No one in our team wanted to believe in the possibility of a full-blown war. We stayed busy and committed to our regular work throughout January and February, and only during short coffee-time chats in the office would ask each other half-jokingly but with a shade of alarm whether everyone had made copies of essential personal documents “just in case”.

On February 23, we had a webinar together with the University of Arkansas for our partner universities in Ukraine talking about building academic integrity infrastructure on campus, and on February 24 we had plans to conduct interviews with teaching staff as part of our webinar series on distance learning. We were really invested in making it possible for our educators to share best practices of online teaching because we were confident that Ukrainian faculty members had accumulated invaluable experience.

The war forced us, like everybody else, to revisit our plans and adapt to the new reality. To be honest, we agonized over sending our first letters in the wake of the full-scale onslaught. We have 60 partner universities in our project, and many of them are located in the areas that turned into the battlefield and later became occupied by the aggressor. Thus, we have two partner universities in Mariupol, Priazovsky State Technical University and Mariupol State University, eight partner universities in Kharkiv, then Kherson State University, three universities in Sumy, two universities in Mykolaiv, six in Kyiv, three in Zaporizhzhia, four in Dnipro as well as in other cities subject to missile strikes, such as Odesa, Zhytomyr, Poltava, Vinnytsia and Sloviansk. Were all our partners alive and unhurt? Was it even the right time to ask questions when their very survival was at stake? Was it a good idea to reach out with numerous proposals of immediate internship opportunities we had been receiving from our foreign partners? At the time all this seemed to be of little relevance, but still there was the most important question: “Wherever you are, how ARE you?”

Having finally braced ourselves up for sending these emails and checking in with our partners, we again received proof that our education front was as strong and unflinching as our military front. Even at this early stage of unfolding disaster, the majority of our partners resumed their work and signaled that their participation in our project remained relevant, despite finding themselves in the circumstances that appeared to be shockingly inconceivable in the 21st century: “Yes, we are ready to continue our cooperation provided we have electricity and there are no active hostilities around”. All our respondents were grappling with one common challenge: How to preserve quality of education and academic integrity in the context of wartime instruction and learning?

To be fair, our partners also had other more immediate and practical concerns. When asked about urgent needs, their responses ranged from means to ensure uninterrupted internet access to essential medicines. Realizing that we did have the capacity to help, our project budget was promptly realigned to enable the launch of the Humanitarian Assistance Fund to provide support to Ukrainian universities. Through this mechanism, we were able to support 19 universities by awarding small grants and helping them procure some basic necessities.

The requests were diverse: Some universities needed hardware to revive their departments and resume vital operations (laptops, multifunctional devices, video cameras, power banks, wi-fi routers, etc.) since during the hectic relocation process, they were not able to carry even the basic stuff. Many universities were establishing facilities for displaced faculty members and personnel. One university needed laptops to organize telemedicine services and assistance for people affected by the war.

Among the much-needed items has been equipment to allow for reliable and uninterrupted operation of universities’ critical infrastructure and server systems, to enable stable remote work of faculty, students, and administrators. It soon became the ‘new normal’ to receive requests for materials and tools relating to essential repairs of buildings – to restore damaged windows, doors, sanitation facilities, repair sewage and heating systems, also to provide some livable space for displaced people. A request from the occupied Kherson was related to the acute problem with purchase of medicines. Among the most unusual requests was the purchase of seeds and plant protection agents, agricultural textiles, film, and other essentials to help timely implementation of farming practices in one of the universities. This university has been feeding its campus and local residents.

 

Our assistance seems to us to be a mere drop against the enormity of damage sustained by some universities. Nevertheless, all universities tried to carefully ration these resources, using them to address the most urgent needs.

 

“Thank you for your support. It’s making a difference. Now the university has to ensure education quality as best as we can under the existing circumstances.”

  • Gogol Nizhyn State University

 

“On behalf of the entire academic community, we would like to thank you for the grant that supports the University in delivery of its educational and social mission!”

  • Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University

 

“We thank you sincerely for the financial support we received from you. We are trying to offer the best possible living conditions for displaced people who reside in our dormitories and in the city more generally. Your support is critically important for us! Glory to Ukraine!”

  • Uzhhorod National University

 

“This support is crucial for us because the country is forced to use public funds for other purposes and there is no possibility to purchase this kind of equipment. We welcome and are grateful for ANY support. During this time, it is important for us to survive as a university without compromising the QUALITY of education process, helping relocated universities and respecting the principles of INTEGRITY! OUR SINCERE THANKS!!!”

  • National University of Water and Environmental Engineering

 

“We thank you warmly for the possibility to help people in need. It is really important. We are happy to feel your support which helps us to move forward.”

  • Vinnytsia National Technical University

 

“Thank you for the opportunity, support and refocusing on common positive action to live through the current events in Ukraine!”

  • National University of Ostroh Academy

 

“Thanks to your assistance, we have been able to kick-start the efforts to enroll young people from the temporarily occupied areas, in particular from Mariupol, in Ukrainian higher education institutions as part of the work of the University’s Admissions Commission. Necessary equipment has been purchased to organize a comfortable setting for operations and interaction.”

  • Mariupol State University

 

In response to the request for psychological support, in particular related to the education process in the situation of emergency, instead of our regular Distance Learning webinars we launched an adjusted Education in Wartime series. These are short video lectures with information about self-help techniques to support mental health of students and teachers. Alongside mental health and counseling tips, our webinars offer knowledge about distance learning tools and the work of rehabilitation specialists. All our webinars are available on our YouTube channel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkhFzM2pObM&list=PLZWbvfmP-Z9FB3zbjqTvk8QwC3OulSxuO

 

In June, we managed to organize a Zoom session with representatives of our partner universities. It was a very emotional event when after such a long pause and everything we had lived through we again had the opportunity to work together. It allowed us to discuss our work and developments within the project, take stock, reflect on the experience we had gained and think about our further cooperation.

 

“I am grateful for the trust and today’s collaboration and possibility to feel part of the large education community and to feel even greater pride for our country!” – Yevhenia Stavytska, participant.

 

“Huge thanks to the project organizers for their invaluable contribution to the education quality assurance and development of Ukrainian higher education institutions,” – Oksana Morhulets, participant.

 

In parallel, we continued the work initially launched by the project, elaborating materials necessary to improve education quality assurance and academic integrity. Thus, our experts completed, and the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance approved the Experts’ Guide on review of internal policies and procedures for academic integrity and external assessment of their quality. We also finalized the document “A toolkit for institutional analysis of academic integrity and the system of internal quality assurance of higher education” intended to help higher education institutions to conduct self-assessments regarding academic integrity and education quality in their institutions, identify areas for improvement and adopt appropriate decisions to improve these systems. For secondary schools, we are working on the Academic Integrity Guide for teachers involved in non-formal education. Soon, we will present all these products on our channels.

These six months may well be the most challenging for Ukrainian education since the country regained its independence. Despite everything, we have been able to prove that Ukraine will stand. The aggressor has completely destroyed 286 and damaged 2,477 educational institutions. However, it cannot destroy what lies beyond the walls and what is much stronger than strikes and shelling – the desire for dignity, freedom, enlightenment, democracy, improvement, and new quality of life. These are the values transmitted and promoted by the Ukrainian education. And it remains for us to learn and bring learning, because our knowledge and our level of education and enlightenment are the weapon against the enemy whom we will undoubtedly chase out from our soil. And now we are entering a new school year, which means we are moving forward, to our ultimate victory.

 

The article was written by Marta Tomakhiv, Academic IQ Project Coordinator.