University starts from scratch in exile

One of Ukraine’s most highly regarded institutions has decamped to a new home 100km away to escape fighting in the war-torn region close to Russian border

December 26, 2015
Boy sitting on armoured personnel carrier, Luhansk, Ukraine, 2014
Source: Reuters
Russian-backed rebels operating in eastern Ukraine have forced one of the country's top universities to flee their main campus

When Russian-backed rebels took control of eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014, large sections of academia were forced into exile almost overnight.

“Computers, cars, laboratories – we left them all behind,” explains Vitaliy Kurylo, president of Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National University, on his institution’s sudden departure from the war-torn region close to Russia’s border.

Kurylo moved the university’s entire operation 100km west to the tiny town of Starobilsk, retaining 80 per cent of staff and about half its 20,000 student body, including 800 international students.

“We started from a blank page as we could not take any of our facilities with us,” Kurylo says.

Against the odds, Luhansk is now thriving 18 months after its hasty retreat from its campus.

“We lost a lot of students to other universities, but 10,000 have stayed with us,” Kurylo said during a visit to London last month to encourage Anglo-Ukrainian academic cooperation.

Of course, the university – one of Ukraine’s oldest and most prestigious, and which is named for the country’s most revered poet – has struggled in many ways since its relocation.

Finding suitable accommodation for staff and students in a town of just 20,000 has been difficult, and the site lacks the facilities that helped Luhansk to become one of the country’s top sporting centres (it has produced 32 Olympic medallists).

But Luhansk has managed to continue most of its courses, including master’s and PhD programmes, says Kurylo, who was elected as a Ukrainian MP in 2014.

“Our extreme situation has forced us to use new ways of teaching and learning,” he says. “We are now the leading university in Ukraine for distance learning.”

While just 10 per cent of Ukraine remains affected by the conflict, 16 universities have been forced to relocate in the past year.

Donetsk National University, whose home campus was hit by mortar fire, has moved to a diamond cutting factory in Vinnytsia, central Ukraine – a region where Luhansk also based some of its arts faculty.

However, in addition to teaching in these makeshift campuses, exiled universities face a further insidious challenge to their hard-won reputations, Kurylo says.

“Fake universities in Luhansk are using our brand to issue diplomas, and unfortunately some Russian universities are accepting these qualifications,” he says.

“We face many different types of warfare,” he concludes.

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