Ukraine and the Role of the University

The Ukrainian flag

Across the University, we have seen extraordinary scenes of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Our colleges and departments, students and staff have led demonstrations, organised donations, and made clear statements. Oxford has been lit in blue and yellow. Several colleges are working to offer sanctuary and scholarships to refugees who have fled the war, alongside trying to improve our collective support for refugee scholarships more generally.  

Some have justifiably asked whether the University - as a diverse and global community - has been overly selective in its focus on Ukraine. There are many humanitarian crises around the world - Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Yemen, and South Sudan, for example. And hundreds of thousands of refugees arrive in Europe each year from Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

In my own research, I work on the politics of refugee protection. And in an article I have written this week in Foreign Affairs, I try to grapple with some of these questions of solidarity and selectivity within European policies towards Ukrainian refugees. I suggest that we should celebrate and encourage solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees, and that we should also strive to translate that solidarity into an enduring commitment to refugee protection for all who need it. Regardless of race, religion, or geography. 

Within Oxford, I believe that solidarity and practical action in relation to war are both consistent with and indispensable to our mission as a University. In order to advance teaching and research, the University should be a community underpinned by ethics and values, while also safeguarding freedom of speech and open debate. What marks Ukraine out as distinctive is not only the proximity of the war to Europe, the unprecedented speed and scale of the displacement, and the invasion of a democratic country by an authoritarian state, it is also how united our community has been is in its support for the Ukrainian people and its condemnation of the war.

Will this mean that the University will need to make statements in relation to every future conflict or humanitarian crisis? Almost certainly not. But it does mean that we should be collectively concerned about war, injustice, imperialism, and human rights abuses in all their forms, and in all parts of the world. And when humanitarian crises create a shared outpouring of support among our community, the University can and should stand united behind that consensus, whether it take place on our doorstep or elsewhere. It also means that we should applaud and celebrate the many acts of solidarity and everyday humanitarianism that we see across our community. 


Alexander Betts, Associate Head (Graduate and Research Training), Social Sciences Division