Appeal for Action: Universities need EU leadership
As the Russian attack on Ukraine continues without mercy, universities across Europe have set up crisis teams, coordinating how best support incoming staff and students from Ukraine with the resources they have. This has also made clear: the resources of universities are not enough. Universities cannot meet the demand for places on their own.
This demand for places in university-owned/managed accommodation, for study places, and for academic positions is highly uneven. Whilst some universities close to the Ukraine border are already at or beyond capacity, many others further away from the conflict are still able to cope. Most people of fighting age remain in Ukraine. Nonetheless, the number of people crossing the border speaks for itself. It is essential for universities to be prepared. And the time to put effective mechanisms in place is now.
First, we need to ensure that existing deadlines and restrictions are removed as far as possible. That applies to deadlines for student applications for the coming academic year, for instance: students from Ukraine must be able to apply for admission at any point, and there must be ways of admitting them. National barriers to entry must fall – not only for Ukrainian citizens, but for all victims of this war (including Russian academics and students who must leave their country because of their vocal opposition to the war). This principle also applies to Ukrainian staff and students currently benefiting from EU funding (Erasmus+, MSCA, etc), whose arrangements should be extended if they so wish. And it means that leftover funds from Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 should be used to support students and researchers in need.
We also need to adapt existing instruments as much as we can to ensure that we build on something that works. That includes developing a European scholars-at-risk scheme, as demanded recently by MEP Christian Ehler. We could also develop the hop-on scheme originally devised for researchers from lower-performing countries to be added to a scheme after it has been awarded, to be extended right across all instruments of Horizon Europe. And Erasmus+ grants could be offered to incoming Ukrainian students next year, even if there is no outgoing mobility.
Finally, the biggest leap required is to develop a flexible, trust-based distribution of funds. Already universities have different needs of support, depending on the number of incoming staff and students, depending on the subjects they offer, and depending on their size. The EU could and should provide flexible institutional funding to support researchers which universities can draw on: this could be awarded directly, or via a national agency, as currently happens for Erasmus+. At this time of crisis, no university will use such funds frivolously. No university will admit students unless it feels students can benefit from the study programmes at offer, and no research lab will admit a colleague unless these can make meaningful contributions to the research. The funds allocated in this way would be spent wisely.
Universities are dedicated and ready to respond to war in Ukraine with utmost flexibility and focus. We need the European Union to lead by example, and to co-ordinate and inspire national action in support of students and researchers from Ukraine. Universities will be most effective if they are endowed with maximum trust to use funds and regulations flexibly and effectively, according to need. This is trust they have earned, and trust they will not disappoint.