When Pralay Kumar Nayak flew 5,400 kms from a small town of Jaipur in Odisha to Ukraine in 2020, the shy 17-year-old hoped to return home six years later as a doctor. Since childhood, he had wanted to study medicine. Two years later, even before he could start his third year of medical studies, he has decided to pursue another profession. His dream was devastated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Like Nayak, the approximately 20,000 Indian students who returned from war-torn Ukraine in February and March are now uncertain about how they can continue their education in the east European country. They are either quitting medicine, seeking transfers to educational institutions in other countries or waiting for the Indian government to help them find places in medical schools at home.

The fresh series of Russian aerial assaults across Ukraine since October 10 has deepened their anxiety and confusion seven months after they returned from the conflict zone.

Pralay Kumar Nayak with his father Basant Nayak before he left for Ukraine in 2020

When Russia began shelling Ukraine in February, Nayak was trapped for a fortnight in the eastern city of Kharkiv. In March, he was evacuated home through neighbouring Romania. He had hoped that the war would end soon and his university would resume classes. But as weeks stretched into months with no sign of a resolution, he began to seek a transfer to an Indian medical college.

In September, India’s National Medical Commission clarified that it does not plan to accommodate Indian medical students from universities of Ukraine in Indian colleges. With that, Nayak’s dream of becoming a doctor came to an end.

“My parents and I decided to leave medicine,” he said sounding frustrated and confused. He now lives in Bangalore where he has begun pursuing a Bachelors degree in Science.

No admission

The Nayaks live in Jajpur, 100 kms from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar. Basant Kumar Nayak, who works at a local television media outlet, was initially hesitant about sending his only son abroad to a country where language was the greatest barrier. But he came across another doctor from Odisha, Swadhin Mohapatra, who had studied in Ukraine and settled there. Mohapatra decided to open an education consultancy firm that helped Indian students find places in Ukrainian colleges. Using Basant’s services, Nayak found admission in Kharkiv National Medical University. The fees for six-year course were over Rs 20 lakhs. Basant used all his savings to send his son to Ukraine.

Nayak was in his second year of medicine in February when Russia invaded Ukraine and attacked Kharkiv, 40 kms from the Russian border. Nayak and his friends – Debashish Rout, Shanti Kumar Nayak, Priyabrata Sahoo and Rishit Bharadwaj – sought shelter in an underground metro station for six days.

Amidst the heavy bombardment, they ventured out only to buy food and water. Nayak would call the the Indian embassy in Kyiv several times a day. Every time he received the same response: the embassy was working to evacuate the students. Eventually, it was Mohapatra and other education agents who came to their rescue.

On March 1, around 950 Indian students walked from Kharkiv to suburban town Pesochin amidst heavy air strikes and shelling. From there, the education agents arranged buses to neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Romania and Poland from where the Indian embassy was arranging evacuation flights. Fourteen days after the war began, on March 8, Nayak finally got to Bhubaneswar.

In those two weeks, he had seen blasts, discovered that a senior in his college had died during the war, and lived each day thinking it was his last. But even after the initial joy of escaping the war, Nayak hoped to return to his university soon.

In mid-April, the Kharkiv medical university began online classes. Teachers hid in their homes and taught students over the internet. Courses on language, philosophy and anatomy were compressed or not taught at all due to the time constraints.

When the third year began in September after a semester break, Nayak realised that Ukrainian universities were in no position to begin classes on campus and there was little scope for return. He waited for the Indian government to announce a way out.

But in July and again in September, the National Medical Commission reaffirmed that there is no administrative provision for medical students from foreign universities to transfer to Indian colleges. The commission has another criterion for students from foreign medical colleges – to work in India, they must have notched up clinical experience during their course. Nayak’s parents were hesitant about sending him to another country to continue his medical education. In September, he decided to quit medicine. He would have to start his new degree from the bottom.

Nayak’s friend and classmate Debashish Rout, who was part of the same group that walked out of Kharkiv, said that clinical experience for students starts only in the third year. “...We had no way of gaining that experience if we sit at home,” Rout said. “We could not return to Ukraine and India is not willing to accommodate.”

