More unity, less inaction needed from UK higher education

United Kingdom higher education responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflect the inability of the community to respond collectively, promptly or effectively to issues of importance. Umbrella groups and individual institutions stalled and prevaricated as they lagged behind other countries in responding to demands for concerted action.

It may have been a failure of planning, but other recent sector-wide issues suggest it may be a systemic point of failure in a sector where self-regulation and self-interest encourage inaction and obfuscation.

The invasion started on 24 February, but the first statement by Universities UK was not until 28 February, which was an age given the potential to plan ahead and consider how to respond.

Even slower was the Russell Group, which did not manage a public response until 7 March, after the media had featured their lack of even the most basic of statements. Two weeks after the invasion there was still no statement on the Russell Group website.

By contrast, on the day after the invasion, the German Ministry of Education and Research said: “All current and planned activities with Russia are being frozen and subjected to critical review. There will be no new activities until further notice.”

By 4 March, the European Union had “decided to halt cooperation with Russian entities in research, science and innovation”, which included halting payments under existing contracts as well as making no new agreements. The Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark and Lithuania had all reached the same position.

Universities UK was obliged to update its position when the Russian Union of Rectors (RUR) issued a statement on 4 March supporting “the Russian army and President Vladimir Putin’s decision to take military action in Ukraine”.

The response was to suspend a memorandum of understanding between Universities UK and the RUR, which coincided with the decision of the European University Association (of which Universities UK is a member) to suspend membership of 12 Russian university signatories. The sense of being bounced into defensive action rather than anticipating and leading continued to prevail.

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