Prof Miller on his honorary degree from Ukraine, our aid, and the future of Ukraine

Photo: The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic
Wednesday 30 August 2023, 13:00 – Text: Ivana Pustějovská

“This is not just an award for me, but above all for our entire university,” says Jaroslav Miller, former UP rector and current Deputy Minister of Education, about the honorary doctorate awarded to him by the National Pedagogical Drahomanov University in Kyiv. What does the help of our universities mean for Ukraine? And how do they see the future of mutual cooperation?

All of this is discussed in the following interview with Prof Jaroslav Miller.

How important is this honorary doctorate from Drahomanov University for you?

In general, I feel rather reserved towards such honours. First of all, I’ve already had my fill of glory in my life, but above all I believe that helping – if it is possible – should be an automatic and standard part of our lives without any claims to any honours. For this very reason I’ve turned down a university medal in the past. Nevertheless, this particular award is of considerable value to me for two reasons. In recent years, Ukraine has been living through its historically difficult hour, during which we have been giving this country and this particular Ukrainian university a helping hand. This is a small piece in the big mosaic of Czech and European aid, but it says something positive about Palacký University. The second reason why I personally value this honorary doctorate so highly relates to my family history. Three generations of my ancestors on my father’s side served between 1870 and 1946 in what is now Ukraine in the historical territory of Volhynia. So I can say that the historical affiliation to this country is in my family’s DNA. It’s also for this reason that I have a Ukrainian family staying at my home.

We are talking about the past, because you should have received the doctorate in 2020, when you were UP rector. Then, thanks to your initiative, the university supported Ukrainian as well as Belarusian students who had fled their country. Nevertheless, the award ceremony was prevented by the pandemic of Covid-19, and then Russia invaded Ukraine. However, let’s get back to the present. The war is still going on. From your perspective, how active are Czech universities in helping Ukraine?

What the entire Czech education system is doing, and it’s not just universities, but also primary and secondary schools, far exceeds my personal expectations and the ministry’s wildest dreams. I’m not just referring to the fact that, for example, the Czech Ministry of Education announced projects to support the integration of Ukrainian children, students, and academics. I am also talking about the assistance that has often been spontaneous. Many Czech universities, despite the current difficult financial situation, have invested their own money and energy in helping. I very much appreciate this, knowing that we are doing a good thing. As I’m also currently Deputy Minister of Education, I’m pleased to say that the Ministry also highly appreciates the help of the whole sector.

You are a university teacher and an academic. How do you perceive the situation from the point of view of your profession? Do you meet colleagues or students who fled Ukraine and have got the opportunity to work or study here?

I regularly meet both Ukrainian students and Belarusian students and academics who have fled their countries. The escape to a foreign country and the process of integration are always a test of resilience. Of course, Czech universities and academies of science do not have unlimited possibilities, yet they have admitted hundreds of Ukrainian students to study and employed many academics and scientists. We must humbly bow to this fact. I’ve had the honour of being able to visit Ukraine several times over the last eighteen months and have held a number of meetings with the Ukrainian Minister of Education and also with several rectors of universities there. Without exception, all of them appreciate our support and at the same time count on it even after the war ends.

What were your impressions of these meetings? How do they perceive our assistance?

I was pleasantly surprised and almost shocked by the fact that Ukrainian universities are mostly running in business-as-usual mode; i.e., students continue to study, and universities try, as much as possible, to run their normal operations. Naturally, this is sometimes very difficult. Ukrainian schools, and I am not just talking about universities, are very grateful for what the Czech Republic is doing for them. Ukraine truly appreciates not only the material and financial assistance we provide, but also the fact that we educate their children. The Czech education system – from regional to higher education – is trying to integrate Ukrainian children and students. This is not an entirely easy endeavour, with all the cultural and linguistic differences at stake, but it’s working.

How else can we support academia in Ukraine?

I think the next “finest hour” of our education system will come when the war is over. At that moment, the Czech Republic and our universities should offer all possible help to partner institutions in Ukraine. Help will be needed with the reconstruction of infrastructure and many other things. However, it will also be important to offer the universities there a helping hand in their integration into the European educational process, which is actually one of the reasons why I was awarded the honorary doctorate. We need to draw them more into Europe and into various European projects, simply making them partners. We need to show them that they belong with us. And here I see a great opportunity for universities from the Central European region, which are culturally, linguistically, and mentally closer to Ukraine than French or Scandinavian schools. For instance, there is a huge opportunity for us to adopt a clear agenda and strengthen our university’s position within the Aurora alliance, because we are the ones who – quite logically – are in charge of the Eastern partnership.

The war has been going on for a long time, though. Is there a risk of our aid running out?

Aid can take many different forms. There are other ways besides financial. Psychological encouragement is also important. That is why the journeys of Czech politicians and other representatives of various institutions to Ukraine are of great importance. It is extremely important for our partners to know that we are not forgetting them, that we are always with them. I’ve personally witnessed during my visits how crucial it is for them to know that they are not alone. It gives them the strength to cope better with all the problems that war brings.

Unfortunately, the story is not over yet; the war continues.

Yes, but the story can actually have two interpretations. Firstly, it is the negative one that you mentioned – the war is still raging on. But we can also see a possible positive ending. The story is not over, because the cooperation that we have established is much deeper than it has ever been in the past, and it will certainly continue. Our knowledge of the country, of which until recently we had only a slight acquaintance, is now much better and deeper. Moreover, thanks to the influx of refugees, Ukrainian culture is becoming part of Czech culture, and that can only enrich us. In this sense, we are beginning to write a new, albeit perhaps long chapter in the story, in which the Ukrainian education system will become part of the European Union system and Ukraine itself will become a member of our community in the medium term. This is my huge wish for Ukraine – as well as for us.


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