5 months later, education of Indian medical students from Ukraine still uncertain

As the war continues in Ukraine, around 18,000 Indian medical students face uncertainty about the future of their education.

Earlier this year, the country watched with anticipation as around 18,000 Indian medical students in Ukraine made their way through a war zone to the safety of their homes in India. Five months later, as the war continues in Ukraine, the same students face uncertainty about the future of their education.

A war was the last thing on his mind when Anugrah Varghese from Pulluvazhy, Perumbavoor flew to Ukraine in 2018. His longtime dream of pursuing medicine was finally coming true. Almost four years passed without incident as he busied himself with studies at Vynnitsia Pirogov National Medical University in what he describes as ‘the most peaceful city in Europe’. Even at the end of the fourth year, when the Russian threat became imminent, Anugrah and her friends did not expect an invasion. It was on February 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine, that unease first replaced calm in their minds. Anugrah remembers her journey home as a traumatic experience. “Even after reaching Kerala, I stayed indoors for quite some time before coming out and joining a hospital here for observer status,” he says.

Five months from now, it’s not so much the war as the ambiguity over obtaining their medical degree that worries students like Anugrah.

‘Why can’t we be accommodated in Indian colleges?’

Returning to war-torn Ukraine to complete their studies is not an option for most medical students who returned to India in March 2022. Several of them hoped to be accommodated in Indian medical colleges for the rest of their course. But the policy of the National Medical Council, reiterated at the Lok Sabha by Minister of State for Health Bharati Pravin Pawar on July 22, not to allow the integration in India of returning Ukrainian students, dashed their hopes.

Shahida PH, the mother of fourth-year student of National Medical University of Bogomolets, Amal Faiez, insists that it is possible to welcome all returning students to India even if only the government was ready. Speaking from her home in Nettoor, Ernakulam, Shahida listed what she thinks are potential solutions. “Every year, several places become vacant in medical schools when students drop out of the course. Even if all students returning to Ukraine were absorbed by these seats, there will still be vacancies in our medical schools,” she explains. She adds that they were prepared to pay the same fees they paid in Ukraine to Indian medical colleges, if her son was admitted here. “We are ready to pay the same amount of fees to the new institution Amal joins whether it is in India or abroad. But paying more than the current USD 4500 is out of the question as we cannot allow it,” she says.

Students are also considering the possibility of transferring to universities in neighboring countries of Ukraine. Aleena John from Maradu, Ernakulam, a third-year medical student from Bogomolets, said that while she would love to have the option of taking the course in India, she does not think it is practically possible. Anugrah has also expressed skepticism about being housed in Indian universities. “Our second best option is to transfer to another country. But it also involves complications as several countries, including India, have restrictions on transfer students taking their licensing certification exams. The government should at least make sure that no such problem arises,” he says.

Praveena B Nair of Ochira, Kollam, a fourth-year student at Bogomolets, says the students are awaiting instructions from the Indian government to end their standoff. “We must be able to continue our studies without losing a year. Any solution in this direction is welcome,” she said. Asked about the government’s response so far, she points to the uncertainty her friend who is studying at a Chinese medical university has faced during the pandemic. “Till date, the government has not provided any assistance to my friend who returned from China last year. Naturally, this worries me,” shares Praveena.

Online learning will not be accessible to everyone

Ukrainian universities are now considering the feasibility of mobility programs in which the whole university will be moved to neighboring countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Romania and others until the end of the war.

Amal Faiez says the responses from their university indicate that it is very likely that their course will continue in online mode until the very end. “There is a small possibility that academic mobility will be activated. Ukrainian universities will collaborate with universities in other countries to ensure that the theoretical online courses of the former are complemented by practical courses in the latter,” he predicts. Students like Anugrah are not likely to benefit from this as not all universities have accepted this. “My university Vynnitsia, for example, says it’s not convenient for them,” he says.

Organizations such as the All Kerala Ukraine Medical Students Parents Association (AKUMSPA) decided to petition the Supreme Court for a favorable ruling. “No solution is possible without government intervention. All of our children’s documents, including their original certificates, are at the university, which is now in a war zone. Even if they were to apply for a transcript and be transferred to another country, the government will have to intervene,” Shahida says.

Financial obstacles

The mother of another fourth-year student, Sahil KH, Smitha Harrish, expresses the hope that the activities of the parents’ association will soon help them find an amicable solution. “It is important for us to accept the reality that students will not be welcomed into Indian medical colleges no matter how long we wait. What I would like is for the government to help them supplement their theoretical online learning with hands-on training opportunities at government institutions here. I am willing to pay the fees required for such clinical experience opportunities,” adds Smitha.

Many students had to take out loans to finance their studies in Ukraine. Anugrah and Sahil took advantage of the loan with their houses as collateral. Amal Faiez’s parents, meanwhile, used the money they had set aside to build a new house to fund her medical studies. The lingering ambiguity about the future of their studies is therefore particularly worrying for these students who will have to start repaying the loans in two or three years.

It is the limited number of places and the exorbitant expense of private medical education in India that brings students to countries like Ukraine. The practice of fundraising is also a huge deterrent for many students. “The fees are actually affordable, it’s often the amount of the donation that’s unreasonable,” says Aleena.

When asked how medical education in India could be made affordable and accessible in the future, the unanimous response was that the number of places should be increased and the fees moderated. “New colleges should be created and the number of places in existing colleges should be increased. In my opinion, if medical schools held two-shift classes, it would double the numbers,” Shahida says. Smitha adds, “What we need are good doctors. We should increase the number of medical college places here because the type of experience students get in India is unparalleled anywhere else.

Helen D. Jessen