How can student engagement with Ukraine go beyond a flag on Facebook?

4 Mar 2022, 6:00

College leaders are increasingly having to develop thoughtful responses to the Ukraine conflict and other highly politicised issues, writes Stuart Rimmer

On a global scale the world looks east to the Ukraine conflict and the humanitarian fallout. But more locally in colleges, the conflict raises questions. How should we react and act?

It has always been easy to argue that teaching and, more broadly, education is in itself a political act. What we teach, how we teach it, what we fund, how we are inspected, who we include and exclude is driven by political choices.  

Through the pandemic we saw how government often made political choices rather than moral ones about how our sector was treated.

On more than one occasion, leaders were forced to make ethical decisions. We have also had to adopt a position on matters usually way outside the education arena.  

Increasingly, global events such as the pandemic, conflict, sustainability and any of the other impending horsemen of the apocalypse will force colleges to take moral positions and act accordingly. We must be ready for these debates and, importantly, action.  

The Russia-Ukraine conflict will likely affect students and staff in every college. In this case, backing the position of our government and the EU against the international aggression seems straightforward.  

FE adopting a stance in itself won’t have Putin shaking in his jackboots. Nevertheless, some students are reporting they wish to understand the conflict better, or are fearful of the conflict getting bigger. 

Many students and increasingly many staff won’t recall the Cold War or the Troubles and will be experiencing a conflict close to home for the first time. So there is a great opportunity for doing what we do best ̶ engaging and teaching.

We should be able to teach without our own bias and through factual presentation. We can use it to reinforce messages around British values, which we’ll have already done through induction and tutorial.  

The conflict creates real opportunities to discuss the rule of law, liberty, respect and democracy.

(Such lessons are likely much needed post “party-gate” and the recently reported governmental corruption.)  

We can also proactively seek out staff and students with familial connections in Eastern Europe who might be experiencing particular distress, and put in place specific support.

One Ukrainian student in my college, Vanessa, is worried about family and friends she has in Richka, a village in western Ukraine.

She says some students are “shocked” but also said that many students feel “it doesn’t affect them”.  

Meanwhile one of my amazing ESOL tutors, Oksana, is Ukrainian and her family is in Kiev. She is personally impacted but is bravely using it in her teaching.

She says, “It’s scary to get the news and to continue is hard… but it’s my job.”

She says she is not only proud of her nation’s response but is experiencing empathy from her students from Iraq and Afghanistan, who know conflict. I am sure this is being replayed in colleges across UK.

So this is a live debate in our student communities. It means there is an opportunity to talk about student activism through petitions, demonstration, fundraising and engagement. 

Controversially, making space for the Russian historical perspective may be required to create balance and empathy.   

Making space for the Russian historical perspective may be required to create balance and empathy

We should also discuss the differences between being humanistic and empathetic, without unnecessary virtue signalling.

We can discuss how students can show their concern through real action rather than just plastering a yellow and blue flag on their Facebook page.

For example the ‘Good for Me Good for FE’ campaign has mobilised quickly with Red Cross to support fundraising for Ukraine. 

There are economic implications that will play out all over the world, whether this is petrol pump prices or the cost of gas (mostly Russian!). By recognising these issues, we help create global citizens.  

So we’ll need to stretch beyond our classrooms, and beyond the constraints of one unit in a technical qualification specification. Encouraging students to think critically and to take action where they feel moved to feels like a good first step.

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