1. The story of Valeriy, an 11th grader from Severodonetsk
  2. Challenges for higher education in Ukraine
  3. Distance education in Ukraine: pros and cons
  4. How to return and retain students?

As of March 2023, more than half a million Ukrainian students are still abroad, according to the Ministry of Education and Science. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, hundreds of thousands of children have been forced to continue their education in other countries, and today future school leavers are faced with a choice: to enter a Ukrainian or foreign university. 

A year of integration into the educational system and society of another country, the lack of safe and comfortable study conditions in Ukrainian universities — all this does not work in favor of Ukrainian universities. LIGA.Life found out what problems the brain drain could cause and how to return and retain Ukrainian students.

The story of Valeriy, an 11th grader from Severodonetsk

Before the full-scale war, Valeriy lived and studied in Severodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast, but after the Russian invasion he was forced to go abroad. Together with his family, he was granted asylum in Belgium, where he almost immediately enrolled in a German-language school. He had to complete the 10th grade in a Ukrainian educational institution remotely.

"Now I'm studying in the 11th grade in an asynchronous system. I complete assignments through the Human platform, mostly doing independent, test assignments, and those tasks that teachers mark as compulsory. But this is still much less than the total flow of tasks," says the pupil.

Since school attendance is compulsory in Belgium, Valeriy has to take two programs at once: Ukrainian and local. But he notes that Belgian teachers are sympathetic to the double workload, so from time to time they let Ukrainian students off the last lessons so that they can attend online classes. 

The duration of school education in Belgium is 12 years. However, with his Ukrainian certificate, the Valeriy will be able to enter university this year. Together with his parents, he is considering enrolling in an English-language program at a university in Belgium or another EU country. The future school graduate admits that he also thought about entering Lviv Polytechnic.

"I considered applying to Lviv because I have many friends and acquaintances there. But to enter a Ukrainian university, you need to pass the NMT (national multidisciplinary test) in three subjects, while abroad there is only an English language exam and some university exams," he explains. 

Among the advantages of applying to a foreign university, Valeriy names

  • demand for European education in Ukraine and abroad. A diploma from a foreign university mostly allows you to work and be more competitive in other countries or foreign companies;
  • studying in English does not tie you to a specific place of residence or work;
  • greater interest in the quality of the educational process on the part of European lecturers;
  • experience of living in another country;
  • government support for Ukrainian refugees in the EU.

Challenges for higher education in Ukraine

According to the Ministry of Education and Science, in 2022, Ukrainian general education institutions issued almost 226,000 certificates of general secondary education. More than 172,000 graduates were enrolled in bachelor's programs at Ukrainian universities.

It is difficult to determine what percentage of Ukrainian eleventh-graders have chosen or plan to study at foreign universities. According to Taras Dobko, first vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, the number of applications for bachelor's degree at UCU decreased last year. At the same time, the number of targeted applicants who entered with the intention of staying and studying at this particular educational institution increased by 3% compared to 2021. 

"The decrease in the number of applications and the increase in the number of targeted applicants could be influenced by the introduction of a motivation letter in a certain form. Although such a letter had almost no effect on the final score, it could still partially eliminate those applicants who were not fully motivated to study at UCU and did not want to spend their time and effort writing a motivation letter," explains Taras Dobko.

At the same time, he suggests that the number of applications decreased because males under the age of 18 went abroad to study. According to the first vice-rector of UCU, the proportion between girls and boys among applicants in 2022 has changed even more in favor of girls. 

Student outflow. How to retain and return Ukrainian school graduates from abroad

Taras Dobko expects no fewer targeted applicants and the total number of applications for admission than in 2022. However, he notes that the gender imbalance may worsen.

"We are worried that there will be even fewer guys among the applicants. We are now hearing that some parents are going to send their sons to study abroad because of the restrictions on leaving Ukraine after the age of 18," he says. 

The situation with the admission campaign at the Kyiv School of Economics is somewhat similar. The school started enrolling in bachelor's programs for the first time in 2021. That year, 97 applicants were enrolled. In 2022, according to KSE First Vice-Rector Yehor Stadnyi, one would have expected a larger enrollment if not for the full-scale war. Following the 2022 admission campaign, 88 people were enrolled in the school for a bachelor's degree. 

According to him, 20% of last year's applicants to bachelor's programs were people who applied from abroad. When the academic year began, some of them immediately returned to Ukraine, while others joined online classes, watched their classmates' learning process at the Kyiv campus, and learned their impressions. For some, this became a motivation to return later.  

Distance education in Ukraine: pros and cons

Distance education in Ukraine has been going on for almost three years. First, two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, then the full-scale war. During this time, most universities have managed to set up online processes, but not everyone is happy with this format. 

For example, Ivan, a third-year student at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, complains that he has never studied completely offline during his student years. Three years of distance learning, in his opinion, are not conducive to the quality training of a biology specialist, so in the fall of 2022, the student decided to participate in the Erasmus+ program and went to study at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara (Turkey). 

"There were many reasons for this decision. Firstly, I have always dreamed of living and studying abroad, and Erasmus is exactly the kind of opportunity that allows you not to quit your studies at your home university. Secondly, I don't like distance learning in Ukraine. I think it just doesn't make sense in my specialty. So when the opportunity arose, I decided to move to Turkey," he says.

The campus, new acquaintances, free transportation around campus, round-the-clock free access to library and Internet resources, delicious food and cheerful motivated students — studying in Turkey showed the guy a different student life, so after completing the program, he joined the University of Wroclaw (Poland) for a new academic semester. He admits that he has never considered studying abroad, and after the end of the hostilities he plans to return to Ukraine. However, he has no plans for the next academic year. 

