Rector of St Petersburg University and a member of the Russian International Affairs

Council Nikolay Kropachev has given an interview to the Russian International Affairs Council. He spoke about: progress in higher education in Russia; digitisation and internationalisation of education and research at St Petersburg University; and how St Petersburg University had been increasing its competitiveness on the global education markets. 

What is your assessment of how higher education in Russia has been developing during the last 10 years? What are the main achievements and failures?

For a start, I will make myself clear straightaway.  The development of higher education in Russia is primarily about our achievements. Making mistakes is possible and even inevitable. Only those people who do nothing make no mistakes. However, if the mistakes are admitted and put right, they encourage development. During the last 10 years, there is no doubt that the overall development of higher education in Russia has been positive.

Among the notable achievements in education, including higher education, was adopting the law ‘On education’ in 2012 (Federal Law No 273-FZ ‘On education in the Russian Federation’ dated 29 December 2012). The law has an integrated nature, which enables all levels of education to be linked and united. This ensures life-long learning. Having all levels of education linked and coordinated is essential. Obviously, studying at university will not be a success unless you have had a proper school education. Now we have an effective and efficient tool to assess: the level of education that school students have gained upon graduation; and the level of preparation to pursue education at university. What I mean is the Unified State Exam. During the last 10 years, St Petersburg University has been ranked first among Russian universities on the Unified State Exam average score of applicants.

There is another achievement, which is the Russian International University Rankings ‘Three Missions’. Two of the three international rankings – QS and THE – focus primarily on the Anglo-Saxon model of education. They take little account of what makes a university different on a national scale. Our rankings were recognised straightaway by universities around the world as they use indicators that can be equally applied to any university of any educational system, i.e. Anglo-Saxon, European, Asian and Russian. I am proud that St Petersburg University has been slowly but surely climbed up the rankings. The recent rankings show the University to be among the top 40 universities around the world.

The last 10 years have also been marked by the positive evolution of educational standards, which are seen as a tool to level the quality of higher education. We made a crucial step forward in this direction in 2018 by taking a decision to link and coordinate educational standards and professional standards. This aims to reconcile an academic approach to how learning results and outcomes are defined by universities with the pragmatic approach that is followed by employers. St Petersburg University decided to take this course of action as long ago as 2015.

Those who employ our graduates rather than by those who teach them must decide: how to assess the quality of learning results and outcomes; and how to define the scope of education. This became obvious to us long ago. 

The University has therefore been actively engaged in attracting the business, public sector, and professional communities that define the requirements of the labour market in:

developing and implementing academic programmes (over 200 councils); carrying out final state attestation procedures (each year, the State Examination Committees have over 2,500 potential employers); and delivering workshops, joint projects etc. This is the only way to ensure that university or college education remains up-to-date. How the public responds to this approach towards education quality assessment is crucial for us.

The overall positive development of education in Russia has considerable imbalances and lacks proportion between its constituents. In Russia, there is a group of leading universities that builds up our international reputation and attracts international students. They do this by ensuring that they gain targeted and unrivalled management, administrative, and financial support from the state. This group includes: the leading classical universities – Lomonosov Moscow State University and St Petersburg University – which have been granted a special status by federal law; the federal universities; the national research universities; and the flagship universities. Obviously, all universities that receive support from the government should justify these considerable additional investments. This may disadvantage other universities. In this respect, Lomonosov Moscow State University and St Petersburg University must be at the forefront of education and research in Russia. The mission of the federal universities is to ensure the development of higher education in regions. The national research universities are to ensure innovative development of our economy. The flagship universities should focus on solving problems across the regions.

The approach followed by the state to provide financial support to higher education and research is justified. This is the case even when there is a deficit of public resources and there are global economic crises. Yet there is a question. How well do universities that receive support from the government achieve the aims that they are to fulfil? I am afraid, not very well. Many of the ‘special’ universities are particularly focused on their own development, i.e. how to build up communism in one particular ‘flat’. More often than not, universities tend to follow ‘a dog-in-the-manager’ approach. In other words, they fail to use the allocated resources to the full extent, including material and technical resources. Moreover, they do not allow other state educational organisations to use their idle premises, equipment, rooms at the halls of residence, or sport facilities. This only aggravates the situation relating to resource allocation.

