The Current

After fleeing Ukraine, international medical students have been told to go back for exams

International medical students left Ukraine when Russia invaded, but were shocked to recently be told to return to sit a final exam. The government ministry that oversees the exam is working on a solution, but students remain in limbo.

Medical students say they risk expulsion if they don't return to war zone

 A tank on a destroyed street.
A destroyed Russian armoured fighting vehicle in the town of Trostianets, Ukraine, this time last year. The town is 55 km south of Sumy, where a university has asked medical students to return to take a final exam. ( REUTERS/Oleg Pereverzev)

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After leaving Ukraine when Russia invaded last year, international medical students have received emails and text messages summoning them back to the war-torn country to sit their final exam.

"We were shocked and at the same time we all laughed because we didn't think it was possible for the government or the ministry to ask us to return to a war zone," said Amara, a student from Nigeria who studied medicine in Ukraine for five and a half years before the war broke out. The CBC is using a pseudonym and not revealing her name over fears for the future of her education.

"It's a war zone and they can't guarantee our safety," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

Amara had one year of study left when war broke out. She left Ukraine and eventually settled in Poland. She and other students are being asked to sit a licensing exam, called the KROK2, which would allow them to practice medicine in Ukraine. Amara does not intend to work in Ukraine but plans on returning to Nigeria, where she will have to sit a different exam to practice medicine in that country.

In the middle of the exam, the sirens went off- Indian medical student who returned to Ukraine for exams

Amara said she and other students have refused to return for the exam, and have been threatened with expulsion. If they don't pass the exam, they can't receive their diplomas, potentially wasting years of study and expense. Transferring to another university to finish their education would involve high costs, and potentially repeating years of study. 

"[Ukraine] unfortunately is going through a very horrible time right now. But I don't see why they would expect foreign students to return and experience that same thing," she said.

"We sympathize with the people of Ukraine, but this request is highly inhumane, to say the least."

The Current spoke to an international student from India who did return to take the exam, but is not being named out of fears for his career.

"In the middle of the exam, the sirens went off. And like they didn't even say [for] us to just go in the bunkers. They were like, just continue your exam. It happened twice," he said.

Students who missed the exam in March have been told to register for the next one in May. They've called for the exam to be cancelled, as it was last year, or held online. Some have been told by their universities to apply for an extension, to take the exam in the summer — but the students say there's no indication the war would be over by then.

An aerial view of destroyed buildings.
Damaged homes in Okhtyrka, 76 km south of Sumy. The region has seen heavy fighting since the invasion last year. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Policy around the exam is overseen by Ukraine's Ministry of Health. In a press release Thursday, the ministry said it had drafted a proposal to set up test centres outside Ukraine.

"If the students are outside Ukraine, they are going to be able to take the exams at the certification testing centers designated," the statement said.

"Or in case they are willing to return to Ukraine, they may take the exams at domestic higher education institutions."

The draft resolution has yet to be approved by Ukraine's cabinet ministers.

Ministry 'not forcing students to come back'

Kostyantyn Rybachuk works with the department that oversees the exam for Ukraine's Ministry of Health. He said the ministry is in contact with "trusted" agencies in other countries to set up testing centres outside Ukraine. 

"The ministry and the testing board is doing everything possible … to create comfortable and safe conditions for every student," said Rybachuk, deputy head of the Center for Testing Professional Competencies of Higher Education Specialists in Medicine and Pharmacy.

"That's why I would emphasize that the ministry is not forcing students to come back to Ukraine," he told Galloway.

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He said the exams will happen around the beginning of summer, but ruled out an online option. If a student fails the exam, they have the chance to repeat the exam within two months. Another failing grade means the student must repeat a course of study and retake the exam the following year.

He added that the ministry is responsible for overseeing the policy around the exam, but the instructions to return had come directly from the universities. 

"The ministry cannot tell the students to come back to Ukraine, or not to come back to Ukraine," he said.

"There is a huge miscommunication between the student and the university."

The Current contacted Amara's university, Sumy State University in northeastern Ukraine, but did not receive a response before publication. The university later emailed a statement saying that the exam is regulated by the Ministry of Health, and "the rules, procedure and terms of its conducting are regulated by state documents and cannot be independently changed/cancelled by the university."

The university said the exam would be held this May in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that has remained relatively unaffected by Russian assaults in the east.

Another institution, Kyiv Medical University (KMU), told The Current that organizing the exam fell to the ministry. In an email, KMU said it had raised safety concerns with the ministry and suggested that the exams be held outside Ukraine.

Rybachuk said he was not aware of when those concerns were raised, or what was highlighted.

Rybachuk said Ukraine trains medical students from 118 countries, who place their trust in schools that have over a century of experience in medical education.

The exam in question is designed to ensure that anyone graduating has reached the "minimum knowledge, competencies, skills and everything needed to go to the hospital to work," he said, whether that's in Ukraine, or their home countries. 

"That's why the KROK exam is so important."

Audio produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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