Warsaw, Poland – The war that broke out in Ukraine in February 2022 forced several million people to seek refuge abroad. Out of them, an overwhelming majority chose Poland as their shelter. Other Central European countries also experience an influx of refugees, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and – to a lesser extent – Hungary.
Some of these refugees had been studying at a university before the war broke out, while other were just finishing high school when the invasion started. As a result, universities across Central Europe must deal with a massive influx of Ukrainian youth as the war drags on, and find new strategies to address this unprecedented challenge.
What temporary protection means for students
This wave of refugees prompted the European Union to invoke, for the first time in its history, the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive. What does this mean for prospective students?
The directive itself doesn’t cover the right to free higher education, per se. It only explicitly grants the right to free-of-charge education for children and teenagers.
That being said, Ukrainians granted temporary protection status can still apply to universities, but whether they’ll have any special treatment will depend on national policies.
Poland has been the top destination for Ukrainian refugees and had already been welcoming hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians well before the start of the war. In 2021, over 250,000 people from this country had Polish residence permits, according to government data.
Poland has also long been an important destination for Ukrainians wanting to study abroad. For years before the invasion, they remained the largest group of international students in the country.
Now, the number of Ukrainians staying in Poland has increased more than fivefold, and Poland has risen to the challenge to make them feel welcome.
The policies in place include:
- 18-month legal stay with a PESEL number;
- Unrestricted access to the job market;
- Access to healthcare and other types of social benefits.
The Polish government has also introduced specific policies to facilitate refugees’ access to higher education. These include the following:
- They can apply and study under the same conditions as Polish citizens. This means full-time studies at public universities are free for them. However, this also means mastering Polish is a must as most programs are taught in it;
- They can apply for financial support programs available for Polish nationals. Those include maintenance and assistance grants, allowances, and more;
- They can officially recognize their level of education free of charge;
- They can continue their studies and doctoral research thanks to the Solidarity with Ukraine program, overseen by the National Agency for Academic Exchange.
The Czech Republic also had a strong Ukrainian community before the invasion. At the end of 2021, there were between 150,000 and 200,000 Ukrainian residents legally living in Czechia, accounting for about a third of all foreigners staying in the country.
With the war breaking out, the Czech Republic quickly became one of the most popular destinations for Ukrainian refugees. The country also has the highest rate of Ukrainian refugees per capita in the European Union.
Before the invasion, the Czech Republic welcomed every year thousands of Ukrainian students, who constituted approximately a fifth of international students in the country.
How has the Czech education system prepared for welcoming Ukrainian students? Let’s break down three major changes that are put in place for them:
- They’re now exempt from the fees for recognizing their diplomas and qualifications;
- Like any other international student, they can apply for Czech-language programs that come with zero tuition fees. Some public institutions received funding to hold free language courses for Ukrainian students;
- They can apply for scholarships created exclusively for refugees from Ukraine. These scholarships are university-specific. Their amount, number of spots, and conditions depend on the institution.
Although more than half a million Ukrainians have entered Slovakia since late February, many of them only transited through the country to settle somewhere further west, or have since returned home, often to western Ukraine.
That might be because Ukrainians historically form a smaller minority than in neighbouring Poland or Czech Republic. Before the invasion, around 57,000 of them lived in Slovakia. However, they constituted a third of all foreigners in the country (source: IOM).
Slovakia still should prepare for an important increase in admission applications submitted by Ukrainian nationals. What can Ukrainians expect from this country vis-à-vis access to higher education?
- They can apply to universities under the same conditions as Slovak citizens. Their studies will be free of charge no matter the tuition language, as long as they begin to study after April 24, 2022;
- They can continue their studies at some universities via so-called academic mobility or non-degree programs. This way, they’ll collect ECTS credits that can then be recognized by their university in Ukraine;
- They can benefit from Ukrainian-specific scholarships and other opportunities set up by universities. For example, The University of Performing Arts in Bratislava offers their internship-study program at €1 instead of €1,000.
Last but not least, there’s Hungary. This country had the smallest community of Ukrainian immigrants before the invasion, amounting to less than 10,000 people.
On top of growing Hungarian-Ukrainian disputes in recent years and the Hungarian government’s controversial stance on Russia, that’s one of the major reasons why the influx of refugees staying in Hungary long-term isn’t comparable to that of Poland or the Czech Republic. Only around 28,000 Ukrainians have chosen this country as their home for the near future.
So, if there are more Ukrainian applicants to Hungarian universities this summer, the difference isn’t likely to be huge.
It’s unlikely the Hungarian higher education system will get overwhelmed by an influx of Ukrainian students. But the country has still gotten itself ready to welcome them. Here’s how:
- Those having the temporary protection status can count on having the same tuition conditions as Hungarian nationals;
- The government added 1,000 Student at Risk scholarships to the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship Programme for those fleeing this war;
- Several universities have offered students from Ukraine to continue their studies on their campuses, and some offer special financial support programs and scholarships.
By Vivianne Bell
Vivianne Bell is an academic writer with WritePaper who’s also involved in website content creation. She is an expert in website development, content creation and analytics.