“War Is War but Classes Are Classes”

The experience of Ukrainian students after the Russian invasion

In February 2022, a year and a half into her degree in political science and philosophy at the University of Kiev, Paulina’s classes took an unscheduled break. Two weeks later, teaching resumed in hybrid format. She told Trinity News that though classes continued to be held partly in person, “I left Kiev a month later”. Daria, another native of Kiev, studies economics at the Sorbonne in Paris. “When the war started I was in the middle of my midterm exams” she recalled, “they helped me to get distracted.” 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 caught Ukrainian university students in the middle of their term and turned not just the academic year but their entire lives upside down. While it is difficult to say exactly how many students have been directly affected by the war, latest figures provided by the world education news site WENR indicate that there were approximately 1.67 million students enrolled in tertiary education institutions in Ukraine in 2017. Many more like Daria were studying in Europe at the time of the invasion and have been forced to face up to the reality that their home country has been completely transformed. The war has impacted every part of Ukrainian society and its student population is no exception.

Yet while the EU’s temporary protection directive activated on 4 March 2022 allows for full access to state education systems for all refugees under 18 years of age, no equivalent measure exists for university students. The EU’s Erasmus+ budget has increased but measures put in place to accommodate displaced students vary widely between member states. For example, many countries—-including Ireland—-have exempted Ukrainian students from the higher fees usually paid by non-EU students, while countries like  Austria and Germany have put in place systems which fast-track the recognition of Ukrainian qualifications.

“In Kiev, my academic advisor disappeared for three months”

Navigating Alone 

Ultimately though, none of these accomodations provide Ukrainian students with direct access to university education in Europe, and while many students have benefitted from an expanded exchange system on a university to university basis, the process of availing of these programmes remains convoluted and opaque. No centralized source of information exists regarding the opportunities open to Ukrainian students in Europe and according to a survey conducted by the Erasmus Student Network in Ukraine, 59% of students feel that their educational institution has not materially aided them in finding opportunities to continue their studies abroad during the war. Paulina, who moved to France having left Kiev, was forced to approach universities in the hope that one would accept her. “In Kiev, my academic advisor disappeared for three months”, she told Trinity News, leaving her to face the application process alone before finally being accepted to Sciences Po Paris following an assessment of her grades and a formal interview. 

As Daria had already moved to France for her studies before the war began, she was not subject to the allowances made under the EU’s temporary protection directive. Furthermore, having originally been granted residence as a minor, she was subject to an even more arduous process in obtaining a student residence permit. Between March 2022 and April 2023 she “sent about 100 emails” explaining her situation and outlining why she would be unable to return to her home country. She was eventually granted her permit after 13 months of uncertainty. Bureaucracy is a tricky business, especially when working in your second or third language without any institutional backing. 

“I was attending from Paris but they were attending from the Donetsk region”

Uphill Struggles

At the same time, many students are attempting to continue their degrees in Ukrainian universities remotely even if they are now, as Paulina puts it, “universities more on paper”. Some 42 higher education institutions have been damaged or completely destroyed since the beginning of the war and their students have been dispersed widely both within Ukraine and beyond its borders. This poses enormous challenges. Though Paulina herself was being hosted by family friends in France, many of her peers are still living in Ukraine with some even enlisting in the armed forces despite their exemption from the draft. “I was attending from Paris but they were attending from the Donetsk region”, she tells me, with some even connecting to live zoom calls during exam periods to sit assessments just a few kilometers from the front lines. 

Both Daria and Paulina know that when their period of study ends they will be forced to look for the next opportunity with which to support themselves while the war continues. Paulina, relying on student grants and access to student accommodation linked to the French university system, has put her degree in Ukraine on hold and has just been accepted into a two-year masters programme in the Sorbonne. Daria meanwhile has had to jump through hoops to get a work permit which allows her to earn money over the summer break before returning to classes in September.

An Uncertain Future

Long-term nothing is certain. When asked whether she intends to return to Ukraine after completing her studies, Daria responded: “That’s a very difficult question.” She explained that she’d love to use her knowledge of economics to rebuild the Ukrainian economy which will emerge crippled from the war, but says that “for now it’s a dream. We can’t think of rebuilding Ukraine because we are thinking about ending the war.” Paulina too sees herself returning one day, “but first I need to understand that I am safe in my country”. 

Until that day, both agree that more needs to be done to accommodate students displaced by the war. “We need even more understanding and opportunities”, Paulina says, “we need to provide more places, more instruments on how [students] can continue their studies and prolong them as long as necessary”. She encourages fellow Ukrainian students to approach universities, explain their situation and be confident in seeking out an education. On a day-to-day level, Daria would like to see more understanding from professors, particularly with regards to language, and a recognition that not everyone has taken the same path to get to the lecture hall, nor face the same challenges when they leave it. 

Met with labyrinthine bureaucracy in an unfamiliar place with limited support, the lives of these students have been rendered uncertain, unstable and complex, all while being subjected to the enormous emotional and psychological pressure of watching their country, family, and friends live the consequences of a brutal conflict. And yet still they must press forward in their struggle to keep learning. “War is war,” Pauline concludes, “but classes are classes”.  

Sam Walsh

Sam Walsh is a Deputy Features editor for Trinity News. He is currently in his Senior Sophister Year studying Law and French.