Bangalore, India – A drumbeat of explosions played in the background as Azam Hassan explained over the phone how he felt like he was living the lyrics to Eagles classic Hotel California. “It’s like the song is going,” he said. “You can leave whenever you want, but you can never leave.”

The 23-year-old Moroccan is a student at Kharkiv National Medical University, a crown jewel among Ukrainian higher education institutions which in recent years has proven to be a magnet for foreign students – especially in medicine – due to aggressive marketing and low fees. But Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, is currently the scene of some of the most intense battles between Ukrainian soldiers and invading Russian forces.

Hassan twice tried to escape from the war zone in buses organized by local operators, only to have the vehicles turned away. Highways outside Kharkiv are too dangerous to travel amid Russian shelling, the Ukrainian military has told those trying to leave.

So Hassan sat huddled with hundreds of other foreign students in the city’s underground subway, which doubles as a bomb shelter, as he spoke to Al Jazeera. He does not know when he will be able to leave Ukraine and join his family in Fez. But he is clear on one thing. “No matter what, I’m not coming back,” he said.

Significant income

Ukraine’s sovereignty is at stake. Yet even if the country’s resistance manages to repel the Russian onslaught, an important economic engine could struggle to recover: best known for its wheat and corn exports, this country also derives significant income from foreign students.

In fact, international students contribute a greater share of Ukraine’s GDP than that of the United States, even though the United States is the world’s top destination for overseas education. According to the Ukrainian government, 76,548 international students from 155 countries are enrolled in universities in the country. India sends more than 18,000 – almost a quarter – of these students, followed by Morocco, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, China and Turkey.

Research conducted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science at the end of 2020 showed that international students spend an average of over $7,000 each per year. This means that currently enrolled international students bring in $542 million in income to the country — which has a GDP of $155 billion — or more than $3 in every $1,000. By comparison, international students contributed $28.4 billion to the $21 trillion U.S. economy in 2020-21 – less than $1.5 out of $1,000.

But as the war escalated, many countries asked their students to leave the country. Others do not wait for official government advice. With the flight of students, Ukraine risks undermining these revenues, said Anatoly Oleksiyenko, director of the Center for Comparative Education Research at the University of Hong Kong and a leading Ukrainian scholar on post- Soviets, in an interview with Al Jazeera. To mitigate these losses, he said, universities across the country must adapt quickly “to move learning processes online and make all admissions, attendance and academic progress more flexible.”

This is possible, as many Ukrainian universities have already switched to hybrid classes during the pandemic, Oleksiyenko pointed out. But data from the Ukrainian government suggests that tuition fees make up less than half of the revenue the country derives from foreign students. The rest – what students spend while in Ukraine – will not be recovered by distance learning. There are also practical limitations to teaching medicine online. “How do we perform surgery online, sitting at home away from our university labs?” Hasan asked.

Indeed, low fees are a major draw for international students, said Yukti Belwal, co-founder of BookMyUniversity, an Indian education consultancy firm that has helped send dozens of students to Ukraine. Annual fees at a top Ukrainian medical school, around $4,000, are less than half of what a comparable private university in India or the United States would charge. “Some of the best universities in the former Soviet Union are in Ukraine,” Belwal told Al Jazeera. “And they are affordable.”

But Ukraine’s success in attracting students, especially from developing countries, is not just about cheap education. Over the past three years, the country has made concerted efforts to promote its universities abroad, Oleksiyenko said, by establishing the Ukrainian State Center for International Education to attract foreign students.

“The Ukrainian government has taken a proactive approach,” Oleksiyenko said. “The way they approached it – to make it a business rather than a cultural entity – indicates that the government was seriously pursuing the revenue generation strategy.”

Deans of Ukrainian universities have traveled to India and other major source countries in recent years, trying to nudge potential students to their medical schools, Belwal said.

“Dying in College”

Now those gains could plummet. While Ukraine’s economy as a whole has taken a hit, its higher education sector is particularly vulnerable, in part because of geography. Many of the country’s top universities – VN Karazin Kharkiv National University and Kharkiv National Medical University are the most popular among foreign students – are in eastern Ukraine, which has suffered the brunt of the Russian invasion. “The possibility of dying in college is the last thing you think about when applying to a university,” Indian student Vishnu Mohan, stranded in Kharkiv, told Al Jazeera, adding that he didn’t think he was. would return if he managed to get out safely.

As countries like India struggled to evacuate their citizens, videos of harrowing experiences – of students begging their government for help or being beaten up at the Ukraine-Poland border – went viral on social networks. social networks. Families considering sending their children abroad for education will not easily forget this.

Belwal, who is currently in Georgia, said his phone kept ringing. “Parents are so desperate, so worried about their children,” she said. She organized two charter planes to fly the students out of Ukraine before the country closed its airspace to civilian planes last week. The Indian government, she said, was simply not doing enough to help students. “They were too late to react, then too slow,” she said.

Certainly, Ukraine and its higher education industry are not totally unfamiliar with crises. In 2014, the annexation of Crimea by Russia led to a loss of income for universities in this region.

Foreign students in other parts of Ukraine were also worried, Belwal said, although they were quickly reassured as the rest of the country remained peaceful.

This time there is no peace anywhere in Ukraine. Universities do not know what the future holds for them or their country. Some experts remain optimistic that Ukraine will eventually regain its place as a popular destination for foreign students.

Its universities could also try to diversify their market by partnering with US and European institutions for joint degrees and programs, Oleksiyenko said.

But none of this will change Hassan’s mind, he insisted. He’s already checked out and just waiting to go. For real.