In Ukraine, Dipam, a medical student from India, was counting down the days to graduation when his career plans were violently upended. As the outbreak of war in Ukraine severely damaged some educational institutions and forced many others to close, thousands of domestic and foreign students in Ukraine, including Thakur, dropped out of school and left the country in a hurry.
Over the previous decade, Ukraine had become an attractive center for international students, especially those who, like Thakur, hoped to study medicine. In 2020, the number of foreign students enrolled in Ukrainian universities reached , which is 50 percent more than in 2011. Almost a third () were enrolled in the medical program.
International students choose Ukraine for many reasons: abundant study opportunities in English, reasonable tuition fees compared to other European countries, and more lenient student visa requirements. However, the ongoing war forced thousands of current and future students to head elsewhere. While others were reluctant to open their doors.
Thakur is one of about 18,000 Indian students studying in Ukraine when the war broke out. Like thousands of his peers, he fled across the border to Hungary after the outbreak of hostilities in search of a safe haven.
“It was a difficult and unexpected time to leave suddenly without preparation when the school year was almost over. War is scary and so is the unknown future,” said Thakur.
While many of his classmates returned to India, he preferred to stay and seek an opportunity to complete his studies in another European country. “I didn’t want to go back because I knew it would be difficult to enroll in a university in India because of the different teaching methods and curriculum, high costs and high competition for an academic place,” he said. “I preferred to stay and continue my experience in Europe, especially as I was about to graduate,” he added.
Thakur was finally able to complete his fifth academic year exams because his university in Ukraine provided the opportunity to attend classes and take exams online.
One step back
Back in their homeland, many students faced difficulties in continuing their studies. In India, many officials supported measures to facilitate the absorption of displaced students into the country’s national medical education system. The National Medical Commission (NMC), India’s medical regulatory body, called on the government to exempt returning students from any assessments or entrance exams, while the Ministry of External Affairs urged private Indian medical institutions to register returning students. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health and Social Care decided otherwise. It said that medical students from any international institutes cannot be “admitted or transferred to Indian medical colleges”. (For more on the plight of these students, see “Trapped in the war in Ukraine, a new academic year begins.”)
Despite ongoing hostilities, these issues have prompted some students to return to Ukraine.
who asked that his full name not be published, said: “After two years of studying medicine in Ukraine and as a result of the war, I returned to Morocco. But I could not finish my studies because I did not pass the assessment exam organized by the Ministry of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Vocational Training.” He explained that there are a limited number of places in Moroccan universities and the assessment exam does not take into account the difference in language and curriculum.
With some Ukrainian universities resuming classes this year, Farid decided to take a risk and return to his university in Ukraine. “I’m happy to go back and finish my studies,” he said, “but I don’t deny that I’m nervous all the time and it’s hard for me to concentrate while the bombing continues.”
Another Indian student, who asked not to be named, said: “I came back at my own risk, I have no other choice. My parents paid a lot of money for me to study here, and I’m supposed to graduate this year.”
When Thakur arrived in Budapest, he did not think he would be there long. After receiving basic humanitarian aid, he began looking for a suitable European university to complete his final year. He contacted universities in Germany, France and England but received no positive response. “There were complications related to the type of documents required and the language of study. Some insisted that I re-enroll from my first year, which was very frustrating.’
A disappointed Thakur happened to learn about the possibility of continuing his studies in Budapest. “There was a team from Semmelweis University that provided medical services to cross-border arrivals, and I learned from them that I could join their university to complete my studies. It was one of the best things I’ve ever heard,” he said.
The university has about 13,000 students, a third of whom are international, according to Semmelweis University vice-rector for foreign studies Alán Alpár. “Our university welcomes students from more than 109 countries around the world, so we didn’t think twice about including students fleeing Ukraine, whether they were local or foreign students,” he said. (Read related article: The war in Ukraine raises new questions about how best to support disabled students.)
Although the university had already accepted a full cohort of students, the decision to reopen the doors to students fleeing Ukraine was an easy one, Alpár said. “This is a humanitarian crisis and everyone should help,” he noted.
Last year, Semmelweis University received approximately 2,000 applications. Although screening and vetting these applications was difficult, university administrators decided to accept as many students as possible into the one-year academic program. At the end of this year, the university issued students with detailed certificates that explained the nature of their studies and could use them to complete their studies in Ukraine or in their home country. However, the continuation of the war required a more sustainable option.
