Shadow Universities in Ukraine

By Nadiia Kachynska

In my previous blog post, I discussed the extraordinary story of Ukrainian universities that were forced to relocate to other cities in Ukraine to survive the conflict with Russia. I also briefly touched upon the peculiar situation of the displaced Ukrainian universities that emerged in the unrecognized republics of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea. Altogether, there are 17 institutions in these regions operating as “shadow” universities – they use same names and claim similar legacies as the relocated Ukrainian universities, even as they are not recognized by the Ukrainian government.

Universities split by the conflict

In 2014, when the armed conflict erupted in the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Lugansk, more than two dozen Ukrainian universities were forced to relocate to continue in operation. Any civil conflict splits people across ideological lines, and universities in the conflict-affected territories were caught in these dynamics. Those who remained loyal to Ukraine moved away, while their colleagues who sided with Russia stayed behind.

While it’s not always easy to stay neutral in any dispute, I think the stories of people on the both sides of the conflict cannot be overlooked. The unprecedented relocation of universities to survive the war was initiated, arranged and executed by faculty, administrative staff, and students themselves. For those loyal to Ukraine, every day of staying in the occupied cities entailed risks due to their pro-Ukrainian activism at the end of 2013. Having waited for any kind of government support to settle the conflict or to be relocated to other safe regions for more than five months, in October 2014 they collected their belongings and move away.

Overall, the process of relocation looked pretty much similar to all displaced universities – senior administrators used their personal connections to secure facilities where faculty and students would be finally able to start the academic year. As there was no support from the government in this process, activists from the displaced universities self-organized and created the Coordination Center for Displaced Universities and later the Council of Rectors to assist in this effort. Only at the end of 2015, their advocacy campaign resulted in the decree that established a legal framework for their operation, even introducing some accreditation privileges.

Along with this, the Ukrainian government cancelled accreditation of all 67 universities in the territories of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as in the Republic of Crimea annexed by Russia. However, many of those institutions have continued operate as ”shadow” universities in the unrecognized republics, a fact that has been largely ignored in international media. Recently, a German-Russian conference in Russia was cancelled over the participation of the acting rector of one of those shadow institutions, V.I. Vernadsky Crimean Federal University, bringing attention to the issue. Still, the overall picture of how higher education has been affected by the conflict remains much more complicated and poorly understood.

Despite the withdrawal of Ukrainian accreditation, 24 universities currently operate in Donetsk and Lugansk for and by those who stayed behind. Decisions to stay, from many personal anecdotes I’ve heard, involve tough choices around the risks involved in leaving or remaining in one’s home town, considering personal, financial, and ideological reasons. Faculty, staff and students who decided or had to stay in the conflict-affected territories had little choice but to continue with their academic lives as best as they could under the emerging rules of the unrecognized republics.

Shattered identities

Donetsk National Medical University, a flagship medical school established in 1930, provided excellent medical education for thousands of local and international students in the Soviet Union and then in independent Ukraine. Both my parents are proud graduates from this university as first-generation students from working-class families. Unfortunately, the identity of Donetsk National Medical University developed over 80 years has been shattered by the conflict.

Currently, there are two universities which claim the same history and even use the same logo: Donetsk National Medical University under the Ukrainian authority which desperately lacks proper learning resources and facilities since it left Donetsk; and Donetsk National Medical University which operates out of the institution’s campus but is under severe scrutiny as it lacks faculty, students, and formal recognition.

As in the overall conflict, the role of Russia in how higher education has operated in these unrecognized republics is critical. In 2016, all universities in Donetsk and Lugansk signed partnership agreements with Russian universities for ‘dual-degree’ programs which are in fact an instrument to provide their students with degrees recognised at least in Russia, and possibly beyond. Moreover, in June 2018, the Russian Ministry of Higher Education accredited the shadow Donetsk National Medical University as per the federal law on higher education in the Russian Federation. It became the second university after V.I. Vernadsky Crimean Federal University in the Ukrainian territories that is now allowed to issue Russian post-secondary degrees.

Uncertain Future

The situation of the institutions affected by the conflict in Ukraine raises a puzzling question about what most crucially constitutes the ‘university’ in the case of the displaced and shadow universities. Each claims elements of the pre-existing institutions such as facilities, human resources, accreditation, and international recognition.

Since Ukraine stopped funding universities in the ‘out-of-control’ and annexed territories, there is no official information about the funding of shadow universities. While they are clearly moving towards inclusion in the Russian higher education system, the future of the displaced Ukrainian universities is also concerning.

Recent changes in higher education funding significantly decreased block grants to institutions, and now the most prestigious universities get more funding while the viability of smaller universities is endangered. Under these new circumstances, the shattered identities of displaced universities clearly undermine their ability to compete and to survive.


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