“Save Alma Mater!”: Saving Ukrainian Universities Displaced by War

By Nadiia Kachynska

An extraordinary campaign is in progress in Ukraine, in the epicenter of the war in Donbass. October 2014 marked the beginning of “Save Alma Mater!”, a unique movement organized by students, faculty and staff of Donetsk National University. As part of this campaign, all seventeen East Ukrainian universities that were based in the conflict-affected region have been relocated to other cities in Ukraine. Facing devastating challenges and employing different strategies, they have all engaged in an effort to survive, compete, and succeed under strenuous circumstances.

An interrupted academic year

In spring 2014, what would be a regular academic year for the 150,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff at the seventeen universities in Donbass came to a halt. Starting with the so called “Russian spring” – pro-Russian and anti-government unrest in the Eastern Ukraine – an undeclared war broke out over summer. One by one, the buildings of universities were seized by troops identifying as representatives of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).

The next academic year was postponed to October 2014, a decision based on fragile hopes for a quick anti-terrorist operation (ATO) promised by Petro Poroshenko during his presidential election campaign. However, it was clear for students, parents, faculty and staff of the universities that life would no longer be the same.

As of May 2017, there have been 1.75 million internally displaced persons registered with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, and there could be as many as 2.5 million displaced people, considering those unregistered – a third of the pre-war population of the occupied territory. The Coordination Centre of Displaced Universities estimates that there are at least 40,000 students and 4,000 faculty displaced by the conflict.

The rise of a movement

Following the occupation of Donetsk National University by pro-Russian groups on September 10, 2014, the academic community launched a public campaign dubbed “Save Alma Mater!”. Numerous rallies near the Ministry of Education and Science and negotiations between Ukrainian government and the University leadership team resulted in the decree “On organization of the education process of Donetsk National University of Ukraine in Vinnytsia,” signed on September 30, 2014.

The title of the document sounds more promising than its single page, designated to solve the problem of relocating the higher education institution with almost 15,000 students, 2,500 faculty and staff, 11 campuses with research laboratories, libraries and sport facilities. The relocation had a dramatic effect on student population, faculty numbers, resources, leaning facilities, and residencies. For Donetsk National University itself, the student numbers dropped by a third, the faculty and staff numbers were halved.

Predictably, some students and faculty transferred to other institutions, while others emigrated. Those who decided to stay in the new self-proclaimed republic might not be able to move for financial, family, or health reasons; yet others might choose to stay in support of pro-Russian ideology.

Displaced universities

The map below demonstrates the relocation of displaced universities, however no single map can give us a sense of the risk taken and the drama involved in this exodus from Eastern Ukraine. Sergey Kvit, Ukraine’s former Minister of Education and Science (February 2014 – April 2016), said the ministry would issue an evacuation order once a group of students, faculty and administrators took responsibility for the move.

HEI Relocation Map

Displaced faculty shared their stories through the media. They were not allowed to take anything from the university – neither personal belongings nor intellectual property. Aleksey Mozulyaka, Vice-provost of a displaced university believes that it was a real test for the community: “Not everyone could handle it, but the positive side was that those who moved became a solid team; our people were the only thing we managed to take with us”.

In November 2014, there were already nine relocated universities; according to National Institute for Strategic Studies, East Ukraine’s universities lost an educational infrastructure worth $4,9 billion by 2015. In the absence of any legal framework, a Coordination Center for Displaced Universities was created by activists from these universities, and later, in January 2016, the Council of Rectors of the displaced university was officially set up. The biggest achievement of these groups was a decree aimed at regulating the displaced university activities, providing legal frameworks, reducing accreditation barriers, and introducing some privileges to the displaced universities.

In November 2015, the Accreditation Committee of Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science cancelled the licences of all higher education institutions registered in the occupied territory. However, Donetsk National University continues operating under jurisdiction of the self-proclaimed DNR, serving those who stayed.

A simple google search shows that there are two Donetsk National Universities in the web now – donnu.edu.ua and donnu.ru. The first domain relates to the displaced institution operating in Ukraine and the second one represents the unrecognized institution in DNR. The latter has addressed the problem of degree recognition in Russia and other countries through a “dual degree” framework; students technically graduate from the institution in DNR and from a partner university in Russia. However, degrees issued in DNR and LNR are not recognized even in Russia.

What’s next?

The future of universities on both sides of the ‘frozen conflict’ is unclear. By moving to new locations, the displaced universities are abandoning the idea to go back one day to their original campuses. Deep ideological alienation makes this even less and less feasible. Would it be possible for the displaced universities to maintain their Donetsk or Luhansk identity? What strategies do they need to compete with other local and national universities?

As the conflict remains “frozen”, it’s likely that international donors move on overtime. Will the displaced universities be able to rely on government funding and their own resources? What role can they play in reintegrating the youth from the occupied territories? Answers to these and many other questions mainly depend on who will shape the political and public policy agenda in a still very fragile Ukrainian society.



  1. This is an excellent article on a really hot topic for international higher education. Please write more on this as the situation unfolds. Are there any other global parallels that might offer suggestions for the future direction of the Ukraine?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Appreciate your feedback, Emma. I agree with you that the role of higher education in conflict and post-conflict societies has been understudied in international higher education, however the period since the end of Cold War is marked by the tendency that armed conflicts occurring mainly within a country rather than between. There are definitely global parallels that may suggest how higher education is placed in post-conflict reconstruction of a country, e.g. Lebanon, Iraq, etc. In the post-Soviet context, it would be definitely interesting to look at Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan as these former Soviet Union countries experienced armed conflicts/civic wars in their modern independent history and all have occupied/separated “frozen conflict” zones now. Once again, thank you for your encouraging feedback and a very thoughtful question.


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