Vice Rector for Academic Affairs Aune Valk: Life is colourful, war is black and white

The University of Tartu senate’s decision not to admit new students from Russia and Belarus this year to bachelor’s and master’s studies has caused much controversy. Some people see this as a particular discriminatory step against the young people of these countries, including opponents of the regime, depriving them of the opportunity to study in the free world.

It certainly is a controversial decision, as probably most of the about 70–80 students who come to study at the university from Russia or Belarus every year are pro-western. This would most likely be the case also this year. We are sincerely sorry that our decision harms them. However, this is not, I fear, the greatest harm that their countries’ decision to go to war will cause to these young people. Is the University of Tartu their only opportunity for studies? Probably not. Thus, the decision affects the University of Tartu, who will lose these good students, even more than the potential students coming to Tartu to study.

It is important to note that the decision applies only to the 2022/2023 academic year and to new applicants only. All matriculated students of the University of Tartu are members of the university family, their residence permits are valid and they are welcome to continue their studies. Currentlly, there are 257 students with Russian and 25 students with Belarusian citizenship studying at the University of Tartu.

I would like to emphasise again that the university’s decision is not based on nationality, but on citizenship and residence, or affiliation with the state. It does not concern Russian citizens living in Estonia, or those who have the residence permit or long-term visa of another member state of the European Union, or who are already studying in Estonia. Also refugees from Russia and Belarus can apply to the university.

So why was this decision made? There are two main reasons.

First, it is a sanction with which we show that we oppose the policies of these countries. In a situation where innocent people are dying in Ukraine, the university stands in full solidarity with the Ukrainian academic community and the whole country. We restrict access to our education services for citizens of the Russian Federation and Belarus in the same way as their access has been restricted to hundreds of services and products of Western countries and companies. All Russian people regardless of their views are suffering from the war – pro-western people cannot travel by plane, use their money, etc. either. The restriction we imposed is by no means as wide-ranging and does not affect as many ordinary citizens as most sanctions against Russia.

Secondly, we have to consider that the security situation in Europe has drastically changed. The university cannot control the student applicants’ attitudes and views, or take them into account in its decisions. At the same time, the university as the host of international students has great responsibility for them. There are no reliable and accurate data on the attitudes of the Russian population, but it is clear that numerous people in Russia do support the war. We cannot be sure that the authorities of these countries will not take the opportunity to send here people who aim to use their stay in Estonia for other purposes than getting open academic education.

Unfortunately, the war has an impact on the academic world just as it does on any other field of life. Last Friday, about 200 members of the Russian Union of Rectors signed a statement supporting the President of Russia and the invasion in Ukraine. In response, the European University Association suspended the membership of the universities whose rectors had signed the statement. Similarly, the European Union has halted research cooperation with Russian universities and research institutions and suspended their funding.

I am a committed supporter of international students, and I know that contacts between different nationalities is one of the main ways to foster openness and improve international relations. Multicultural identity, and being at the same time an Estonian and a Ukrainian or a Russian is an opportunity that enriches life and makes it more colourful. Life is not black and white. But war is. Unfortunately.

Photo: Andres Tennus

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