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Education under attack: Schooling in Ukraine following the Russian invasion

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When talking about the current situation in Ukraine, there is one element that is often missing in the journalistic narrative: the impact of the war on the education system of the country. It is important to address this issue since the deterioration of the quality of education is unfortunately one of the constant elements that can be found in any war. I recently had the opportunity to have a discussion on this unfortunate situation with Kateryna Shtepa, a Ukrainian student at the National University of Kyiv. Read the article to know more about her story, the challenges Ukrainian students are facing, and how the international community can help.

Since the 24th of February 2022, when the Russian aggression on Ukraine became a part of our daily lives, the mass media have been constantly keeping us updated on the latest military and diplomatic developments of the conflict. However, there is one element that is often missing in this mainstream journalistic narrative: the impact of the war on the education system of the country.

As it has happened in the past and still happens in many conflicts around the world, the loss and the deterioration of the quality of education is unfortunately one of the constant elements that can be found in any war. In this scenario, Ukraine is not an exception, and the learning process of 7.5 million children and college students has been seriously affected and damaged.1

The main issue is represented by the destruction of schools, kindergartens, and university buildings. They are bombed, used as military camps, and exploited for weapon storage. Data from the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine shows that since the start of the conflict in February 2022 at least 2,739 educational facilities have been damaged and 333 totally destroyed.2 As of today, this number is certainly higher and even more worrying.

Another significant problem is the displacement of students and teachers. In fact, among the 6 million Ukrainian refugees, there are 665,000 students (16% of the total schooling population) and 25,000 teachers (6% of the total educational personnel).3 Furthermore, the situation is even more complex inside the country, where 8 million individuals are internally displaced. This lack of stability, both for students and teachers, makes it hard for the schooling system to work properly since pupils can no longer attend classes in their usual local schools and teachers are often unable to conduct lessons where they used to. In this circumstance, the educational system is deeply weakened and there is the concrete risk that young Ukrainians will lose out on crucial years of education.

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I recently had the opportunity to have a discussion on this unfortunate situation with a Ukrainian student at the T. Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Kateryna Shtepa.

She told me that because of the war the educational process of Ukrainian students has been constantly changing depending on the development of the military operations on the field. Kateryna recalled how during the first months of the conflict the classes had stopped completely. At that time, people could not even think about the education process. Eventually, the situation stabilized, especially in the western and central regions, and online-based educational programs and methods were introduced to engage both students within the country and those who fled abroad. This system, already experienced during the pandemic, has proved to be satisfactory, especially for universities and higher education institutions.

The situation worsened starting in October of this year when Russia intensified the attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructures. This has led to disruptions in the electricity supply. Consequently, the authorities have imposed a rationing of electricity, which is cut daily for several hours. This situation, together with internet breakdowns, makes the e-learning process challenging. Kateryna explained how the possibility of following online lectures is now unfeasible and therefore the main educational activity that students can engage in is the submission of written works that are later evaluated by the professors.

Talking about her personal experience, she mentioned how in this setting even the simplest university task requires planning that must consider the electricity and internet breakdowns. For instance, to deal with the lack of internet access in her area, she once had to take an online test in a cafe. When she wants to study at home, she has to take into account the lack of electric lighting, meaning that she can end up studying for hours sitting by the window or only using a candle. With the winter well underway, the situation will soon become even harder and more challenging.

In the inner and western regions of the country, outside the combat zones, some schools are trying to adopt a blended model based on a mix of in-presence and online teaching. In these cases, schools have become safer places to be in compared to students’ homes. In fact, while not all private houses are equipped with shelters, schools guarantee them, making it easier to find a secure place when the air raid alarm is activated due to the imminent risk of bombing.

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In this setting, the international community needs to act on different fronts. Firstly, it needs to pressure the belligerent countries, particularly Russia, to recognize the necessity to stop targeting schools or using them for military-related purposes. In this way, students and professors will be better protected and the facilities will be preserved for the post-war setting, avoiding the need for large reconstruction efforts. In this framework, the 2019 Ukrainian endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration goes in the right direction. Russia, which did not endorse the document, should also be called to do it and to fulfill the international obligations related to the protection of education in armed conflicts. If this happened, it could also represent the first step towards the openness of a significant diplomatic dialogue between the two countries.

Secondly, the initiatives aimed at supporting the Ukrainian education system should be endorsed and promoted. In this framework, the main actor is UNESCO, which has been aiding the local authorities since the escalation of the hostilities. In fact, the UN agency is working on different projects to ensure the learning continuity of the students. Moreover, together with public and international institutions, private corporations can also play a significant role. Google, in partnership with the Ukrainian government and UNESCO, provided 50,000 Chromebooks for the teaching body of the country. The company has also pledged to work with Ukrainian teachers to improve their digital competencies. Similarly, Zoom Video Communications has donated licenses to the Ministry of Education and Science of the country to enable the schools to operate online.

Finally, the educational dimension of the Ukrainian crisis should be adequately highlighted by the public opinion and by the political institutions, to represent a fundamental pillar of the country’s reconstruction in the aftermath of the conflict.
Furthermore, broader international recognition of the problem would also mean more funding dedicated to the sector, which is usually underfunded in humanitarian responses.

In a time of crisis such as the one in Ukraine, education and schooling should not be relegated to a position of second-order considerations. If the country wants to successfully rebuild after the war and move towards a prosperous future, education needs to remain central. It is a huge responsibility that Ukraine, its partners, and we all need to assume.

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[1]“Ukraine: Twice as Many Schools Attacked in the Past 100 Days as during the First 7 Years of Conflict.” Save the Children International, 2 June 2022, www.savethechildren.net/news/ukraine-twice-many-schools-attacked-past-100-days-during-first-7-years-conflict. Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.

[2] “Education in Emergency.” Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, saveschools.in.ua/en/. Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.

[3]“Education: Impact of the War in Ukraine.” Reliefweb.int, The World Bank, May 2022, reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/education-impact-war-ukraine-may-2022. Accessed 20 2022.

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Articles written by the various members of our team.

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My name is Pierfrancesco Urbano, I am currently studying International Politics and Government in Bocconi. I grew up in Bologna, but now I live in Milan. I’m interested in international relations and politics, but I’m also passionate about art, theatre, and humanities. I see journalism as a way for me to be actively engaged in the society and in its political and cultural dimensions.

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