Mass-sanctioning Russia will not solve Ukrainian academia’s problems

Barring collaboration with 236 Russian universities raises more questions than it answers, says Ararat Osipian

六月 17, 2022
The badly damaged Faculty of Economics at Karazin Kharkiv National University
Source: Getty
The Faculty of Economics at Karazin Kharkiv National University, badly damaged by Russian shelling

The war for Ukraine’s independence goes on. The West supports Ukraine and imposes economic sanctions on Russian entities and individuals. Ukraine imposes such sanctions as well. On 9 June, Ukraine’s president signed an order imposing sanctions on 236 Russian universities and 261 university rectors.

This is an unprecedented move in the world of academia, given the number of rectors and universities sanctioned (for an indefinite period). The order is most likely a response to the letter in support of the Russian aggression against Ukraine signed by many Russian rectors in early March, but it is quite delayed. More importantly, this order raises more questions than it answers, and offers no solutions to the serious problems that have already accumulated in Ukraine’s higher education.

The order is in line with the general strategy aimed at isolating Russia from the rest of the world, in effect pushing it out from the process of globalisation. Whether this is a productive and well-justified strategy is another question; there are plenty of opinions expressed both for and against the isolationist line towards Russian universities, rectors, academics and even students.

THE Campus resource: What can universities do to protect Russian and Ukrainian academics fighting for truth?

The sanctions list contains such educational icons as Lomonosov Moscow State University (MGU), the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and HSE University. While suffering from the same Stalinist-style bureaucracy as every other Russian university, HSE was unlike many of its compatriots in being a place where – at least until recently – disagreeing with the Kremlin was considered acceptable, if not normal. Since its establishment in 1992, it has grown into one of Russia’s largest higher education institutions and has witnessed many forms of political dissent, including student protests, petitions by the faculty in support of democratic changes, and open public discussions and debates. Perhaps it is the enormous state pressure to toe the Kremlin’s line that saw new HSE rector Nikita Anisimov sign the letter in support of the invasion and land HSE on Ukraine’s sanctions list. No university in Russia is immune from political interference, after all.

There are many hundreds of individual academics in the West who cooperate with Russian universities, and there are many departmental- and institutional-level links, too. Russian studies programmes, professors and students, including those in the US and the UK, benefit from cooperation with HSE University, for example. What should they do? Scholars currently or previously engaged with HSE or any other Russian universities should be concerned. Point 4 of the presidential order instructs Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform the authorities of the European Union, the US and other countries about the application of sanctions and to suggest that they impose similar restrictive measures against Russian universities.

Sanctions are ordered against Russian universities as registered legal entities, and also against their rectors as individuals. But what about individual professors who work at these universities? Are they also, de facto, under sanction? Is this a case of a guilt by affiliation? Can researchers from Ukraine establish any links or communication with professors at sanctioned Russian universities? Can they even maintain already established links and contacts? What about Ukrainian students attending Russian universities that are now on Ukraine’s sanctions list? Must they now leave?

A broader question, of paramount significance, is where the war – coming on the back of the pandemic – will leave Ukrainian academia. Some colleges and universities have been displaced since Russian-backed forced took over Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014. Others have lost their homes in the current invasion. Indeed, in addition to displaced universities, there are now destroyed universities, such as VN Karazin Kharkiv National University, which lost its historic economics and sociology building, burned to the ground in a missile strike during the first days of the war.

There is also a burning issue of funding, as Ukraine’s state budget is struggling to pay stipends to students and salaries to faculty and administrators. Clearly, these problems cannot be solved by simply introducing sanctions against Russian universities. International organisations come to help, but do they really help? The World Bank has approved the spending of close to $100 million (£86 million) on Ukrainian stipends. But this sum is to come out of a previously approved $200 million loan that was supposed to be for “improving higher education for results”. In the sense of emergency response, this repurposing of the loan is real. But in the sense of long-term strategic development, it is no help at all.

After more than three decades of independence, Ukraine still does not have a single world-class university. It appears that it could be at least that long before it finally gets one.

Ararat L. Osipian is a founding fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, New York, working on the book project “World Bank comes to Ukraine: University mergers, protests, and corruption”.



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