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OWhen Professor Gavin Brown, Professional Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, first made contact with academics at Sumy State University (SSU) in north-eastern Ukraine there A few weeks ago, he didn’t expect to get off the call and start ordering new windows.

One of the main buildings of the SSU had been destroyed in a Russian bomb attack. Among the university’s many immediate needs was to replace 110 windows – but officials couldn’t source glass in war-torn Ukraine. Brown told them to send him the measurements.

Liverpool is one of 44 UK universities that have signed up in recent weeks to “twin” with a struggling Ukrainian university. UK academics say the weekly Zoom meetings, held around air raid sirens, with female staff who fled calling from across Europe, are “humiliating” and “emotional”. The idea is to ensure that when the war with Russia ends, Ukrainian universities will still exist, so that their staff and students can help rebuild the battered country.

Fortunately, the University of Liverpool has its own construction company with links to glass manufacturers, and Brown has heard of supplies like this being made across Ukraine. “It’s about understanding what these universities need and offering real, practical help,” he says.

‘Giving hope’: British universities join forces with struggling Ukrainian counterparts |  Higher Education
An office of the Faculty of Economics of Karazin Kharkiv National University is in ruins. Photography: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The challenges don’t end there. “A lot of women have left and are trying to do what they can from a distance. A lot of male employees are fighting back,” says Brown. Universities at the forefront of the invasion in eastern Ukraine believe that all their female students have fled the region, and many have left the country, but the universities do not want to lose them.

Liverpool plans to share educational materials online to keep SSU students engaged. The university can also accommodate some of the staff, helping them put lectures and lab experiments online for their colleagues at home. Brown stresses that his university will be a temporary base and that when the time comes, staff will return. “It is clearly the fear of Ukrainian universities that there is a brain drain,” he says.

Liverpool, unlike some Western universities, has deliberately not offered scholarships to escaped Ukrainian students who would like to transfer. Brown says if recipients decide not to back out, it would cause significant harm. “The purpose of what we do is to try to help Sumy students to continue studying at their own university,” he says. “They will be essential in helping to rebuild Ukraine.”

Kyiv National University of Technology and Design has told its new twin, Sheffield Hallam University, that the main help needed is to motivate their displaced students to study again.

‘Giving hope’: British universities join forces with struggling Ukrainian counterparts |  Higher Education
Liverpool’s Gavin Brown, who has twinned with Sumy State University: ‘Students will be key in helping to rebuild’

James Richardson, director of global development and partnerships at Sheffield Hallam, says this is no small task as students fleeing war will have more immediate priorities than returning to their classes. And, above all, the university does not know where most of them are. “We understand that almost all of their female staff have left Kyiv or left Ukraine altogether. This has resulted in them not having a functioning administration,” he says.

In kyiv, air raid sirens go off day and night. Richardson’s main contact at the Ukrainian university is to schedule meetings during his next patrol. “I know the staff that’s still there is cold,” Richardson said. “The first call we got, they said it was -3°C at night and they are in unheated cellars. From the outside, we might think things are quieter in Kyiv, but they really feel attacked.

The two universities have many overlapping courses, and Sheffield Hallam wants to share resources such as online lectures, recorded during the pandemic. Many Ukrainian students speak English, so language won’t be a big barrier. “The biggest challenge will be communicating with the students to tell them about it,” he says.

Richardson hopes to bring together staff and students from both universities on virtual projects in the fall. However, he says: “At the moment they are not really working, so it will be difficult to offer anything other than our support. But we’re here for the long haul, planning for next year and beyond.

‘Giving hope’: British universities join forces with struggling Ukrainian counterparts |  Higher Education
Professors from the Karazin Kharkiv National University rescue trophies from the sports complex after a Russian airstrike. Photograph: Sergei Bobok/AFP/Getty Images

Their latest Zoom call, attended by 12 Ukrainian academics from across Ukraine and Europe, was “emotional”. Richardson says, “I think it meant a lot to them to know that there is another institution that is just there for them.

“It’s about giving them hope,” he adds. “It is a reminder that they are fighting for something important. Universities are an integral part of their social and cultural fabric, as well as their economic future.

Charles Cormack, founder of Cormack Consultancy Group, which runs the twinning program alongside the Universities UK group of vice-chancellors, says what UK universities do is listen to what their Ukrainian colleagues need. “At the meetings I’ve been in, you just don’t hear the word ‘no’.”

York University is twinned with Karazin Kharkiv National University, one of Ukraine’s most prestigious institutions, whose buildings are in ruins from bombing. Professor Saul Tendler, deputy vice-chancellor at York, said one of the Ukrainian university’s many concerns was to protect its libraries and archival collections. “They’re telling us they’re in damp basements now and that’s not great,” he says. “If they can get them out of the country, we’ll keep them in our depots.”

Like other universities, York plans to offer summer courses for Ukrainian students, either in town or virtually. Karazin also wants York to hold summer sessions for its staff on moving teaching online, which will likely be necessary for some time given the state of the university’s buildings.

‘Giving hope’: British universities join forces with struggling Ukrainian counterparts |  Higher Education
James Richardson of Sheffield Hallam, which is twinned with Kyiv National University: “We’re here for the long haul.” Photography: /Nigel Barker Photography

However, even communicating can be a challenge. Tendler says, “They endure incredible suffering, spending much of their lives in bomb shelters.”

Karazin leaders said the collaboration must be “one good deed at a time”, due to the strains they face. As Tendler says, “You wish you could hug them and do a lot of things really quickly, but right now they can’t cope with that.”

The University of Glasgow has been invited by its twin, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, to provide up to 100 places for female students in various disciplines to study in Glasgow in the first semester of next year. The Scottish university plans to waive all fees and is exploring what accommodation and additional financial support it can offer.

Rachel Sandison, deputy vice-chancellor for external engagement, says her conversations with her Ukrainian colleagues are “humiliating” and “heartbreaking,” but she takes comfort in knowing they are doing good.

Richardson, in Sheffield Hallam, says: “When it’s all over, if there were no Ukrainian universities because the buildings have been destroyed and the staff and students have just left, it would take generations to rebuild .

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