Since St Petersburg University was granted a special status, it has served as an experimental platform to test a wide range of tools that are subsequently adopted by other organisations. What I mean is our own educational standards; our own rules of awarding academic degrees; our own rules and regulations of competitive selection of academic staff; and an equal access to the University’s equipment that is located in the centres for public use to name but a few. Additionally, Lomonosov Moscow State University and St Petersburg University are engaged in special programmes. They are the Vernadsky project by Moscow State University and Mendeleev project by St Petersburg University. They focus on how to develop and support education and research in other universities across Russia. I hope that the 2021–2030 strategic academic leadership programme ‘Priority 2030’ will redeem these current negative tendencies.

What factors will determine how higher education in Russia and abroad will develop in the short- and longterm perspectives?

How higher education in Russia will develop in the coming 10 years has been determined by the state policy formulated during the last three to five years. The government has formulated the national aims of the development of the Russian Federation up to 2030. Additionally, they adopted other strategic documents. Among them are: Strategy for the

Scientific and Technological Development of the Russian Federation; Economic Security

Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2030; and Strategy of Spatial Development of the Russian Federation until 2025. Additionally, the national projects have been approved to serve as a tool to ensure that the national development goals are achieved. The role of universities in implementing the state policy is crucial. In essence, it is underpinned by the motto ‘To develop and cause to develop’.

How the Russian economy will develop will largely depend on the progress that universities will make in science. This will underpin the advancement of state-of-the-art technologies and hi-tech products; analysis of the development process and formulation of science-based recommendations; and preparation of high-calibre staff. Little wonder, the national project ‘Science’ has been transformed into the national project ‘Science and Universities’. In the same way as the economy, the universities will also become more advanced, including their material and technical resources. This will facilitate progress in modern research and academic programmes of all levels of education that focus on the rapidly changing needs of the labour market and interests of citizens. Additionally, this will underpin the social and cultural mission of the universities.

Obviously, the global trends will also affect how our higher education will develop. Primarily, it is about digital transformation.

State-of-the-art digital technologies, artificial intelligence technologies, and virtual and augmented reality technologies have been integrated for a long time into all areas of higher education.

During recent years, St Petersburg University has created a digital academic environment.

This is intended to support learning and teaching; educational management; and admissions. This environment was partly developed by the University’s specialists.

Since 2012, St Petersburg University has been using a virtual learning environment and learning management system LMS Blackboard. We also use MS Teams and Google Hangouts for video-conferencing. We offer online courses on Coursera, Open Education and other platforms, including our own academic platform. We deliver online lectures by using Zoom, Skype, Discord, or Google Class. Additionally, we have e-books, e-guides, elibrary systems etc.

In 2016, St Petersburg University was the first university in Russia to introduce diplomas with a QR-code. You can find a QR-code in the diploma of a special format and design issued by St Petersburg University. The data stored in the QR code include an electronic copy of the diploma. It provides information on the following: the topic of the graduation project; the research supervisor; members of the state examination commissions of the state exams and defence of graduation projects; companies where a student had their practice; data on professional and public accreditation and international accreditation of the academic programmes; and a list of disciplines and courses etc.

The graduate’s personal account contains information on their achievements, including competitions, volunteering, grants and scholarships, awards, and academic achievements. It also provides information on disciplinary violations or unfulfilled programme requirements, if any. The data in the graduate’s personal account is based on the data from the student’s electronic portfolio and was entered by using the service ‘A student’s personal account’.

Since 2017, a QR code has been also included in the diplomas of candidates of science and doctors of science that are awarded according to the University’s own rules and regulations. The data stored in the QR code include: a data archive; a text of the dissertation; and an audio recording of the academic defence procedure. It provides objective information about the postgraduate student.

Digitisation has been integrated into all areas beyond teaching and learning at universities. We are well aware that much still has to be done in this direction.

In 2020, our struggle against the spread of COVID-19 was both a challenge and a stimulus to advance the education system. Having to move online and use digital technologies in learning and teaching has radically changed how we manage our education. It provided a stimulus to popularise digital learning.

We tried to act beyond our ‘local’ challenges by supporting our partners across Russia during the pandemic. We did this to show the potential of the principle of unity of the state universities of the Russian Federation. Some of the universities needed help in gaining a better insight into how to work with digital technologies. The University promptly prepared guides for educational institutions of higher and secondary education. Since mid-March 2020, the online courses offered by the University were much in demand by students.

