Why Ukrainian refugees in schools and universities need more support

By Lucie Cerna
Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills

Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has created the greatest refugee surge to OECD countries since World War II. It has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes, with many seeking safety in neighbouring European and other OECD countries. This has created major challenges for schools and universities. Most Ukrainian children do not speak the language of their new host country and many are suffering from war-induced trauma. Policymakers, schools and teachers are faced with a twin challenge: of providing educational continuity for millions of Ukrainians and ensuring its relevance so they can re-enter the Ukrainian education system at a later date. While countries and organisations have worked together to support host country teachers and Ukrainian refugee teachers to address the specific needs of Ukrainian children, much more can be done to help.

One of the biggest issues for providing educational opportunities to Ukrainian students in host countries is language. It is stating the obvious that most Ukrainian refugee children are not fluent in their host country languages. This is backed up by an OECD survey, “Ensuring a long-lasting return to learning for Ukrainian refugees”, which found many barriers to enrolment in host country schools, including the recognition of skills and qualifications, teacher capacity and language.

To resolve the language issue, host countries have frequently offered language catch-up courses to support the education of Ukrainian refugees. These take place in many different forms, such as online courses, preparatory classes, and classes available in universities, schools and community centres. For example, in Austria, Ukrainian students who lack proficiency in German are often taught in separate temporary classes, as with other non-Ukrainian students with insufficient language proficiency.

However, while countries may have good intentions for separate classes, such as making it easier to dedicate teaching time to the specific needs of Ukrainian students, it is crucial for Ukrainian students to interact with domestic students as soon as possible, in order to ensure their learning, social and emotional needs are met. Other countries include Ukrainian students in mainstream classrooms from the start. This can provide opportunities to learn the host country language in both formal and informal settings.  It is also crucial to offer continued opportunities for learning Ukrainian language, history and culture.

Ukrainian students and their families are also concerned about whether skills, competencies and diplomas from host countries will be recognised if they return home. In response, many countries have adopted recognition of prior learning (RPL) processes for formal or informal education. In Denmark, for example, the Danish Ministry of Children and Education has been working with Ukrainian authorities to clarify that education received in Denmark will be recognised by the Ukrainian education system in the future. Estonia enlisted both national and institutional level policies with regard to RPL, through the national Estonian Academic Recognition Information Centre and through an institutional RPL system called VÕTA, which takes into consideration previous studies and work experience.

These kinds of responses should be mimicked in other countries. Policymakers should concentrate on ensuring that the skills and qualifications of Ukrainian refugees will be recognised in a speedy and efficient process. At the same time, they also need to work with Ukrainian authorities to ensure that skills and qualifications gained in host countries can be recognised in Ukraine.

Finally, teacher shortages are another important barrier to the enrolment of Ukrainian students. The huge surge in numbers means there have not been enough classrooms or teachers to meet demand. Countries have responded in a variety of ways. For example, many have hired both Ukrainian and domestic teachers and assistants to help deal with capacity constraints. However, it is estimated that some 10 to 17% of Ukrainian refugees have previously worked in the education sector and most of this huge talent pool is not being mobilised. It is crucial that countries make better use of this valuable resource. Not only would this support Ukrainian students, but it would also aid adult refugee employment and help maintain a link between Ukrainian history, culture and schooling alongside that of the host country.

Countries have taken steps in the right direction. For example, Spain has hired 200 Ukrainian language assistants to help support Ukrainian students learning Spanish in schools. Latvia has also provided support to Ukrainian teachers by recognising prior qualifications, providing online pedagogical materials and free priority Latvian language courses. Other countries should consider more flexible recruitment policies to speedily recognise the skills and qualifications of Ukrainian teachers so that they can support Ukrainian students in schools. When possible, it is also important to support studying the Ukrainian curriculum during school hours so that Ukrainian students can easily re-integrate education when they return home in the future. Countries – including France, the Slovak Republic and Spain – have offered timetable adjustments to Ukrainian students so they can, for example, follow Ukrainian lessons online.

This is an unprecedented situation and the OECD pays tribute to the countless teachers, schools, organisations and governments who have been working together to try to support education for Ukrainian refugees. Since the war began, the OECD supported Ukraine’s recovery and reform agenda, including by assisting Ukrainian policymakers’ efforts to reform their education system. It will continue to do so by offering the latest research and policy advice in all applicable areas.