Student outflow. How to retain and return Ukrainian school graduates from abroad

Some Ukrainian universities also oppose distance education. UCU, for example, has a policy of live learning. According to the university's rules, students can complete a part of the curriculum remotely only if they have medical reasons or if they have been studying on an exchange program at a foreign university for no more than one year. This applies not to freshmen but to senior students. 

"We are not sure that online education in Ukrainian universities can significantly affect the decision of young people to return to Ukraine. Unfortunately, there is no reliable research on what online learning looked like in our universities during the first year of full-scale war. But what we hear does not inspire optimism," says Taras Dobko.

According to him, many students have simply stopped considering education their first priority and prefer to work. Therefore, the possibility of distance learning, according to the first vice-rector of UCU, is unlikely to change the situation with the outflow of students during the war. 

In addition, Taras Dobko argues that studying directly on the university campus is not only about gaining knowledge, but also about improving skills and forming life positions. Ultimately, it is about belonging to a community, which cannot be obtained online while abroad. 

At the same time, Yehor Stadnyi, First Vice-Rector of the Kyiv School of Economics, believes that applicants should not be completely denied the opportunity to study at a distance. 

"We and potential applicants abroad are now connected by a very fine thread. We can neither extend it nor pull it, because it will simply break. When we say that applicants cannot apply to us and study remotely, we immediately break this connection. In the long run, this will not play in our favor," he explains.

Creating conditions for high-quality distance learning is expensive. According to Yehor Stadnyi, equipping a campus with multimedia systems, headsets, and uninterrupted power and internet can cost more than 100,000 hryvnias ($2,739) per classroom. Such potential costs can put some universities off.

How to return and retain students?

Taras Dobko, the first vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, says that the institution has not yet conducted a special recruitment campaign among young Ukrainians abroad. He does not believe that it will be possible to bring back students who have already left because of the war.

"At this age, the decisions of young people are heavily influenced by their parents. And now we hear that, on the contrary, they will try to send their sons to study abroad before they turn 18. Moreover, they are unlikely to agree to their return to Ukraine. There are also doubts that parents will agree to the return of their daughters until the security situation in Ukraine improves," Dobko said.

In his opinion, the uncertainty of the situation in the country and exaggerated concerns from a distance do not help parents abroad to decide to take such a step. So the university is trying to work with those whose children have not yet left. 

"We try to explain that studying for a bachelor's degree in Ukraine is a better option than going abroad. Because a bachelor's degree is also about a young person's growing up, finding their vocation and self, inner growth and building social networks — in short, about holistic human development. And this is best done at home, not in a foreign country," notes the first vice rector of UCU. 

According to Yehor Stadnyi of the KSE, the best way to return Ukrainian youth is not to call for them to return, but to offer them quality, safe, and comfortable higher education. In particular, this includes the possibility of live training in a room with a shelter, to which students will go down during an air raid. 

"We set the bar for ourselves so that all our students could study in a shelter during an air raid, and in the summer of 2022 we converted the lower floor into full-fledged classrooms with multimedia equipment, audio, projectors, microphones, air conditioning, ventilation, Internet access, and heating. This was an important factor in bringing people back," he says.

According to Yehor Stadnyi, when trying to return Ukrainian students from abroad, it is important to keep the following components in mind:

  • Quality of education, safety and comfort of the learning environment on the part of the university;
  • Motivation of applicants and their parents.

Moreover, motivation cannot be influenced by a travel ban or ultimatums to expel students if they stay abroad. According to the first vice-rector of the Kyiv School of Economics, the child and his or her parents must have a desire to return to Ukraine. Without this, neither high quality education nor a safe and comfortable environment will work.

"Let's face it: the situation is not going to get better. People abroad always have the impression that things are much worse in Ukraine. This picture is created through the media and remote communication and definitely does not contribute to the return. A travel ban will not bring a positive result either. As soon as the borders are opened, people will try to leave. That is why we need to keep in touch with them, create high-quality and safe learning conditions. If we offer the same level of education that can be found in universities in Berlin, London, or Warsaw, we will not lose [them]," he says.

Student outflow. How to retain and return Ukrainian school graduates from abroad

The whole thing is similar to a situation with a change of train platform. A student arrives on one train and gets off at a station where several trains are running simultaneously: Polish, German, Italian, British, and Ukrainian. 

"They are traveling in roughly the same direction, but one train may have a problem, it may stop in the middle of a field or something may happen, and the other one does not. Our task is to make sure that everything works well in the Ukrainian one," explains Yehor Stadnyi. 

In his opinion, the moment of "transfer" from school to university is crucial, because after that, students begin to integrate into the environment they have chosen. If a school graduate decides to enter a foreign university, it is likely he or she will be difficult to return to Ukraine. Therefore, the moment of transition from secondary to higher education is the best opportunity to influence this decision now or to lay the foundation for a future return. 

If the quality, safety, and comfort of education depend on the university, it is difficult to influence the motivation of applicants and their parents. In this case, says Stadnyi, young people who have gone abroad should feel a sense of belonging to Ukraine and the Ukrainian community. 

"If a person grew up with a sense of belonging, if he or she knows the language, culture, and community, feels relatively safe here, and believes that he or she can bring something good and bright, then he or she will want to grow up here. It's much worse when a young person grows up to be a mere consumer and doesn't care where he or she is going to be. We need to cling to these socially responsible individuals, reward their behavior, and offer them opportunities here in Ukraine," he explains.