently with us. Fluid communication channels allow staff to share important information with students in a timely and often proactive fashion.

Working together, we can give more targeted support to displaced students still outside the UK, whose university studies are disrupted. But students are important actors in their own right. Students at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), for instance, conducted a collection drive over three months, mobilising and delivering essential supplies for Ukraine. From packing and moving boxes to leveraging personal and SSEES networks, organising logistics and supplies and promoting the drive: students were in the driving seat, but practically and morally supported by staff. In the best-case scenario, the combination of cooperation and care fosters a community among students and staff.

External partners

Yet universities do not operate in a vacuum. We need to engage not only our internal, but our external communities – and none more than the specialised sector organisations. The Council of At-Risk Academics (CARA) is UK higher education’s go-to partner to help deliver fellowship programmes and offer displaced scholars new (academic) lifelines. But community organisations and local government are also key to delivering “wraparound” services, from finding accommodation and school places to advising on access to the health system, and other practical help and assistance. Universities do not usually have the resources or expertise internally to provide such care.

Sector-wide cooperation

It is fair to say that an optimised higher education response in the UK will always require sector-wide coordination, underpinned by a governmental response. Indeed, many obstacles, such as narrow criteria for visa routes and university fee regimes, can only be surmounted by government action. In what is often a fast-moving environment with many interrelated parts, cross-sector exchange and coordination allow institutions to identify best practice, pool knowledge and resources and avoid duplication. Platforms and networks, such as the Ukraine Hub UK’s HEI Sector Task Force, have been an outstanding example. Such consortia also stand a better chance of surfacing and addressing key issues, from visas and immigration to tuition fees, with government.

Individual care

Displaced academics are, above all, individual scholars starting, at least temporarily, a new professional and personal life under the hardest of circumstances. This places a duty of care on universities to create an environment in which the scholars can thrive. Non-academic mentors are indispensable to help with the practicalities – ideally as a full team, such as conceptualised by the King’s College London’s HEI Homes for Ukraine scheme. But it is equally important to create the structures for nurturing displaced academics at university academically. Matching scholars with academic mentors in host departments who can offer intellectual environments and opportunities for their academic development is possibly the single most important factor. Identifying thematic clusters and supporting disciplinary or topic-based networks can further the scholar’s career and truly integrate them into the host institution. Last but very much not least, supporting and enabling connections with other displaced scholars and home institutions – in order to maintain fractured Ukrainian intellectual communities and support the desire to eventually return home.

Uta Staiger is an associate professor of European Studies, executive director of the UCL European Institute, and pro-vice-provost (Europe) at University College London.

Freya Proudman is a postgraduate student in Russian politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London. She is a UK Young European Ambassador for EU Neighbours East, who successfully organised aid deliveries.

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