Will Ukraine’s brains return? And what if they don’t?

By Nathan M Greenfield

The sense of a national mission among students and academics living outside Ukraine – to use their intellectual skills to rebuild their country – appears to be strong, but there are many factors that could affect the decision to return, and many ways to rebuild.

In the question-and-answer period following his address to Canadian university students on 26 June last year, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was asked by a Ukrainian graduate student what she could do for Ukraine from the safe haven of the University of Toronto.

His answer was equal parts the high school history teacher who becomes president of Ukraine he played in the hit situation comedy Servant of the People, and the wartime president he had become: “Your job is to study hard and earn good grades, and then be ready to come back to Ukraine with new knowledge and help us rebuild the country.”

The total number of Ukrainian university students studying abroad and of professors now working outside Ukraine is unknown. Nor is it known how many of these expatriate scholars intend on returning.

(According to the Centre for Research and Analysis on Migration, which is housed in the Department of Economics at the University College London, as of 8 May 2023, there were 8.2 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Against that some 12.7 million Ukrainians have returned to the country in the past several months.)

Of the 12,019 people surveyed, 16.52% answered from outside Ukraine. Almost half of respondents believed that of those studying outside Ukraine, only about half will return to the country. Of the 313 students who are studying abroad, only 30.7% said they plan on returning to Ukraine, while 23.7% said they would try to find a job outside Ukraine. Another 5% said that when they finished with the programme they are currently in, they plan to enrol in another programme outside Ukraine.

Second-year student of international marketing, Anna Pushyk, whose home university is the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, is presently being hosted by Hereford Sixth Form College. She admits to being worried about what will happen next.

Likewise, she admits to feeling strong emotions and the weight of her studies. She worries about her father and brother back in Ukraine and having to arrange things for her mother, who lives with her but does not speak English. Yet, when our conversation turned to her future plans, while recognising the contingent military reality, she sounded much like her president.

“I don’t know what will happen next. I’m worried not only about my family but about all of our [Ukrainian] society. But for me, I believe being in the UK is the best decision at this moment.

“My plans include learning and obtaining my education – and then bringing this knowledge back to Ukraine and integrating it into the development of the Ukrainian economy and business.”

After a moment’s pause, Pushyk made a point that shows her strong analytical skills. Noting that almost all Ukrainians studying abroad are female (18 to 60-year-old men are barred from leaving the country), she said that the war-time situation has given young Ukrainian women an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to Ukraine’s development.

“I believe that this chance to be educated and learn new skills abroad, and then bring these experiences and skills back to Ukraine to develop it and make it better is very important.”

There are 4.2 million job vacancies in Ukraine and government’s responsibility is to match graduates with these positions.

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