Destrucción y reconstrucción de universidades en Ucrania
Noviembre 13, 2023



Something on a lot of people’s minds in higher education– at least, among the more internationally-minded types – is how higher education institutions in North America and Europe can contribute to the rebuilding of Ukrainian higher education. North American responses to the Ukraine crisis have mostly about sheltering individuals and – in the short-term – providing access to higher education at concessionary rates. But over in Europe, more attention is being paid to helping institutions survive and rebuild. The European University Association has struck a taskforce to support reconstruction, and the German DAAD – which already has a number of projects supporting higher education Ukraine – has called for the German government to put together an action plan for 2030 to rebuild Ukrainian universities.

Canadian universities should put together some kind of similar response. If we critique governments’ obsession with providing financial support to students rather than institutions, it would behoove us to think about our international responsibilities in an institution-centric way, too. It would be interesting if either Universities Canada or the Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE) could become a centre of expertise for helping reconstruct national systems of higher education in cases of civil or international violence. And if any nation deserves this kind of support, it is Ukraine.

But while Ukraine’s reconstruction must take priority, an interesting foreign policy question – and one many people might not like – is: what does post-war university reconstruction look like in the Russian Federation and how, if at all, should Canada help?

The answer depends a little bit on what post-war Russia looks like. Obviously, if we are talking about a Russia which remains united behind Putin or some other Putinesque figure, academic co-operation should not and will not be on the table. But what if there is some kind of democratic reckoning in Russia? Wouldn’t it behoove western universities to extend assistance to Russian universities and re-integrate them into the global academic community?

I wouldn’t bet on Russia making a democratic turn after the war. In fact, I suspect that whatever replaces Putin at the end of the war will be a sight nastier than Putin himself. No room for co-operation there. However, at the same time, I wouldn’t bet the farm on the Russian Federation staying intact geographically. Post-Soviet Russia is much less ethnically homogenous than people think (an excellent Twitter thread on this is available here), and the resentment of the non-Russian population at being disproportionately treated as cannon-fodder in the Ukraine war is likely to be a major feature of post-war politics. There’s also the much bigger question of whether resource-rich Siberia – which was already developing signs of regionalism prior to the war – might also end up breaking away.

In the maximalist fragmentation scenario, there would be a central region of “Muskovia” – somewhat similar in territorial extent to the Grand Duchy of Moscow at the end of the reign of Ivan the Terrible – that would no doubt stay intact and would almost certainly be a dangerous, revanchist – but much impoverished – power. The chances for co-operation there would probably not be great. Possibly, we might expect a series of (mainly Muslim) statelets in an arc around the northern end of the Caspian Sea from the Caucasus to the Kazakh border. These countries would need a fair bit of help in getting real governments off the ground – there would probably be a market for Canadian constitutional and public policy expertise, as there was in Eastern Europe in the 1990s – but not necessarily a huge role for higher education co-operation per se, because these governments won’t be in much shape to fund anything of the kind.

But Siberia? Siberia holds many interesting possibilities.

First, a Siberian state would look a lot like Canada. Massive, blessed with resources, and a population which is thinly spread but still in the tens of millions (depending on where you draw the borders, it has anywhere from about 25 to 35 million people) and a very large Indigenous population, there are some obvious similarities and affinities that should make a Canada-Siberia connection a no-brainer. Second, an independent Siberia would undoubtedly, after some initial chaos, become the Russian Federation’s successor state for anything having to do with APEC and the Pacific, which should be important if you take our government’s Indo-Pacific strategy seriously. But unlike the potential statelets around the Caspian Sea, Siberia would have a *lot* of money. And it has the makings if a decent higher education system, as it would inherit a good number of serious universities in Vladivostok, Tomsk, and – depending on where an independent Siberia draws the borders to the east – possibly Yekaterinburg as well.

A peaceful, democratic, and independent Siberia would be an enormous boon for the world and more particularly for Canada. If Canada’s foreign policy establishment were capable of prepping for this kind of outcome and if our foreign policies and international education policies actually spoke to one another, (though as noted back here, this is doubtful), this would be a region where a forward-thinking Canadian government would want to place a very large bet, and this bet would and should include support for higher education institutions in the region.

In brief: Canada needs a plan to help Ukrainian universities. It’s a moral necessity, but one which will not be unique to Canada since lots of countries will do something similar. The more strategic piece of higher education diplomacy, the one for which a smart Canada would be preparing right now, would be which foresees the collapse of a colonial Russian state in Siberia and is thinking about how higher education can contribute to a better future for the peoples of the region. Global Affairs probably won’t think about this until it is too late to do something meaningful: it will be up to institutions and Universities Canada and CBIE to do the planning so that the option to initiate this kind of program will exist when the time comes.


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