Maverick Citizen


Double trauma for SA students who fled Ukraine as they battle to find university spots at home

Double trauma for SA students who fled Ukraine as they battle to find university spots at home
Vuhlari Mtonga, one of the South African medical students who fled Ukraine, is embraced by her sister, Mikateko Mtonga, after arriving at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg in March 2022. (Photo: Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)

It’s been about a month since the medical students fled Russia’s war on Ukraine for the safety of home in South Africa. Now they need to resume their studies, but when this will happen is still uncertain as the bureaucratic wheels turn slowly.

The majority of these students found themselves in Ukraine because they were unable to find places at South African universities, particularly medical institutions, as a result of oversubscription – now, having escaped after the Russian invasion and needing to resume their education, they are facing another ordeal.

Speaking to Maverick Citizen, Lebone Kganyago of the organisation Expats South Africa and Victoria Maheso of the South African International Students Association said that while the focus had initially been on evacuating the students, it “has now shifted to how the students are reintegrated into the [South African] higher education system. There has been engagement with the relevant stakeholders like government, [the Health Professions Council of South Africa, HPCSA], deans of universities to say, look, the students are in the country now and need to complete their education – what is the way forward?” 

They said the extent of the discussion so far was which institutions were in a position to take in students and how many they could accommodate, and that while the majority were medical students there were others to be considered who were studying software engineering, business administration and dentistry. 

The organisations further emphasised that European-educated and trained students needed to be able to use their skills and education in South Africa to contribute to the South African system, which is what the Ukrainian student crisis had brought to the fore.

To this end, they were in discussions with representatives of higher education institutions to allow students to obtain curriculum accreditation for the modules studied so far. 

“Most of these students have even been given recommendation letters from their institutions [in Ukraine] so that they can do the practicals that need to be done in South Africa.”

Fourth-year medical student Nkateko Muyimane, who was able to escape from Ukraine and who co-founded the NGO SA Safe Corridor for Students (SASCS), told Maverick Citizen that it has been slow going and that while talks between the HPCSA Universities South Africa, which represents all the vice-chancellors in South Africa, and other organisations there was still no clarity on how students’ further tuition and accommodation costs would be borne.

Medical student Nkateko Muyimane, who fled Ukraine and co-founded SA Safe Corridor for Students to help students still trapped in the country, speaks in Johannesburg on 21 March 2022. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“There was an opportunity that arose from Russia where they were saying they are willing to take in medical degree students,” but students were not keen to take them up on it because they are “the enemy”, said Muyimane.

However, there was a glimmer of hope. He had contacted a hospital in Tzaneen, where he lives, while SASCS co-founder Madisa Malindisa had contacted private clinics in Johannesburg, and these were willing to allow students to do their practicals to supplement their online studies from their Ukrainian universities. 

The South African Committee of Medical Deans said last week: “For South African students studying in that country, the burdens of suddenly being without a place to study cannot be estimated. This has added the need for a more urgent response to their situation.

“This particular series of events brought on by a war will require that we reflect on our response at two levels:

  • As a humanitarian crisis which demands a global and national response of care and compassion; and
  • As an educational challenge which will need to address issues of reciprocal recognition of qualification, the adequacy of training platforms and the capacity to support student learning needs.

“In the context of these colliding crises, we wish to propose the following levels of response: 

  • An urgent forum to discuss and create plans for processes managing all students currently studying medicine abroad;
  • Convening a group which will urgently consider the placement of these Ukraine-based medical students in [alternative] European sites with reciprocal medical qualifications. This group should include the South African Committee of Medical Deans (SACOMD), Universities South Africa (USAf) and government departments dealing with higher education, health and international relations; and
  • Ongoing discussions among medical deans to create suitable responses to the urgent needs for supporting student clinical development.”

Asked by Maverick Citizen whether the HPCSA had undertaken to assist students and what steps it was taking to help students with placement in universities around the country, the council’s David Mametja said: 

Yes, we have participated in some of the consultations with representatives of the students. The HPCSA will do whatever is required to assist the students. However, this can only follow students having been accommodated by South African universities, which would then enable the HPCSA to register them. The HPCSA is perturbed by the unfortunate circumstances the students had to go through. We will remain supportive throughout the days and months that it will take to ensure that the students do complete their studies, within our legislative mandate.”

According to the South African International Students Association and Expats SA, the students face an uncertain future, since for now it seems they have to wait for the bureaucratic processes to be completed which will determine whether they will be placed within South Africa’s higher education and medical system. DM/MC


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