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Former UUK chief ‘humbled’ by meeting with Ukraine rectors

Image: Catholic Church England and Wales [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via Flickr

Janet Beer describes conversation with Ukrainian counterparts and warns against blanket bans on Russian collaboration

A former president of Universities UK has described how she was “humbled and inspired” by virtual meetings with university leaders in Ukraine about how the two countries could work together to assist scholars and students fleeing the war.

Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, told a conference hosted by UUK International that the UK should be a “welcoming destination for academics and students fleeing conflict”—adding that UUK was mindful of how the ongoing conflict was affecting people in Ukraine and Russia.

“Yesterday, I hosted a conversation with Ukrainian universities and the UK sector,” Beer told the International Higher Education Forum on 16 March. “It was a moving and humbling experience to hear how, even in such a crisis, colleagues in Ukraine are still focused on keeping their institutions going through the continuation of teaching and research.”

Beer, who was president of the vice-chancellors’ group from 2017 to 2019, said that UUK was now looking at how it could support “a collective approach to help meet the needs expressed by our Ukrainian colleagues”.

“The key messages were very much focused on making online resources available for students to continue their studies and [for] staff [to continue] their research and scholarship,” she said. “They showed incredible courage and dignity, as you can imagine.”

Several of the Ukraine representatives on the call “had to leave the meeting as air-raid sirens sounded”, Beer continued. “But they were completely focused on supporting their students and their staff, and also wanted to talk to us about a kind of support and partnership that might be needed in the future to rebuild. So it was at once…[both] humbling and inspiring to meet with those people.”

There has been criticism of the UK government’s failure to waive visas for refugees fleeing the conflict, and Beer said that UUK had ​​“requested clarification” from the Home Office about “safe and legal immigration routes for Ukrainian citizens entering the UK, as well as support required for those already studying and working at UK universities”.

No blanket ban

Elsewhere in her address, Beer, who is now international policy lead for the group, said the UUK board had also been discussing the extent to which it was appropriate for UK universities to continue academic collaborations with counterparts in Russia.

“UUK has long recognised that many education and research partnerships are often based on academic peer-to-peer relationships, and notes that many Russians and students and academics at great personal peril have publicly criticised this invasion,” she said.

“The UUK board has reiterated its commitment to the free exchange of ideas between universities and between academics, regardless of nationality or location—while recognising the importance of managing the risks associated with international collaboration.”

UUK does not support the application of “blanket academic boycotts that prevent academics from collaborating with other academics as a means of protest against the actions of their government”, she said.

“We have therefore advised our members to make decisions about whether to continue collaborations on a case-by-case basis, informed both by UK government guidance and appropriate due diligence,” she said. “We’ve requested government support for universities as they do this.”

Also addressing the International Higher Education Forum was skills minister Alex Burghart, who said it was “extraordinarily important, at all times”, to give students the opportunity to study overseas.

“As we see the world again fracture once more in different spheres of influence, that importance grows, grows ever greater,” he said, adding that academic excellence had flourished in the UK thanks to “liberty”.

“Liberty today is under attack in the world—and nowhere knows this more obviously, more violently, than Ukraine,” he said.