Can Education Survive War? Exploring Ukraine’s Experience

May 25, 2024
Ukraine's education system demonstrates resilience, with educators teaching online from trenches and under occupation, and continues reforms despite challenges.

UkraineWorld spoke with Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Ukraine's Deputy Minister of Education and Science, about the challenges facing the country's education system and what has been achieved in terms of modernization during unprecedented times.

The challenges faced by Ukraine’s education system as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion

Ukraine continues to fight a full-scale war with Russia for the third year in a row, and as expected, this has had a significant impact on its educational sector. It faces several concurrent challenges.

The first one concerns the safety of children and staff. And these differ widely across Ukraine's regions. Threat levels and dangers are higher in eastern Ukraine, particularly in cities near the Russian border or the frontlines.

For example, in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, a ballistic missile can reach its target in less than 30 seconds, making early warning systems impossible to activate in time.

Consequently, education in such high-risk areas must be conducted underground, which brings its own set of challenges. In Kharkiv, we recently inaugurated our first completely underground school.

Although air raid warnings are common in cities farther from active combat, such as Kyiv, Lviv, Chernivtsi, or Rivne, actual missile strikes are uncommon. This enables relatively normal offline education to continue. When an air raid alert sounds, students rush to bomb shelters to continue their education using their gadgets.

The second major war-related challenge is online education. While the world briefly adapted to online education during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine's situation has been more prolonged and complex. Ukrainian children resumed offline education in September 2021, only to be forced back into online learning in February 2022 due to the war.

While most western and central regions rely on offline education, students in conflict zones, occupied territories, or living abroad primarily engage in online learning.

The online format causes educational losses in areas that do not necessarily reflect hard skill development but do affect students' soft skills, such as group interaction, presentation skills, and empathy.

We see students suffering from insufficient socialization, which is a serious problem.

The third challenge we face as a ministry is to reform Ukraine's educational system. Despite the war, we remain committed to the EU integration process, which includes extensive reforms in education. Many of the reforms that are being implemented today have been in the works for over a decade, and our team has accelerated them.

Minister Oksen Lisovyy recently explained our mission to the Ministry's employees. Individuals who enter ministerial positions typically expect to oversee or manage the system they are responsible for, as well as enact some reforms.

In our case, we are not only ensuring some level of system continuity but also dealing with the complexities of war, such as mass school destruction and large-scale student and staff displacement. And on top of that, we are implementing a fundamental reform program.

We're not just piloting the aircraft; we're repairing and upgrading it mid-flight, transitioning from a turboprop to a jet engine.

How is the education system managing amidst challenges?

The fact that we have maintained education since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, despite widespread devastation, is an accomplishment in itself. Despite adversity, Ukrainians are renowned for their resilience in education.

Administrators and managers at all levels have gone through significant efforts to adapt to changing circumstances, but success would be impossible without the individual resilience of teachers, professors, and students of all ages.

A considerable number of people who have found themselves under temporary occupation persist in taking part in the Ukrainian educational process. They set up VPNs to conceal their online education so that the Russians are unable to detect them.

Educators continue to teach from occupied territories, using clandestine connections to Ukrainian schools and universities, reaching their students nationwide and globally.

There are university professors who lecture from the front lines. Notably, we have a well-known case of a philosopher who delivered lectures online from near Bakhmut, despite the fact that shells were exploding nearby.

Oksen Lisovyy, Minister of Education, was also an active service defender, serving on the front lines from February 2022 to March 2023 and transitioning directly from combat to ministerial duties.

Individuals play vital roles, but institutions are indispensable. Institutions provide essential stability, and their transformation necessitates effective communication and engagement.

How is Educational Reform Progressing During the Full-Scale Invasion?

Unlike many Western countries, which have separate ministries for schooling and higher education, Ukraine's Ministry of Education oversees the entire educational spectrum, from nursery to PhD, and is therefore responsible for managing and continuously reforming all educational sectors.

Managing demographic shifts is an important aspect of the reform. Several million Ukrainian children are currently attending foreign schools. Our task is to maintain educational contact with them via the International Ukrainian School and other online platforms that offer access to the Ukrainian curriculum.

This curriculum for school-aged students currently abroad includes Ukrainian language, literature, and history, to ensure that children maintain their connection to Ukrainian education alongside their foreign schooling. We are grateful to parents who support this continuity.

Another critical reform step is to remove Russian narratives from history and social science curricula at all levels. As a former part of the USSR, Ukraine's educational content has long been influenced by Soviet perspectives, particularly on history and language.

Despite 30 years of independence, some of these narratives persist. Our task is to complete the decolonization of our humanities education.

Simultaneously, we hope to instil in our children values of tolerance and multiculturalism, thereby countering the risks of radicalization during these difficult times.

In terms of educational reform, Ukraine is transitioning to the New Ukrainian School, a competency-based system. We are also shifting to a 12-year educational trajectory, aligning with European standards.

Currently, Ukraine’s 11-year system means students often enter higher education at the age of 17 instead of 18, a significant difference affecting educational decisions.

Higher education reforms focus on creating more individualized educational paths. Currently, Ukrainian education is group-based, with cohorts of about 20–25 students pursuing the same curriculum.

We are transitioning to a system that provides more electives and credit-based learning, similar to the European and North American models.

We are also reforming the funding mechanisms for higher education. Previously, students were either fully state-funded or entirely self-funded. We are introducing co-financing and grant-based systems, providing more flexible funding options.

The number of university entrants has been cut in half over the last 15 years as a result of demographic changes, necessitating educational infrastructure consolidation. This includes controversial but necessary mergers of educational institutions to better align with current needs.

These efforts aim to build a resilient, modern educational framework designed to surmount the challenges posed by the ongoing conflict.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Ukraine's Deputy Minister of Education and Science