Supporting Ukrainian universities through Twinning

International virtual traineeships: 5 tips for transversal skills


In any great crisis we must ask ourselves, how can I help? The innovative Twinning scheme coordinated by Cormack Consultancy Group and Universities UK International aims to establish more than 100 long-term, sustainable partnerships between Ukrainian institutions and international partners to support Ukrainian students, faculty and staff during the current conflict and beyond. This collaboration model offers a way forward for organising collective action in the higher education sector to face this and other major global challenges.

The Ukrainian higher education sector is under significant pressure. According to the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, over 95 professional pre-higher and higher education institutions have been damaged, and at least nine have been destroyed. Beyond the immediate mortal peril facing those who remain in Ukraine, and the major humanitarian crisis facing those who have been displaced, there is a desperate need to support the Ukrainian higher education system. Such support must encompass both short-term solutions to ease the tremendous strain currently facing academics, staff, and students, as well as long-term strategies to help sustain and rebuild Ukrainian universities, the economy and society. The Twinning initiative was created with this goal in mind.

What is Twinning?

The Twinning scheme is an institution-to-institution collaboration model coordinated by Cormack Consultancy Group with the support of Universities UK International, which allows HEIs around the world to support their Ukrainian counterparts in real, concrete ways.

The concept is simple: after registering to participate in Twinning, international partner institutions are paired with a Ukrainian university of a similar educational profile, mission and size. Following an initial introduction, the twinned institutions engage in a series of facilitated meetings where the international partner universities learn about the immediate and long-term needs and challenges faced by their Ukrainian peers. By working closely together, the twinned institutions build a collaboration strategy based on their respective needs, resources and strengths.

The international partner commits to support the Ukrainian university for a minimum of 5 years. The partnerships will provide a wide range of practical assistance, including but not limited to the following:

  • Organising short-term mobility programmes, fellowships and scholarships for Ukrainian students
  • Establishing short-term visiting professors’ appointments that provide a safe base for displaced Ukrainian staff to teach online courses to students in Ukraine and elsewhere
  • Facilitating the sharing of academic resources such as libraries, databases and technical equipment
  • Mutually recognising credits so that English-speaking Ukrainian students can take online courses from UK universities that count towards their final degree
  • Allowing Ukrainian teaching and research to continue in UK laboratories and classrooms where their own facilities were destroyed or damaged
  • Preserving Ukrainian archives in UK institutions, as well as promoting cultural and language exchange opportunities at both institutions
  • Sharing targeted support for vulnerable populations as well as mental health support services for Ukrainian staff and students suffering from post-traumatic stress due to conflict

Thoughtful, sustainable and reciprocal engagement

The guiding principle of Twinning is to support Ukrainian universities and the integrity of the Ukrainian higher education system, both during the active conflict and beyond. Central to this is the need for support strategies that minimise brain drain and allow Ukrainian universities to preserve their identity, autonomy and values. To this end, Twinning discussion sessions purposefully centre the needs and perspectives of Ukrainian participants and the communities they represent.

It bears mentioning that Twinning discussions require a high degree of frankness and even vulnerability from all parties involved. Twinned institutions may find it hard to meet each other as “equal partners” when confronted by the dire, life-or-death circumstances faced by many Ukrainian colleagues and institutions. A hallmark of the most successful partnerships is their willingness to approach the process with humility, sensitivity, and mutual respect, as well as their commitment to meeting challenges with flexibly and creatively.

It is important to stress the reciprocal nature of the Twinning partnerships. The Twinning framework was conceived as playing an important role in connecting key stakeholder groups (students, staff, academics) in both Ukrainian and international partner universities, allowing them to build mutually beneficial relationships over time. For example, collaborative research activities take time to establish; however, the close working links promoted by the Twinning initiative provide a strong foundation upon which participating institutions can build over time.

Research focused on rebuilding and renovating different aspects of Ukraine’s economy, education system, ecology, and food security at the end of the war will be critical; these are all areas of collaboration that Twinning partners are actively setting up structures to establish and maintain for years to come. This long-term thinking also invites the inclusion of non-university collaborators (including local communities, government and the private sector) in the creation of multilateral partnerships and initiatives.

Hope for the future

Since the inception of the scheme in late March 2022, support for Twinning has been swift and positive. Within a matter of days the first partnerships were formed; since then, over 70 partnerships have been formalised between Ukrainian universities and institutions in the UK, the United States and Canada, and more are currently being arranged. Likewise, the UK government, along with numerous other organisations, has now endorsed the Twinning initiative, providing funds to develop long-lasting and sustainable partnerships between British and Ukrainian universities.

A Twinning signing ceremony held on June 28, 2022, Ukraine’s Constitution Day, drew over 200 university staff, leaders and distinguished guests. Participating institutions shared their Twinning experiences, and stressed that, although international cooperation among universities may not seem a high priority in the grand scheme of things, at the core of such initiatives is an indissoluble belief in the importance of education as a cornerstone of a democratic society, and an urgent call to go beyond traditional university-to-university partnerships and seek for new, creative venues for mutual aid that can help address the formidable challenges such as those facing our Ukrainian colleagues. Supporting Ukrainian universities in their time of need is an act of hope for the future of Ukraine.