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Resilience and transformation: Ukrainian universities in times of occupation and digital change

Kherson residents accessing university wi-fi

Oleksandr Melnychenko from the Kherson National Technical University (KNTU) and Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi from the *URAN Association, the Ukrainian NREN, talk about the experience of the university under the Russian occupation and how R&E institutions can overcome wartime challenges with the support of digital technologies.

URAN: the impact of war

The mission of URAN, with the aid of digital technologies, is to make education and science in Ukraine contemporary and innovative so that they take their rightful place in the international arena.

Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi, URAN
Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi, URAN

“We provide universities and research institutions with access to network technologies and digital services specifically designed for scientists and educators” Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi, executive director of URAN, explains. “For example, we assist in establishing distance learning and international cooperation, constructing the institutions’ internal network. We offer access to electronic research infrastructures and secure channels for the swift exchange of big scientific data. “After the start of the full-scale war URAN’s workload increased significantly; educators and researchers required additional support in such challenging circumstances and conditions. For instance, even the regular task to ensure the network’s functionality was being carried out during rocket attacks and power outages. “The URAN infrastructure reflects the changes around it and thus it is changing too” Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi says. “We are restructuring the network architecture to reduce the number of energy-dependent nodes and almost entirely shift the URAN network to fiber-optic non-switched connections. The network will operate even in the absence of electricity, ensuring that users do not remain without services.”

The changing needs of educators and researchers in Ukraine

The war has created new needs for our users. Some are common across all research and education institutions, such as the critical need to secure data, as the physical IT infrastructure can be destroyed by enemy rockets or drones. To prevent data loss, URAN offers universities and research institutions the option to migrate their IT infrastructure to the cloud of foreign providers. Specifically, to the AWS and Microsoft Azure clouds, which have been providing their services for free since the start of the war.

Currently, URAN, alongside international and Ukrainian partners, is developing a mechanism that will enable Ukrainian R&E institutions to access these cloud services with significant discounts. This is made possible through URAN’s participation in GÉANT and OCRE.

“The joint initiative with GÉANT and OCRE is highly significant, the success of this project determines the future work of many educators and scientists in Ukraine” Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi emphasises. Another need for universities is to ensure access to the university network for students who had to flee to different parts of Ukraine and the world. They gain such access through eduroam, a global WiFi roaming service for the R&E community. In nearly two years since the war began, URAN connected ten institutions to this service. Some URAN users were more affected by the war than others and, therefore, they needed special assistance. Among them Kherson National Technical University (KNTU).

KNTU: a university under occupation

The southern city of Kherson found itself in the combat zone from the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion started in February 2022. The buildings of KNTU were significantly damaged, and the university shifted to remote operations. Within a few days, Kherson was occupied, and KNTU, along with the majority of students and staff, became isolated from the rest of Ukraine. Evacuating people and assets became impossible. Oleksandr Melnychenko, the head of the IT department at KNTU, and his team, started searching for technical sites where they could place the university’s information resources and systems in cloud storage. It was then that URAN offered the university virtual machines from AWS.

“It was a complex and lengthy process that continues to this day” Oleksandr Melnychenko recalls. “First and foremost, we were rescuing information that existed only in paper format. We scanned the originals daily and uploaded digital copies to the cloud. We did this until July 2022 when the university premises were taken over by the occupying military administration.” At the same time, the KNTU technical team worked with data that already existed in electronic format: they transferred it to cloud storage and deleted it from computer systems in occupied Kherson. Then, the team rendered these systems inoperable to prevent their use by the occupiers. The team conducted data transfers during non-operational hours, allowing classes to continue as scheduled. When the occupiers seized KNTU and cut off power to the data centre, users didn’t even notice it, as critical digital services had already been swiftly restored in the cloud.

The evacuation of the university to the western city of Khmelnytskyi happened gradually as people looked for ways to leave the occupied area and reach Khmelnytskyi. “Initially, many had to flee abroad before returning to to their native KNTU” says Oleksandr Melnychenko, who also had to overcome a challenging journey from Kherson. “A portion of the university staff remained in the city; some, despite the danger, went to work daily. Thanks to their dedication, teaching continued without significant interruptions. During that time, they even organised the defense of a thesis for a Doctor of Philosophy degree. For students who couldn’t evacuate on time and were stranded in the university dormitory without family support or means of sustenance, KNTU staff organised food shopping and assisted in the preparation of hot meals.”

Read the full story on the EapConnect Project website.

*The URAN Association is one of the five beneficiary partners of the EU-funded EaPConnect Project.

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