Why academics in Ukraine feel forced to leave their country

A big movement of migration happened in the beginning of the 1990s when the USSR collapsed, in particular from Ukraine. The term “brain drain” has become quite popular due to a large number of scientists, professors, intellectuals trying to leave their countries searching for one where they can be treated with dignity and good remuneration. According to the Center for Migration Policy at the European University Institute in Florence, “more than a thousand graduate students and 200 candidates of science left Ukraine between 1998 and 2012.”

And this situation hasn’t changed much after almost 30 years in Ukraine, when still professors or medical workers or people of science are in a range from 200 USD up to 400 USD for a professor wage in limited universities in the country where prices are increasing year by year.

22% of teachers in secondary and vocational schools and 43% of university teachers and researchers expressed interest in moving abroad for study, temporary employment or permanent residence. Interest in migration among graduate students is significantly higher than among their senior colleagues with teaching experience: 45% of young respondents reported serious reflections on migration abroad over the next 12 months. The main motives for migration intentions and their implementation among teachers and students of pedagogical institutions were economic and the professional development.

In 2019, the Ukrainian group “Rating” did research as to the migration tendencies among all groups of migrants (potential, current, reverse). Among the motives for leaving the country there was often also mentioned dissatisfaction with future prospects and general living conditions with 35% of Ukrainians thinking of leaving for migration.

This is the story of an intellectual migrant from Ukraine, a humanities professor in Malta. A PhD holder, who wants to remain unidentified as he fears discrimination for his statements. He sheds light on the realities of “high skilled migrants”, adaptation to new conditions, dependence on authorities, struggles and successes with acceptance and socialization within the European communities.

What were the main reasons why you have made a decision to start searching for work outside of Ukraine?

I left Ukraine in 1997. The situation in the country under then-president Kuchma was rather depressing. Yet, it is interesting that even almost 24 years later, the reasons why I was forced to leave have not changed and have remained the same. There is no opportunity to fully realize yourself in the profession and, in my case: science and education. As a professor or academic you receive a very small salary that basically allows you only to survive. In addition to this, there is a low respect for science and professors among students, in comparison to other countries.

I graduated from one of the best universities in the country and realizing the realities I went to continue my studies in Canada and the USA. After that I have started to search for internships and work opportunities in Europe. Have been working in Belgium, the Netherlands, Scotland and now I am working for over 7 years in Malta. Since I didn’t have a permanent contract, I was returning back to Ukraine once every two or three years. Honestly, I would be willing to stay in my country as I am willing to share gained knowledge and to implement new experiences that I have acquired. Yet, this wasn’t fully demanded either.

What are the realities of the modern “intellectual migrant”?

First of all, the problem for all migrants, not only high skilled ones, is the lack of opportunities to get a permanent job. They are not often offered since short contracts give a possibility to terminate cooperation with a person immediately after a short project contract. Permanent contracts are financially more demanding for the employers. And short contracts are not stable. By the way, this happens not only with migrants from countries outside the European Union, but also with internal citizens of the EU and not only in the educational sphere. Secondly, acceptance and integration: In all European countries where I have been, the attitude towards migrants is often ambiguous at the household level. According to my observations, people reasonably understand that migrants are good for the economy of their country, since they need brains and hands to do the work that the locals often do not want to do or might lack. Yet, at the level of subconsciousness and beliefs, they reject it. I have experienced this, for example, during my work in Belgium. I worked in an open office with various employees where I had colleagues sitting on my right and left. They could communicate over my head in Dutch, without bothering to inform me or include in the conversation. They intentionally were speaking only in their language even though they were speaking perfect English and only rarely would say something to me. Even if you learn the language, what I have started doing, this wouldn’t change much. It was difficult to be accepted. I felt a different attitude only in the USA and Canada during my studies and internships, in countries that are in fact a “melting pot” built by emigrants. I think that these countries are the most favorable for migrants.
I always tried to find out about the host country where I was going. But still, if you describe the state of a migrant person, then for me it is often loneliness and the feeling that you are still a stranger, an “outsider”.

Yet now you have a permanent contract.

