March 18, 2023: Taras Shevchenko National University main building in downtown Kyiv (Image Credit: Sergiy Palamarchuk/

Resilience and education diplomacy: How Ukrainian universities persist in the war

This article is largely based on the third episode from an interview series by The Perspective Pod and Radio. This episode features an interview with Professor Kseniia Smyrnova. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify.

As of writing this article, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has lasted for 438 days. Casualty estimates vary widely, yet regardless of the exact number, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and defenders have lost their lives in this brutal invasion. And on the opposing side, military casualties are even higher.

A year into the war, the World Bank estimates that rebuilding Ukraine’s infrastructure would take longer than ten years. The actions of the Russian government have devastated Ukraine and caused millions of Ukrainians to abandon their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries or less affected areas of Ukraine. Yet, Ukrainians have not given up in a war waged by a much larger opponent.

Ukrainian students are also affected by this war. Not only did they have to endure the losses of family members and friends, but the war meant an interruption of their educational future. Many left the country and went to partner universities due to the risk of remaining in Ukraine, while others stayed in the safer regions of the country. We interviewed Professor Kseniia Smyrnova, Vice-Rector for International Cooperation of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (KNU) to find out how the war has affected her home university, higher education more generally, and present and future cooperation with European universities.

Professor Kseniia Smyrnova of the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv (Image Credit: Geberle Berci Photography/ Budapest University of Technology and Economics)

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in the following interview belong solely to the interviewee and do not represent the views and opinions of the author, the editorial staff of The Perspective, or UPF Lund.

When asked about her own experience when the invasion started, she remembers that her emotions were split. As a mother she worried for her family, and about the students and staff she was responsible for as a Vice-Rector. “It was really unpredictable, and I woke up with a call at half past four with the special task to coordinate our faculties”. She immediately went to the university to work towards keeping everyone as safe as possible. Not only did the university initiate the evacuation of foreign students out of Ukraine, but also took care of staff living in the occupied northern region of Kyiv Province. 

After three weeks of no teaching at all, the university switched to online education to give their students the ability to graduate the following semester. Despite the relatively smooth transition given the circumstances, she points out the painful losses amongst students and staff they had to experience, taking away some of their most talented people. “But at the same time, we are keeping resilient and we continue to prepare young generations with the main aim to recover the Ukrainian state”.

The Taras Shevchenko National University’s sports complex in Kyiv was significantly damaged after a Russian missile attack on December 31, 2022 (Image Credit: Review News/

Professor Smyrnova states that more than thirty Ukrainian universities are currently internally displaced due to the war. These universities face great challenges, but nonetheless, continue to work. 

Professor Smyrnova describes how, from the first day of the invasion, all Ukrainian universities sent thousands of official appeals to partner universities abroad about the aggression by Russia and the situation in Ukraine. The goal was to urge them to use their academic voice for Ukraine and against the war. At the same time, they received words of support from international universities: “We were communicating with numerous rectors’ unions from different countries, and we received a lot of official letters from the rector unions [eds. across the world]”. 

The start of the invasion meant that all official agreements and treaties with Russia were cut. Many foreign universities now also face the question of whether to extend this to Russian national students applying to universities abroad. 

The University of Tartu and Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) are two examples of universities that took a stricter approach and decided to stop accepting new Russian and Belarusian students one month into the war. On an EU level, all cooperation with Russian public institutions has stopped

Yet, this does not stop Russian or Belarusian students and scholars from individually applying to EU-funded exchanges or projects. Furthermore, most European universities, including Lund University, have not stopped accepting Russian or Belarusian programme students. Reasoning for this includes that they do not personally hold young students responsible for the invasion, or they state that they do not differentiate based on the nationality of applicants

When asked about whether universities should restrict Russian and Belarusian students from applying to their programmes, Professor Smyrnova acknowledged that it is a controversial question. However, she fully supports the idea of restricting applications from Russian and Belarusian applicants. She does not believe the “innocent young people” narrative and suggests that: “even if you are keeping silent you are supporting that [ed. the invasion of Ukraine]”.

On the Day of Unity of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former British Prime Minister and Member of the British Parliament Boris Johnson met with students and lecturers of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Image Credit: Press Service of the President of Ukraine/ Wikimedia Commons)
The fight against corruption in higher education
Throughout the course of the interview, we also had the opportunity to ask about corruption in higher education. Transparency International places Ukraine at the 116th place in the world out of 180 countries in their Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). However, Ukraine has been improving their rankings over the last few years. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has taken a hard stance on corruption in Ukraine, which is demonstrated by a reshuffle of government positions in the light of corruption allegations in January. Ukrainian society does not respond lightly to corruption during wartime, as it hinders the war effort and brings negative media attention to Ukraine in a period where they are actively seeking EU membership. The tough stance and positive change for Ukraine is welcome, yet how is higher education affected by corruption in Ukraine?

A blog post published by the Atlantic Council in 2019 discusses the challenges faced by higher education in Ukraine. They bring forward many issues related to academic dishonesty—lack of transparency in academic assessment or inadequacies in assessment, ghostwriting use by students, plagiarism, abuses regarding admissions and bribery. In 2016, Politico discussed higher education corruption in Ukraine at length, even highlighting a case concerning a student from KNU. 

Fortunately, in the past couple of years higher education in Ukraine has been reformed and corruption is actively being rooted out according to Professor Smyrnova. She also stated that in her professional experience, she has not faced these aspects of corruption. According to her, KNU has a very strict strategy for anti-corruption and avoiding conflicts of interest. So far, KNU has adopted several policies to inform cases of corruption. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education has set up a phone line to provide information on any possible cases—she added: “There were no cases concerning our university”. Yet, she concedes that she cannot speak on behalf of other universities and that “a lot should be done on the level of the whole system of higher education”. Finally, she adds: ”There are a lot of ambitious plans for modernising the higher education system”. 

When asked about what her current focus and commitment are, Professor Smyrnova stresses: “We are doing educational diplomacy”. She sees it as a way of communicating the aggressions and crimes people from Ukraine are currently facing. She considers universities like Lund University to be strategic partners, with students not only having a safe haven from war but also having the opportunity to be ambassadors to their country and traditions that are being acutely threatened. Having students directly share what they experience, she says, allows them to dismantle myths through the “very human communication” that is happening.

Currently, the Taras Shevchenko National University is in the process of moving back to in-person classes as students start returning to Kyiv. Despite the atrocities happening, Professor Smyrnova argues that they are taking the situation as a possibility to rethink for the future. Building bridges to other universities is one of the many possibilities to research the effects of the current invasion on people’s life in Ukraine. By creating these platforms among scientists, she argues, a sort of Marshall Plan might be created for the rebuilding and recovery of Ukraine.

By Julia Hampel, Eugenia Maestrini and Joosep Raudsepp

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