The COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to travel between countries, but it cannot stop the development of international relations. Sergey Andryushin, Deputy Rector for International Affairs of St Petersburg University, spoke about the interaction and support between foreign partners and universities during the global self-isolation period.

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Mr Andryushin, how has the format of international activities changed under the new conditions?

The epidemic of the new coronavirus infection has had a dramatic impact on almost all spheres of social life. International academic cooperation is no exception.

Being one of the world leading institutions in the promotion of the internationalisation of educational and scientific activities, St Petersburg University has continued its efforts to develop ongoing and future international projects. Despite the cancellation of most events, meetings and visits, the staff of the international departments of the University continue their work. First of all, the University monitors its students and academic staff working abroad under the academic mobility programmes. Every day the University interacts with diplomatic missions of the Russian Federation abroad as well as with embassies and consulates of different countries in Russia. To date, the University has received a lot of inquiries concerning measures developed by the administration of St Petersburg University to support foreign students and teachers. These are part of its efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection.

The management and staff of the University are in constant contact with its students and academic staff providing information, consultations and organisational support. International students who study at the University receive all necessary information on quarantine measures against the spread of coronavirus infection, and assistance with the transition to distance learning.

The University has a tradition of receiving regular visits from foreign universities, corporate partners, as well as representatives of consulates, embassies and ministries. Is there any regular communication with them now?

The University continues negotiations with its partners, but they are now conducted in the form of videoconferences. Thus, on 19 March, the Rector initiated a discussion with the Iranian ambassador concerning the ongoing collaborative projects between the University and its Iranian partners. The agenda included: the completion of the translation of the ‘Almanac of contemporary Russian prose’ into Persian; building a monument to Dmitri Mendeleev in Tehran; designing a joint online course on Iranian art; as well as a project on the digitisation of Iranian manuscripts from the Library of St Petersburg University.

A video conference with Viacheslav Nekrasov, the head of the representative office of The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) in Afghanistan, was held on 15 April. The discussion focused on the project to open a representative office of St Petersburg University at the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Kabul. The centre will promote joint research and educational projects and host scientific conferences, seminars and public lectures by leading Russian scientists and public figures. The issues also included: the creation of the Russian Language Centre; implementation of the St Petersburg University Online School project; organisation of online training courses for teachers; webinars on Russian as a Foreign Language; and other activities aimed at supporting Russian language and culture abroad.

There are ongoing online negotiations with Huawei for the development of a joint laboratory and conference space at St Petersburg University. Similarly, in an online mode, the University and Samsung representatives have been preparing an application to expand the joint academic programme in IoT (the Internet of Things). Now it covers the complete scope of developments in the field of information technology.

Before the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, it was planned to open new representative offices of St Petersburg University abroad and to hold different events in existing ones. How is this work going?

Videoconferences have already been held with the directors of the University representative offices in Barcelona and New York to discuss preparations for the multimedia exhibition – The Hermitage during the Siege. It is being organised jointly with the State Hermitage Museum and dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the Great Victory. The implementation of academic mobility programmes and conferences have also been discussed. It should be mentioned in particular that University scholars will be delivering lectures on the preservation of cultural heritage sites in the besieged Leningrad.

The Director of the Representative Office of St Petersburg University in China together with the administration continues online work. Foundation documents are being developed for the future joint campus of the University and Harbin Institute of Technology to host educational programmes in such areas as mathematics, chemistry and physics. The 60,000 square metre Chinese–Russian joint campus of the two universities will be located in the historical and cultural centre of Harbin. The campus will also occupy some of the reconstructed historical buildings of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the Consulate General of the Russian Empire. The draft of the foundation documents for the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China will be approved during a videoconference. A stone laying ceremony of the joint campus in Harbin is planned for June this year as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Harbin Institute of Technology.

The work on the second representative office of St Petersburg University in the Republic of Korea is nearly completed. Our partners in Incheon signed an agreement on the establishment of a representative office of the University, and we are in the process of preparing the opening events.

Are there any new framework agreements to be concluded with new partners of the University?

Of course, the work on preparation, negotiation and conclusion of cooperation agreements is still being carried out. In the last two weeks, we have signed agreements with Kim Il Sung University (DPRK), Nankai University (China), Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany), Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena (Germany), and the University of Silesia in Katowice (Poland).

As part of the project on translating and publishing the ‘Almanac of contemporary  Russian prose’ in different countries, the University has signed an agreement with the Turkish publishing house ‘Çeviribilim’. This has made it possible to publish the collection of short stories in Turkey within such a short period of time.

