The idea of the research university as a key institution for social and economic development in knowledge-intensive societies has been adopted by the Ukrainian government after the fall of the communist regime. Establishing research universities is a long journey during which many things might happen. To understand this journey better in the case of Ukrainian research universities, we applied an analytical framework derived from the concept of travel and translation of ideas. This concept analyses reform through three types of editing rules: the rules of context, logic and formulation. These editing rules have guided our analysis of data gathered from policy documents complemented by face-to-face interviews. We conclude that the idea as introduced came to little, as the turbulent political context precluded long-term planning and universities were faced with conflicting policies.