Polish universities – a gateway to the EU

In the pursuit of a diploma from an EU university and a brighter future, more and more young Ukrainians cross the border into Poland in order to study.

Text/Photo: Rikke Mathiassen & Maria Danmark Nielsen

Lublin, Poland – Sviatoslav Solovei, 23, and Denys Bykovskyi, 24, are enjoying a free afternoon in the city centre of their new home town Lublin, a city of some 350.000 inhabitants in Eastern Poland. The two have been friends since they went to college in Kiev.  Now, however, both have left their old life in Ukraine, where conflict and economical woes currently hold large parts of the population in an iron grip: About two months ago they both began their Master’s degrees in computer engineering at the University of Technology in Lublin.

“We love our native country, but we want the best future for us”, says Sviatoslav Solovei: “A Ukrainian master’s diploma does not give a lot of perspectives, because it is not certificated in Europe”.

Over the past three years, the Polish universities have seen an explosion in the number of Ukrainians filling the classrooms, according to the Perspektywy Education Foundation: From 6,321 Ukrainian students in the academic year 2011/12 to 23,329 Ukrainian students – over three times as many – in this academic year.

“Poland has a good brand in Ukraine”, says Bianka Siwinska, coordinator of Study in Poland, whose aim it is to attract foreign students to Polish Universities: “They see us as a new world, as a gate to Europe”.

Ukrainians now represent over 50% of the total number of foreign students in all of the Eastern European country.

A door to Europe

For Sviatoslav Solovei and Denys Bykovskyi, the dream of studying abroad was triggered by a visit to Berlin in January 2014. It was the two friends’ first time in an EU country, and it was their experience in the German capital that inspired both of them to pursue studies within the European Union:

“They [Germans] don’t have the problems, we have in Ukraine: They have clean streets, and they don’t lack money. They have a future. At the time, we didn’t have that”, explains Denys Bykovskyi.

When he and Sviatoslav Solovei returned to Ukraine they both commenced Polish language lessons while they took the first steps in the necessary paperwork towards being admitted into a Polish university.

However, why move to Poland, instead of another EU country, such as Germany, then?

“Poland would be the best for us, because the language is not impossible for us to learn, and it is cheaper”, says Sviatoslav Solovei. The close proximity also played a role. “It’s a neighbouring country. There is only 600 kilometres from Kiev to Lublin,” he says, adding that he made the journey from Kiev to his new Polish home by bus.

Many young Ukrainians appear to share the same deliberations: In a 2014-presentation by the Ukrainian Association of International Educational and Exchange Agencies, Poland was mentioned as the young Ukrainians’ top pick when it comes to choosing a destination to study abroad.

Want to increase job-chances

Already now there are some indications that the young Ukrainians are in the EU to stay.

In a survey released this month, Ukrainian students from a number of Polish universities were asked about their reasons for studying in Poland. The majority – 54% – replied that they expected to gain the knowledge to find a job in Poland during their studies in the country. In the meantime only 6% replied “definitely yes” when asked if they wanted to back to their home country after graduation.

“It is easy for us to study in Polish, because Polish and Ukrainian are similar languages”, says Sviatoslav Solovei.
“It is easy for us to study in Polish, because Polish and Ukrainian are similar languages”, says Sviatoslav Solovei.

Joanna Konieczna Salamatin, vice-president of the Institute for Socio-Economic Enquiry which conducted the survey, explains that many of the Ukrainians who come to Poland in order to study tend to choose degrees that are more or less universal, which are, “not very strictly connected with Polish reality, Polish culture and so on”:

“Maybe some of them plan to work here, but they also plan to go somewhere further to the West,” she says and mentions Economics as one of the Ukrainians preferred subjects.

No plans to move back

When Sviatoslav Solovei and Denys Bykovskyi finish university in Lublin in two years, they both hope to be able to stay in Poland and pursue careers as computer engineers.

“Or maybe in Germany, if we’ll have a chance there”, Denys Bykovskyi adds. None of them are planning to go back to Ukraine in the near future, except for short visits to their parents and friends for example during summer vacations.

Related article: 24-year-old Denys went from Maidan to Poland 

This does not come as a surprise for Franck Düvell, Senior Researcher at COMPAS, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford. Currently he is looking into different aspects of East-West migration:

“There is a widely heard perception that matters will not improve in Ukraine and people better seek their future and their fortune abroad”, he tells Euroviews.

Meanwhile the prospects of Sviatoslav Solovei and Denys Bykovskyi actually being able to settle in the EU after they have received their university diploma, don’t seem all bad: Last year Poland passed a new law which means that foreign graduates from Polish universities can stay in the country for one year after their last exam to look for a job.

Featured image by Rikke Mathiassen and Maria Danmark: Computer engineering-students Sviatoslav Solovei and Denys Bykovskyi, both from Kiev, are seeking their fortune in the EU.