In March 2020, the University and The Ministry of Higher and Secondary-Specialized Education of the Republic of Uzbekistan entered into an agreement to open a branch of St Petersburg University in Tashkent. Currently, the institutions are working on the implementation of the agreements. They are planning to hold a video conference with the officials of the Ministry of Uzbekistan to finalise the project roadmap.

Can universities around the world help each other during the pandemic?

St Petersburg University is striving to support its foreign partners in these difficult times. In early March, the University launched an online exhibition ‘In the Shadow of the Yellow Crane Tower’ dedicated to the city of Wuhan and its residents. Our Chinese colleagues who saw this exposition were grateful for our support and concern for them. The Consulate General of the People's Republic of China in St Petersburg has expressed the warmest gratitude for the support that the University provided in the difficult period of the outbreak of the epidemic in China. St Petersburg University also invites people who love Russian culture from all over the world to take a virtual tour of the Twelve Collegia building, the Bobrinsky Palace, the Dmitri Mendeleev Museum Archive, and the Vladimir Nabokov Museum of St Petersburg University.

Many universities today send each other letters of support, and St Petersburg University is no exception. A few days ago we received an e-mail from our graduate, now a senior lecturer at Hebei Normal University, Wang Xu. He wrote that in view of the global situation with the COVID-19 epidemic, the Rector of Hebei Normal University, Professor Dai Jianbing, has sent medical masks to St Petersburg University, with wishes of health, optimism and hopes for a swift end to the pandemic.

With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading and the consequent measures taken by governments to prevent it, the academic community also had to face an entirely new reality. In the current situation, most of us have had to stop conventional classroom teaching and move educational and research activities fully online. The pandemic has made academics, administrators, and IT professionals consolidate their efforts to facilitate the transition to distance learning and teaching and to ensure the highest quality of education for our students. In this context, I would like to commend the high quality of online courses developed at St Petersburg University. They are open to everyone today on the Open edX, Coursera and XuetangX platforms, and their popularity among students is growing. The University granted free access to its electronic educational resources in connection with the Coronavirus pandemic, and these courses currently enrol over 10, 000 students from all over Russia. Besides, the online courses of St Petersburg University are not only available in Russian. For example, the course in Neurolinguistics by Tatiana Chernigovskaya is also offered in English. Immediately after its start, it attracted over 27, 000 students from foreign countries, including Germany, the UK and the USA.

Enhancing the openness of the world's leading educational and research resources, providing the most up-to-date information and the latest scientific data, is crucial for distance learning and research. Foreign partners of St Petersburg University – world scientific publishing houses – have granted the University and the world scientific community free access to the most recent publications on the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and related viruses.

The Cambridge University Press, one of the oldest university publishing houses in the world, has given free access to all educational publications in various fields of knowledge presented on the CambridgeCore platform to the University. Walter De Gryuter, the German scientific publishing house, EBSCO Publishing, ProQuest, and JoVe also made available their book and journal collections and extended free access to their platforms and databases. The Chinese company CNKI has permitted the University to use the data of China Legal Knowledge Integrated Database in test mode. SpringerNature has provided free access to SpringerNature's textbooks in English and German, and medical textbooks on emergency care.

St Petersburg University made its scientific journals available to the public in 2015. Scientists and students from all over the world can find them on the Open Journal System electronic publishing platform. 28 periodicals cover almost all areas of research, and 16 of them are indexed in Scopus and the Web of Science international science databases.

The Russian Federation is engaged in large-scale activities to support countries affected by the coronavirus. St Petersburg University is playing an active part in these activities. Thus, in April this year the University conducted free webinars for teachers of Russian as a foreign language. The course consisted of 23 online lessons, which addressed topical issues for teaching Russian as a foreign language, various aspects of the state certification system for Russian as a foreign language and other relevant topics. The webinars were attended by teachers from over 200 universities from about 100 countries, not to mention 120 university teachers from the Russian educational organisations from all over Russia – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.

The course also included sessions on effective preparation for candidates wishing to take the exam ‘Test of Russian as a Foreign Language’. The webinars were held in the Russian and English languages.

The recordings of the webinars should soon become available on St Petersburg University’s information portals and can be accessed by anyone.

In light of these developments, we also find it extremely important to involve our foreign partners in developing joint online courses in various fields of study, so that our students and staff can fully benefit from the services provided by the University, even in situations where borders are closed and mobility is limited. To develop this format of cooperation, we are holding intensive negotiations with a whole number of our strategic partners.