After Nayak’s decision switch to another discipline, Rout, aged 20, is also confused about whether to quit medicine or opt for a transfer to another country.

From left: Shanti Kumar Nayak and Pralay Kumar Nayak with their friends in Ukraine

Students left in a lurch

Indian students studying in Ukraine have limited options. To begin with, they could take a permanent transfer to a university in another country. For that, they need transfer transcripts and mark sheets from their home university in Ukraine. But several students said they had been unable to obtain these from their universities because of the chaotic situation in Ukraine.

A second option is to seek a temporary transfer to another country under a “mobility programme”. This would allow student to continue their studies in another university for six months or a year until the war in Ukraine ends. The final degree will be offered by the parent university in Ukraine.

Pratik Dhal, a third-year student, said that the National Medical Commission has published a list of 29 countries where students can seek transfers under the mobility programme. “But the government is providing no help in these transfers,” Dhal said. “Students have to manage everything.”

On his part, Dhal has petitioned in the Supreme Court, asking for Indian colleges to accommodate students from Ukraine, He said that India has 290 private medical colleges. Students have demanded that each of these institutions enroll a few of them.

Dhal is now in Cuttack and continuing with online classes. “Since the air strikes began on Monday, the electricity connection has been cut off and our teachers are not able to hold online classes,” he said. “Where should we go now?” he asked. The Indian embassy in Ukraine, he said, has stated that the situation remains volatile and has advised students not to return.

Dhal has also applied to universities of Poland and Hungary, but has not secured admission anywhere yet. “My university [in Ukraine] is not providing required documents to take a transfer,” he said.

Mani Chahal, owner of Bobtrade Education Group, which helps students with foreign university admissions, said he visited Ukraine in June and July and witnessed regular air strikes. “It is not safe to go there,” he said.

He added that under the mobility programme, some students are going to universities in Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to continue their medical studies. “But there is absolute chaos and confusion,” Chahal said. “We don’t know what may happen tomorrow.”

He also emphasised that a mobility programme is temporary – like a student exchange programme. “If Ukrainian universities are not able to call back their students, then who will provide the degree and will the new university allow students to continue?” he said. “We don’t have answers to these are questions.”

The worst hit are first-year and sixth-year students. According to the National Medical Commission, first-year students are not eligible to seek transfers to another university under the mobility programme. Karan Singh Sandhu, director at Edu Pedia Overseas consultancy, said some European countries have a five-year MBBS course while the one in Ukraine runs for six years. “Sixth-year students are left in a lurch,” he said.

In the most sought-after universities in Georgia, to which second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-year students could take a transfer, there are limited medical seats. “There is a rush for limited medical seats in other countries too,” Sandhu said.

As a result of these problems, Abhishek Kumar, a first-year student from Kharkiv medical university, said four of his friends had quit medicine. Others had decided to lose a year and seek fresh admissions in other countries. Kumar is in his hometown of Patna, waiting for the Supreme Court to pass an order about allowing Indian students from Ukraine to be admitted into institutions at home.

“Since Indian government is not allowing us to take a transfer here, I plan to take NEET [the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test for medical colleges] next year,” he said. In that process, he will lose two years.

Shanti Kumar, a friend of Nayak’s, has decided to seek admission to Russia’s Mari State University but has not managed to get his transcript and certificates from Kharkiv medical university in Ukraine. “The Ukrainian universities seem unwilling to let go of their students,” Kumar said. “I have requested the Russian university to extend deadline for submission of documents.”

His friend Debashish Rout, who is in Bhubaneswar, continued online classes till June. His third year began in September but he has not resumed online classes. “The practical classes will begin, how can I do it online?” he asked. “I am waiting for Indian government to provide a solution.” Every time the Supreme Court hearing is scheduled, Rout’s hopes rise.

“I am continuing with my revision studies of first and second year,” he said. “For now I have missed a month-and-a-half of online classes.”