Students in every ninth university in Russia completed our courses. We were the first in Russia to adopt a decision to offer 100% free access to our best online courses with certificates and encouraged other universities to follow us. The number of students of our online courses tripled and reached over 400,000 in the spring term.

Today, the University is among the top five universities in terms of the courses available on the platform Coursera.

The shift in education and research due to the COVID-19 pandemic makes us draw two conclusions that were not so obvious before.

The first conclusion is that E-learning uses information and communication technologies, which is what we are currently doing. It is a full-time mode of study that offers a new way of combining the advancements of e-learning with the interaction with brilliant academic staff who have unrivalled experience, in-depth knowledge, talent, and creative potential. Elearning does not and cannot diminish the quality of university education.

The second is that the academic community around the world needs to expand national and international collaboration, as the pandemic has shown. Especially we need to consolidate our efforts in relation to e-learning.

I think that making our educational resources digitally available was key to ensuring growth in the number of international applicants. St Petersburg University received 5,000 out of 12,000 applications submitted by international applicants to universities in St Petersburg. In other words, every second international applicant in St Petersburg applied to St Petersburg University. In 2020, we accepted over 2,500 citizens from 91 countries.

Due to the challenges we have been facing, St Petersburg University has opened new departments and divisions in order to focus on developing scientific research on digital technologies. In 2019, we opened the Euler International Mathematical Institute. It is a world-class research and educational centre in mathematics. It focuses on the theoretical foundations of digital transformation in modern mathematics, theoretical informatics etc. In 2018, we opened the Distributed Ledger Technologies Centre within the framework of the state programme ‘National Technological Initiative’. It focuses on developing and incorporating blockchain-based projects, including developing a blockchain-based solution for remote voting ‘CryptoVeche’ and other innovative developments. The advancement of digital and online education is among the core priorities of the research and educational centres that St Petersburg University is engaged with. Among them are Research and Educational Centre ‘Genetics and Cell Biology of Plant-Microbe Interactions’; Research and Educational Centre ‘Mathematical Robotics and Artificial Intelligence’; Research and Educational Centre ‘Molecular and Biological Basis of Human Health and Environment in the North-West Region in Russia’; and Partner Research and Educational Centre ‘Engineering of the Future’ to name but a few.

What measures need to be adopted by universities and the government in order to ensure the increasing competitiveness of Russia’s universities in the global education and research markets?

During recent years, there has been a growing tendency towards promoting our academic services in the global markets. Since 2017, the Russian Federation has been implementing a priority project ‘Export of Russian Education’. It covers the period up to 2025. It is intended to: make the academic programmes offered by Russian universities more popular among international applicants; ensure the wellbeing of international students during their study in Russia; and build brand recognition and status of Russian education on the global education market. The project aims to triple the number of international students admitted to programmes on the full-study mode at Russian universities.

St Petersburg University remains the most popular university among international applicants for the third year in a row, according to the Rossotrudnichestvo.

In 2020, 16,620 international citizens chose to study at St Petersburg University. Each year, St Petersburg University has students from 40 countries pursuing the preparatory course for international citizens. The course is also available in the distance mode. Additionally, each year over 1,000 international students study at St Petersburg University within the framework of the academic mobility schemes.

St Petersburg University has a large presence in language testing. The Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL) has six levels from beginner (A1) to very advanced (C2). They are aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The TORFL exam is recognised by the Association of Language Testers of Europe (ALTE). Today, St Petersburg University provides the TORFL exam in 100 centres in 40 countries worldwide. Each year, over 5,000 international citizens are among our test-takers. The test is currently available in the distance mode. The TORFL test certificate is a nationally recognised document that serves as evidence of Russian language proficiency for people who want to study at a university in Russia. Additionally, TORFL is a tool to make Russian as a foreign language more popular abroad. This is intended to raise the status of the Russian language as a language of international communication. It also aims to promote the Russian language abroad.

St Petersburg University makes every effort to organise events for international citizens that are intended to support and popularise the Russian language globally. The University also aims to increase the export potential of Russian education. This is much in demand both in Russia and abroad.

