Third-year economics student Inna Shmarai is kind of stressing out these days.
It’s not just that exams are coming up soon at the National University in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk and some of the stuff she’s been studying this term has been really complicated.
What’s adding to the slight 19-year-old’s worries is that ever since her university was taken over by armed separatist fighters in east Ukraine she isn’t sure exactly what degree she’ll receive when she eventually does graduate — and whether it will actually be worth anything.
“Mostly we are concerned about our degrees because of the political situation and the war,” Shmarai told AFP.
“Then you can add to that worries about the fact that exams and grades are on their way too,” she added, as she headed towards a lecture with a pile of books under her arm.
Shmarai, and thousands of other students like her in the war-torn region, are caught at the centre of a tug-of-war.
– Rebel university –
Since the insurgents seized power in a bloody conflict that began in April, they have cemented their grip over everyday life in the towns they run.
That has now expanded to the education system and universities — with institutes made to switch over to the rebel’s self-declared people’s republic.
Technically, the university Shmarai is attending should not even be open.
As the fighting raged and separatists took over several months back, the state-run Donetsk National University officially closed down and shifted its campus some 800 kilometres (500 miles) west to the town of Vinnytsia, deep in government-held territory.
But not everyone has moved. While the rector left another, rebel-approved, head took over and many professors and students have remained.
Now the university, unrecognised by the authorities in Kiev, has carried on giving lessons and readying for exams.
“We call the other university a clone,” says deputy rector Alexander Maznev dismissively of the government-backed institute now completing its first term in Vinnytsia.
“The other one may become a legal entity but it will never be a real university.”
However, despite the confidence, it is the universities in the rebel-held territory that are struggling for legitimacy.
Without the backing of the central government none of the degrees they plan to eventually give out will be recognised by Ukraine’s education ministry.
– ‘Everyone is scared’ –
The separatist authorities have sought to calm the nerves of anxious parents and students by saying that it is the name of the university and not the state that stamps the degree that matters.
They are also trying to get Russia to recognise degrees from universities they control.
Sitting in his office in military fatigues, rebel education minister Igor Kostyenuk said that the rebel statelet’s diplomas would be accepted across the “Eurasian space” — meaning, he hopes, in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
“In Russia, they’ll be accepted as documents proving higher education,” he said.
For some students that is all the assurance they need.
“I know exactly what diploma I will receive, it will be one from the Donetsk People’s Republic and it will be a pleasure for me to get it,” said stocky first-year history student Igor Makuzin as he came out of a class in Russian history.
“I have no desire to work anywhere else. I want to remain here and work for our republic.”
But others are not convinced.
“We obviously have specific worries on this matter, everyone is scared,” said classmate Anastasiya Yermolaeva.
“We don’t know what will happen in the future and if we’ll be able to get work with these diplomas.”