Yes, now with 37, I got a full-time contract at the University of Malta. It was like a dream for me. In Malta, teachers are very well treated, I was appreciated both socially and financially. The attitude towards me changes instantly when I say in Malta that I am working as a professor at a University.  This is due to respect for the academy, professors and people of science within the Maltese society.  But unfortunately people’s attitude is different when they do not know about my position.

You mean when they see that you are a foreigner, and you work in Malta?

Yes. On the streets or in companies it is obvious that I am not a local. Society is rather closed in this regard. This is the specificity of this country. If you, for example, make a remark to a local for throwing garbage or a cigarette butt on the asphalt, then seeing that I am a foreigner I was told a couple of times “go back to your country”, which happened to me personally numerous times. In general, at the household level, this reaction comes from the fact that the local residents are afraid of losing their jobs to migrants, although the latter often does not apply for jobs that are in demand among locals. There is also a fear of losing identity when migrants come from other cultures. Malta is historically a very catholic country and the emergence of people of other religions can cause fear of loss of identity.

How do Maltese people view migrants?

Attitudes towards migrants are quite mixed here. On the one hand, there is an economic boom, there is a development of industries and therefore there is work. On the other hand, migrants often work without social security, normal working conditions, health insurance, et cetera. There is a very compact society here, it is locals in leadership positions and migrants become workers. But this is not a feature of Malta only, the same situation, for example, is in other countries like for instance in the United Arabic Emirates.

Have you lived in Ukraine since obtaining a permanent contract? If yes, what are your views on the situation right now with academia?

I have been in Ukraine for two years since 2019 due to family and personal matters. Due to Covid and closed borders, I couldn’t come back to Malta right away. Thus, I have started to search for work options in Ukraine. My observations are that in Ukraine, the salary situation for academia is drastic. Because of financial reasons, my colleagues are often being forced to work in several jobs, have some kind of additional source of income, like a vegetable garden, or apartment rental. And the lack of finances are the reasons that sometimes people are forced to take bribes or presents. The official salary allows only to survive. I personally don’t want super salaries, only the one that would let me have just a normal life, not even the fancy one. I want to be able to go to a café and order a coffee, to go to the sea in the summer and skiing in the winter. I want to have a family and give children the opportunity to have a good life. I also have elderly parents whom I would like to help. I do not crave for luxury, but simply a normal life earned by my hard work. Unfortunately, in my field, since 1997, nothing has changed in terms of wages. I can even say that it got worse. Prices for everything have increased and if wages have increased by a little, it is not proportional to the increased expenses. Just as an example, I pay less for commodities and food in Malta than in Ukraine with the salary that is more than 5 times higher. I was offered some teaching possibilities, yet the payment was very small. I would actually love to stay in Ukraine further on in my life, but the situation that I have outlined does not allow me to do that. Yet people are forced to search better options not only because of finances in academia and sciences. For instance, my uncle, really good chemist, left Ukraine in 1993, because he couldn’t do any work in his beloved field. As a humanitarian I don’t need any equipment, or machines to work in science. He, on other hand, was in need of good equipment, chemical substances etc. He could work for free; it wasn’t about money for him. He breathed chemistry. Thus, he moved to Paris and worked till retirement in the field.

You mentioned the Covid borders closure. How did the coronavirus affect the situation with the possibility for work migration? What is the situation now in Ukraine?

The coronavirus has indeed affected the ability to travel to other countries not only for tourism but for work as well. Until 19th August of this year, when the European Commission included countries like Ukraine into the “Covid passports” for vaccinated people, it was impossible for me to go to Malta for instance for work or residency necessities. But I can pay tribute to Malta, that the very next day after the decision of the European Commission, I was confirmed the possibility of entry. I understand the reasons for the closure of the borders, as the countries tried to reduce the burden on their health systems, but of course this was the reason that I ended up in Ukraine and could not return to Malta.

What do you think of the European laws towards migration?

European law, in my opinion, is quite loyal at the moment to migrants, especially legal ones. But there are tendencies towards a toughening of the situation. In my opinion, the most loyal country for migrants is Germany, and therefore most of them tend to go there. Yet for those who follow the rule of law sometimes everything is much harder than for those that are using some of the European possibilities for illegal immigration.

Written by:

Natalie Gryvnyak

September 26, 2021


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