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Two years of war: Daily life at the Polytechnic Institute in Kyiv

Ukraine — In Kyiv, there are fewer and fewer student faces at online lectures. The question is: How do you help young Ukrainians who have sought refuge abroad, without harming Ukraine's future?

During the course of his studies, 21-year-old Mykyta Abramenko has only attended physical classes a few times.

As a newcomer from the town of Nikopol in southern Ukraine, he had high expectations for his future student life in the capital Kyiv. But first the corona pandemic sent students home. Then the war turned student life into a long series of identical days in front of a computer screen.

»I lived there in the beginning,« he says, pointing to a brick building in front of him.

But just like so much else, his daily life at the dorm became a disappointment because many of his neighbours stayed at their parents’ homes most of the time.

Mykyta Abramenko is now in the final year of his undergraduate programme at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, also known as the National Technical University of Ukraine. He shows us around the old university buildings that are covered in a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. It’s a Saturday, and apart from a small handful of people who are out for a walk, the campus is deserted.

With the stress we are living under in Ukraine, they can give us more assignments than we can handle.

Student Mykyta Abramenko on being taught by researchers who have fled abroad

Mykyta Abramenko shows us the way to a nearby café. On the first floor, a group of young people sit around a table. Their conversation alternates between English and Ukrainian. They are part of a chat club that Mykyta Abramenko is helping to organise through the student organisation BEST – Board of European Students of Technology – which has local branches in most European countries. The local chapter in Kyiv also holds other events, like hackathons. Until a few years ago they also had a lot of travel to and from the other European branches:

»We have actually talked about inviting European students to Ukraine. But not many people thought it was a good idea, because we can’t guarantee their safety,« says Mykyta Abramenko.

He wanted to show foreign students how the student life of Ukrainians has been affected by Russia’s invasion and the challenges that the war has led to in daily life.

READ ALSO: Two years of war: With each passing day, research in Ukraine gets weaker

One thing is the air raid sirens. According to the university’s regulations, classes must be interrupted to go to the air raid shelter as soon as the siren goes off. But since the instructor is not always in the same city as his students, it is not only the alarms in Kyiv that disrupt the teaching.

Another thing is that online teaching is not always optimal for learning:

»It’s not that many of our instructors are bad at it, but the older teachers often have problems with the technical parts of it. I work at a faculty that involves a lot of IT. But one of our instructors had to ask his colleague how to send an email to several students at once. Sometimes they also don’t know how to send a link,« says Mykyta Abramenko.

At the same time, he says that it can be challenging when some of the teaching staff have fled abroad and are therefore out of step with the student reality:

»They may live in Poland and do not keep up with everything that’s happening in Ukraine. They might give us more assignments than we can handle, when you take all the stress we are living under in Ukraine into account.

Mykyta Abramenko himself has made many friends in Kyiv, but he knows that it is harder for many of the students who are a few years younger than him, and who started studying after the war broke out:

»Their social life has been stolen from them. First by corona and then by the war,« he says.

It is the best-educated ones who have fled

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many Ukrainian students had to seek refuge abroad. Across Europe, universities opened their doors to Ukrainian students and awarded scholarships so that students could continue or begin their education in a safe environment.

Mykyta Abramenko noticed that there were fewer faces at online lectures.

»It is mostly girls and women who left the country in the first year of the war and who started studying at a foreign university,« he says.

How many Ukrainian students have fled abroad is difficult to say. The exact number of Ukrainian refugees abroad is unknown, as many travel back and forth across the border every day.

But an August 2023 report by the Centre For Economic Strategy estimated that upwards of 6.7 million Ukrainians were abroad in June 2023 due to the war. The majority of refugees are women, and women in the 35-49 age group make up one fifth of all Ukrainian refugees abroad. The refugees are relatively young compared to the general population: More than half are under the age of 18, and while 17 per cent of the total group of refugees are between 18 and 34 years old, only four percent are over the age of 60.

At the same time, they are relatively well-educated – or on the way to being well-educated. In November 2022, around 70 per cent of respondents were either enrolled in, or had completed higher education. By way of comparison, 29.1 per cent of the total Ukrainian population had completed higher education.

This is a brain drain that may have consequences for Ukraine when the country is to be rebuilt, and for many years into the future. One of the associations that has warned of this is the European Students’ Union (ESU).

»The concerns have already become a reality,« says Iris Kimizoglu, vice president of the ESU.

»The issue is divisive. At an individual level, everyone has the right to choose where they want to study and live their lives. We do not believe that people should be forced back. But Ukraine will lose its scientists and its brainpower if there is no incentive to return home, and of course this will have long-term consequences,« she says.

