The war put the Ukrainian partners' work in the maritime education project on hold but they soon returned to meetings on their mobiles

Experiences Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for higher education Internationalisation Ukraine
A Ukrainian maritime education unit remained involved in an Erasmus+ project even when the conflict drove teaching staff and students out of war-ravaged Kherson. The project produced online teaching materials and built a engine room simulator, providing the partner institutions with new opportunities for distance learning in the maritime field.
Mersol-laiva satamassa ankkurissa.
M/S MERSol, whose engine room is simulated in the project, copying real systems and functions.

A few years ago, many Finns would have struggled to point out the Ukrainian city of Kherson on the map. Heikki Koivisto, who works at the Maritime Logistics Research Center of Satakunta University of Applied Sciences (SAMK), would have passed this test with flying colours. He visited Kherson in February 2020 shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

“The maritime education unit in Kherson had applied for the membership of the International Association of Maritime Universities (IAMU), and I was asked to audit it”, Koivisto describes his visit to the unit known in English as the Kherson State Maritime Academy.

Since then, Kherson has become one of the tragic scenes of Russia’s war of aggression.

“I remember the main building of the training unit, which was a grand old stone castle. As far as I know it is still standing, even though the city itself must be in a terrible state after the war.”

On his audit visit, Koivisto was impressed by his Ukrainian hosts’ enthusiasm and competence in the field of maritime higher education.

As the Erasmus+ project on online maritime education was later established under the leadership of Koivisto and SAMK and potential project partners were being sought, Koivisto thought of his colleagues in Kherson.

“We had already got to know the other partners in our earlier projects. I decided to also ask the Ukrainians, and they joined with unrestrained enthusiasm.”

Learning engine room skills in a simulator

The two-year project christened MERSol (Maritime Engine Room Simulator Online) developed e-learning modules for chief engineer education and an engine room simulator that operates online to support instruction.

The project partners were higher education institutions in Finland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Türkiye and Spain, while the business partners included simulator manufacturer Imagesoft from Finland and Spinaker, a company that specialises in developing online materials from Slovenia.

The project was launched in June 2021 and is scheduled to end in May 2022. Erasmus+ funding was obtained through an additional call for proposals organised as a response to the pandemic, in which the focus area for higher education institutions was innovative practices in a digital era.

"We already provided a great deal of online teaching before, while many of our partners had practically none. It was a major transition for them when the students suddenly did not turn up in school”, says Koivisto.

Consequently, many partners took major steps forward in online and simulator teaching during the project. 

Koivisto notes that  the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Finland are actually the only three countries in the world where some of the supervised training included in maritime higher education studies can be completed in a simulator. Thanks to the project, simulators will also be used in other countries before long, or at least a wider discussion on this possibility will be sparked.

The war left its mark on project work

As the world was coping with the pandemic, no one knew that the next crisis was already looming. The first project meetings were held remotely, but a decision was made to meet face to face for the first time in Slovenia in January 2022. This meeting did go ahead, even if the Finns still participated remotely due to SAMK’s COVID-19 regulations.

The threatening situation came up at discussions during this meeting that was held a month before Russia started its invasion.

“Before the attack, however, the Ukrainians were not overly worried. They said that the Russians have always been stirring up trouble on the border.”

As the attack began, the Russians quickly made their way from Crimea to Kherson and took over the city. The Ukrainian partner’s involvement was talked about and caused concern among the group.

“We had meetings every two weeks, and the Ukrainians were absent from them for a while. They were soon back, however, and attended meetings on their mobile phones. It was also an anxious time for all of us, their partners”, Koivisto recalls.

Lithuanian partner received students and educators

Some of the Ukrainians involved in the project had to flee to other parts of Ukraine. One of them moved to Georgia, and another is currently teaching in the United Kingdom.

After Kherson fell, Koivisto received an official letter stating that the old head of the institution was removed from office and a new one had been appointed to replace them.

“We then got messages from our friends telling us that we should not believe it, as it was something the Russians had cooked up.”

This was indeed an attempt to merge the unit with the Russian maritime education organisation.

The project adapted to the new situation, and the Ukrainians continued their involvement. While Ukraine regained control of Kherson in November 2022, it is not yet possible to return to normal and everyday life in the city.

“Some of our partners are staying in other parts of Ukraine. There have been times when their power supply has been limited but they have managed to charge their devices for the meetings. Air raid sirens can often be heard in the background.”

Many types of changes have also taken place. Ukrainian teaching staff have continued to be paid, but such expenses as their travel costs are no longer reimbursed. An arrangement was made with the Finnish National Agency for Education, under which SAMK paid the travel costs of two Ukrainians to a meeting held in Rauma in September 2022 and to the following partner meetings.

“Their presence was important when we went through the simulator use over three days. In January 2023, the entire group also visited Klaipeda in Lithuania.”

The networks created during the Erasmus+ project have provided the Ukrainians with unexpected concrete benefits. Partly thanks to the MERSol project, some 200 students and teachers from Kherson moved to Klaipeda to continue their maritime studies at the Lithuanian project partner's unit.

“They study over there and live in student accommodation. The fact that the relationship between the Ukrainian and the Lithuanian partners reached this point can also be seen as one of the benefits brought about by the project.”

This, in other words, may be one of the powers of project cooperation: the networks of European project partners may provide support at the darkest hour

Maritime Engine Room Simulator On-Line (MERSol) 

  • Project type: Erasmus+ for higher education, Strategic Partnership
  • Duration: 6/2021 - 5/2023
  • Partners (educational institutions): Satakunta University of Applied Sciences, SAMK (Finland), Kherson State Maritime Academy (Ukraine), Lithuanian Maritime University (Lithuania), Piri Reis University (Turkey), Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya - BarcelonaTech (Spain)
  • Partners (enterprises): Image Soft Oy (Finland), Spinaker (Slovenia)
  • Funding: 263 290 €