Among such projects is St Petersburg University’s Online School. Initiated in 2018, it is a unique educational project that has no rivals. Schoolchildren abroad have an opportunity to study nine disciplines in accordance with the Russian secondary school curriculum. Learning is in the distance mode and free of charge. The project has brought together over 2,500 schoolchildren from six countries: Latvia, Estonia, Spain, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kirgizia.

Since 2018, St Petersburg University has implemented its most ambitious project – the Russian as a Foreign Language Olympiad. Over 22,000 international citizens from 150 countries worldwide have already participated in the Olympiad. If you are a winner of the Olympiad or awarded a prize, you have benefits for entry to the University. By doing so, the University also tries to attract and admit international students.

During the pandemic, St Petersburg University started to offer more webinars. The University organised webinars that focused on the current issues of Russian as a foreign language. There were 67 webinars for both students and teachers. They attracted 7,800 people from 118 countries.

These are just a few of the things that the University has been doing to preserve and enhance its status as the most attractive Russian university for international students.

Although the University has been successful in this direction, there is nevertheless a range of problems that need solving. If we solve them successfully, we will be able to increase the export potential of Russian education and to ensure growth in international student numbers in Russian universities.

In order to increase the competitiveness of Russian education in the global market, it is essential to do the following:

  • to increase the number of academic programmes taught in foreign languages at Russia’s universities;
  • to increase the quality of infrastructure at university campuses and to provide a conducive environment for international students and staff at Russia’s universities, including improving living conditions at halls of residence; and proving shared working spaces and facilities at halls of residence or at campuses;
  • to provide and support a competitive environment to invite visiting lecturers, including competitive salary; living conditions; and management support to the divisions that are involved etc.;
  • to ensure visa facilitation for the highest calibre staff;
  • to ensure more active implementation of the state policy on promoting Russian higher education for international students;
  • to popularise the Russian language abroad;
  • to ensure that the TORFL certificate is recognised as an official document that proves Russian language proficiency abroad (today, the TORFL certificate is officially recognised in some countries, yet it is necessary to continue work in this direction).

How do you see online education in future in Russia?

You cannot but admit that St Petersburg University has engaged eagerly in advancing the ‘brave new world’ of online education. We were among those who initiated and founded the national educational online platform ‘Open Education’. Today, St Petersburg University ranks first in terms of the number of courses available on the platform and the number of students. We offer 148 out of 724 courses on this platform. The number of students of our courses is almost 2 million, while the total student number on the platform is over 8 million. St Petersburg University is also among the top five universities around the world in terms of the number of courses offered on Coursera. What makes us especially proud is that St Petersburg University is the only university in Russia that offers its courses on the Chinese educational platform XuetangX.

St Petersburg University is a co-founder and the first representative of Russia in the Global Alliance for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The Global MOOC Alliance was initiated by the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO IITE) and the Tsinghua University of China. The Global MOOC Alliance was officially launched at the 2020 Global MOOC Conference in December 2020.

Today, an increasingly discussed topic is what universities will be like after the ‘digital revolution’. Some experts say that going digital will affect education by replacing the fulltime mode with online education. This will consequently lead to the death of the current model of universities. Universities have always been under pressure from technology and public interests. How the universities have responded to this pressure is both conservative and liable. Being conservative meant avoiding a swing from one extreme to the other. This ensures stability. Yet the universities are knowledge hubs that have a potential for development that is underpinned by science and innovations. Throughout history, the balance between conservatism and liability has ensured an ability to adapt to a changing world and to preserve their core academic, research, and social missions. Many rumours that have been circulating regarding the death of universities are exaggerated. I think there are three trends for how universities will develop.

The first trend is to ensure a balance between online and offline instruction. This will result in blended learning. Homo sapiens is a social human species, and it is necessary for it to have face-to-face learning. There was a survey among students and academic staff during the pandemic. It showed that among the key problems they faced was not being able to have face-to-face communication and in-person meetings. No augmented reality can replace how we communicate in real life.

The second trend is to develop an ecosystem for a university. This includes being able to engage with employers, and with business and social institutions, scientific and academic communities, and the public sector. Digital technologies enable us to promptly create, develop, and use various ways to solve a wide range of problems.