The workforce of the future

The problem is not just about students. The large proportion of children who have left Ukraine is also a cause for concern, says Olga Tokariuk, who is a fellow at the think tank Chatham House and is doing a research project on the risk of a Ukraine brain drain.

»It is the labour force of the future that is going to contribute to the economy in coming decades. When you look at the proportion of refugees who are children, I think it’s a very pressing question: How do we get them to return, or how can we engage them and get them to contribute in other ways if the war continues.«

She refers to the data on refugees’ educational background in the report, and it shows that many of them are highly educated.

I am not certain they would recognise my diploma from the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute if I went to Europe after the war

Student Mykyta Abramenko

»There is unfortunately the situation that many of them are not able to find jobs that match their qualifications, and they feel pressured by host countries to accept any job. This means that their professional skills are degraded because they do not use them,« she says.

It is not the first time that emigration from Ukraine has given rise to brain drain concerns, but the scale of it today is different, according to Olga Tokariuk. And as the war continues, hopes of refugees returning home to Ukraine are decreasing. The consequence of this could be that Ukraine will lose between 2.7 and 6.9 per cent of its annual GDP, the report concludes.

»This will have enormous consequences for the Ukrainian economy. The demographic trend is negative and was already before the full-scale invasion. Birth rates are low, the number of people of working age is shrinking, and a larger part of the population is around retirement age,« says Olga Tokariuk.

The report also shows that students are 68 per cent less likely to return home than non-students. This may be due to the fact that students are quicker to integrate into new societies and learn new languages than other groups of refugees.

Mykyta Abramenko: I am staying

Even though Mykyta Abramenko has stayed in Ukraine throughout the war, he has had the refugee experience up close. In the summer of 2022, his mother and younger sister decided to flee to Germany, where the sister now goes to school:

»They left Nikopol when it started to get really dangerous and there were explosions every day. My father still lives there because he has a job in the city.«

Mykyta Abramenko can easily understand why so many students have opted to enrol at universities abroad. In addition to the obvious security risk associated with living in a country at war, whether in Kyiv or in cities closer to the frontline, he finds that many are convinced that they can get a better education in the EU:

»The diploma you can get abroad can really show that you know something. I am not certain they would recognise it if I went to Europe after the war and showed my diploma from the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. Because it’s not as well-known a university as the ones in France and Germany,« he says.

But he is determined to stay. Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 are basically prohibited to leave the country. But even if he was given the opportunity, he would say no, he says:

»If you asked someone else, you might get a different answer. But I see my future in Ukraine,« Mykyta Abramenko says.

»Who would take on my volunteer work at the student organisation? I feel I have a responsibility. Also to rebuild and develop Ukraine when the war is over.«

He emphasizes that he is not judging those who have made a different choice:

»It’s people’s own choice. And I really wish all the best for them that have fled.«

The million dollar question

Just like Iris Kimizoglu of the European Student Union says, the brain drain debate poses a major dilemma. How do you help the individuals who have fled death and destruction, without weakening Ukraine as a nation?

»I think this is the million dollar question,« she says.

She has a few suggestions: One of them is to use more funds from EU development programmes to strengthen Ukraine’s education sector.

The Ukrainian government should consider taking in more migrants, because Ukraine will not have enough people on its own to rebuild its economy

Iris Kimizoglu, European Students’ Union

Another solution could be to help the students who want to return to, for example, find a place to live, she says. And finally, she thinks that the EU can contribute by creating more positive perspectives for Ukrainian youth:

»We see how northern and western European countries make great efforts to recruit talent from other countries to compensate for their own lack of manpower. This includes talent from Ukraine, so we need to integrate the two issues,« she says.

Olga Tokariuk believes that the focus should be on a more constructive communication from Ukrainian authorities on refugees abroad:

»Because I don’t think it always has been,« she says, and refers to President of Ukraine Zelensky’s New Year address, where he asked the refugees abroad to ask themselves whether they are »citizens or refugees.«

»This will not contribute to getting people home. Of course this [Ukrainian communication] is not the primary reason they stay abroad. But this is something that people will take into account when they make a decision.«

She does encourage thinking outside the box, however. Because if Ukraine does not succeed in recalling the Ukrainians, can it attract others?

The Ukrainian government should consider taking in more migrants, because Ukraine will not have enough people on its own to rebuild its economy This will require a large shift in mentality, because Ukraine has always been a country people migrated from, and not to,« Olga Tokariuk says.

»But we do have examples of other countries, for example Italy, which has moved from being a country that people travelled out of, to being a country that attracted people. These are the experiences we should learn from.«