One alternative is Students at Risk, a scholarship program developed by the Hungarian government. The program provides scholarships to study at Hungarian universities to students fleeing the war in Ukraine. Although the program is currently only open to citizens of Ukraine, it previously accepted third-country nationals. This year, Semmelweis University accepted 124 students through the program, including Thakur.
“Due to the different curriculum, I was asked to repeat the fifth year, which I found acceptable compared to universities in other countries that required me to start over from the first year to be admitted,” Thakur said.
According to Alpár, maintaining the quality of education remains the biggest challenge for the university. In terms of providing psychological support and helping new students reintegrate into university life, this was the responsibility of the student union.
“The student unions have done a great job from the very beginning and we have all worked together to identify the needs of international students and meet them. We are an international university with experience in working with students of different nationalities, but the shadows of war are of course difficult.”
Some believe that distance education offers students the opportunity to continue their studies. For example, the University of the People, a non-profit tuition-free online university based in the United States, offers open access higher education programs worldwide to help qualified high school graduates overcome the financial, geographic, political, and personal barriers to higher education. The university has already offered up to 1,000 scholarships to Ukrainians affected by the war.
“The people of Ukraine are suffering tremendously, and we want to provide them with an educational lifeline to know that they will have a better future after the fighting ends,” said Shai Reshef, president of the University of the People. “We have found that the best way to support displaced students around the world is through online education because it is the most affordable and accessible form of higher education. Our students can study anytime from anywhere in the world,” he said.
Yet many students, especially those in programs that require hands-on experience, do not see online learning as a viable alternative.
“The practical part is essential when studying medicine. I have to go to hospitals and deal with patients. That means I have to master their language, which I’m trying to do now. Even though I am studying in English, I will end up dealing with local patients,” said Thakur.
A fleeting hope
While students fleeing Ukraine have found opportunities in some countries and universities, in others they have faced problems meeting visa and entry requirements.
In Germany, some cities have granted non-renewable six-month visas to foreign students who can prove previous enrollment in Ukrainian universities. But many universities and government offices in the country did little to help Ukrainian students enroll in German universities.
Zaid, an Iraqi student who did not give us his full name, studied in Ukraine and went to Germany after the war broke out. He said: “I came here hoping to finish my studies, but I was given no chance of admission, especially since many universities require knowledge of the German language. The universities treat us like normal foreign students from their home countries and are not running away from a raging war.”
The situation is not much different in other European countries. For example, the Netherlands has stopped processing visa applications from non-Ukrainians who have safe countries to return to. In France, immigration authorities have been reluctant to ease their strict visa requirements – which include proof of funds well in excess of what foreign students fleeing Ukraine usually have. As a result, only 200 foreign students have been admitted to French universities since the start of the war.
Constant need for additional support
Studying at a university in Ukraine was not easy for , a PhD student at Sumy National Agrarian University, because of the war. She came from her home country of Ghana to achieve her dream of graduating from a European university. “For a long time I tried to study abroad at a reasonable price. But as soon as the first semester was over and during my trip to Ghana to visit my family, war broke out and my studies were interrupted.”
Crentsil is among 26,500 Africans who studied in Ukraine before the war broke out.
After the war began, some of Crentsil’s international colleagues fled to neighboring countries in Europe. Although today they are stuck trying to find a way to re-enroll in universities there, they may have been lucky to be accepted into these countries. Some reports highlight racist treatment directed at African and other non-European students at the Ukrainian border, where they have been prevented from crossing. Unlike her colleagues, Crentsil decided to go to the US in search of an opportunity to complete her doctoral studies. “My classmates couldn’t find a university because of the language barrier and the lack of papers, so I decided to come here and look for an opportunity.
“I hope that my international university colleagues will not reject me either. I know there are some opportunities for Ukrainian students, which is great. But we – international students – need some too. I traveled a long distance to get here and I hope to be able to continue my studies soon and not come back empty-handed,” said Crentsil.
Coping with the sudden influx of thousands of displaced students is an undeniable challenge. With the war in Ukraine now in its second year, institutions and policy makers must take serious steps to help save these students from the chaos.
“Humanitarian crises are always unexpected, and because they are humanitarian, they require quick and flexible action. It’s a tough challenge, but it shouldn’t be overlooked,” said Alpár.