The third trend is to make academic trajectories more tailor-made to suit a particular individual. It can be achieved by using distance learning technologies or through online education. Suppose that there is one student in each of 15 universities who wants to have a particular course. In the traditional paradigm, we have no opportunities to satisfy this individual. Yet it is possible in the ‘virtual university’ paradigm. Following this paradigm may lead to: encouraging more interest in learning among students; increasing the quality of education; and fulfilling personal potential in life. The education market is rapidly adapting to the labour market. This is increasingly seen in how students choose a curriculum and non-degree programmes.

How can other universities benefit from the experience St Petersburg University has gained in going global?

Among the key directions we follow in implementing the policy of internationalisation is the project ‘The Representative Offices of the University’ in partnerships with international partner-organisations. Today, we have our representative offices in China, the Republic of Korea, the USA, Spain, Greece and Turkey. Within the framework of the project, we offer a wide range of events. Among them are exhibitions, round-table discussions, and open lectures to name but a few. They focus on how to make the Russian language, culture, science, and education more popular globally. The way that we follow this policy enables us to strengthen and expand our collaboration with universities or partner-organisations. Additionally, this is intended to make St Petersburg University, its academic programmes, and events more attractive on a global scale.

St Petersburg University also expands and strengthens collaboration with its key international partners by offering joint degree programmes. The University has signed agreements with universities in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and China to offer 12 joint degree master’s programmes. You receive a joint degree upon graduation. The joint degree programmes are a unique opportunity to study at St Petersburg University and have an access to the resources of the world’s leading research and educational centres.

Additionally, St Petersburg University offers programmes with an in-depth study of other countries. During the last five years, the University has considerably increased the number of such programmes through an extensive network of partnerships and collaborations. The number of such programmes in certain areas has risen by ten times. Today, the University offers over 50 programmes with the Chinese component. Among them are Jurisprudence (with an In-Depth Study of the Chinese Language and Legal System) and Economics (with an In-Depth Study of the Chinese Economy and Language) to name but a few.

St Petersburg University is active in the development of scholarships to support and expand international mobility for students and staff. Since 2015, the University has engaged in the Erasmus КА107 programme. The scholarship will cover 100% of the programme fees for students and staff of the universities that take part in the programme across Europe. The University has engaged in the programme for six years. In 2015, the University signed 13 Erasmus agreements, while in 2021 the University has over 100 agreements, which is an eight-fold increase. Evidently, our European partners aim to maximise and expand collaboration with us.

St Petersburg University also expands international research collaborations. In 2020, the

University and Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. opened the Joint Research Laboratory at the University. It focuses primarily on mathematical investigations of the applications to multimedia technologies, e.g. producing colour images and sounds. Its scope is optimisation; probability theory; mathematical statistics; geometry; mathematical logic; mathematical physics; and computer-assisted learning and teaching to name but a few. The laboratory has members from the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Sciences at St Petersburg University.

Since 1992, scientists at St Petersburg University have been active members of the international physics community who have been engaged in the LHC experiments at CERN. In the summer 2021, we are planning to open an access to the CERN’s resources for students and staff. Our scientists are involved in two fundamental research experiments at CERN. First, the ALICE Collaboration (A Large Ion Collider Experiment). The ALICE collaboration has scientists from 176 physics institutes in 39 countries. Second, the NA61/SHINE (SPS Heavy Ion and Neutrino Experiment) at the Super Proton Synchrotron

(SPS). It has scientists from 28 institutes in 14 countries. The working group of St Petersburg University includes: scientists who have a high h-index; engineers; and earlycareer researchers who have experience in theoretical and practice-oriented research as part of the world’s largest research collaborations at the ALICE and NA61/SHINE at CERN. There are 30 people in the group, with 13 students and postgraduate students. The average age of the members of the laboratory is 35.

Each year, St Petersburg University offers a wide range of international events, congresses, and conferences that bring together hundreds of representatives of the global scientific community. Among the key international research events are the UArctic Congress; International Academy of Autoimmunity; Ananiev Readings International Conference; International Scientific Conference Emerging Markets etc.

Among other achievements in ensuring international engagement of the University is the Staff Training Week. It focuses on exchanging experiences between administrative international divisions. Initiated in 2018, the event is held annually. During the week, St Petersburg University and its partner-universities discuss the most pressing issues of international collaboration and share their best practices in internationalisation of education and research. We can study the experience of our colleagues from other countries in how they implement international collaboration schemes, and show what programmes and opportunities St Petersburg University can offer to international students.