The leaders of the flagship universities in the Russian Federation and the Federal Republic of Germany discussed the specific features of distance learning and the results of the work of the German-Russian expert group on creating and implementing double degree graduate and postgraduate programmes. The meeting was opened by the heads of associations of university rectors of the two countries – Nikolay Kropachev, Chairman of the Association of Leading Russian Universities (ALU), Rector of St Petersburg University, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Peter-André Alt, President of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) and former president of the Freie Universität Berlin.

Nikolay Kropachev emphasised that the partnership with German universities is of paramount importance not only for St Petersburg University, but for all universities in Russia. St Petersburg University has been developing cooperation with German scientists and scholars since the very first days after its foundation almost 300 years ago. At present, St Petersburg University has 174 agreements of various types with over 50 universities, foundations and public organisations in Germany, including the Consulate General of Germany in St Petersburg. Members of the diplomatic mission deliver lectures and contribute to the work of councils of academic programmes implemented at the University. Indeed, the pandemic is not a reason to end this time-honoured cooperation.

‘The spread of the COVID-19 has had a major impact on all spheres of life, including higher education,’ noted Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University. ‘We may say that the pandemic has been testing our resilience, marking the dawn of a new era in education. Digitalisation of education has become a key trend of its modernisation and reforming. Recent transformations impelled some of us to develop faster, whereas others had to return to square one. Among the latter are quite a few Russian universities.’

Due to COVID-19-related restrictions, the academic community had to face a challenging new reality. Yet, even though we work remotely, we have never stopped collaborating with our international partners.

Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University

Nikolay Kropachev added that the changes brought by the pandemic yielded invaluable insights for universities around the world. Most importantly, the pandemic-induced remote learning demonstrated that education using information and communication technologies is a form of full-time learning. It enables teachers to share their knowledge, expertise, talent and creativity, while applying technological advances in educational practices.

Nikolay Kropachev, Rector of St Petersburg University, emphasised that the pandemic made it crystal clear that cooperation at both national and international levels is crucial for the academic community. ‘To achieve wider interactions, individual scientists joining forces will not suffice. Steps to expand international cooperation should be taken continuously and consistently. No political challenges should interfere with our collaboration that have developed over the years,’ concluded Nikolay Kropachev.

According to the President of the German Rectors’ Conference Peter-André Alt, the last year and a half has not been easy for universities in Germany. Most of them, however, managed to make the successful transition to distance education. A number of digital learning tools have proven to be very effective. They will remain in use after the return to on-campus education because they provide opportunities to elevate the learning experience. Professor Alt stressed that, as the pandemic has shown, no country can address global challenges alone. This can be done only by the international scientific community working together.

‘Only together can we tackle major challenges such as climate change, replacing fossil fuels and improving healthcare. But we cannot forget that we should raise awareness of the research carried out by universities. I am concerned that in our countries, growing numbers of science deniers and sceptics are questioning rationality and reason,’ said Peter-André Alt. ‘Many people find it attractive and support the counter-worlds of populism and no reason. To deter them from gaining followers, the public must be informed about the results of our work. Moreover, we should work together to achieve this objective as it is our mutual responsibility.’

According to Peter-André Alt, science creates opportunities to overcome the pandemic. It also proves how important universities are to society. He added that the discussions between the rectors of universities in Russia and Germany will help to find common ground in understanding how scientists and scholars from the two countries can pursue scientific advancement together and raise appreciation of universities among the population.

I would like to once again thank my Russian colleagues for the openness, freedom of science, and recognition of other academic and research organisations and their achievements. This is an example for the whole world. We will work to ensure that other universities follow your example.

Peter-André Alt, President of the German Rectors' Conference

The keynote speakers at the meeting were: Bernd Scholz-Reiter, Rector of the University of Bremen; Elena Kudryashova, Rector of the Northern (Arctic) Federal University; and Artyom Rykun, Vice-Rector for International Affairs of Tomsk State University. Other representatives of the university leadership in Russia and Germany also contributed to the dialogue. All the speakers shared best practices in ensuring health and well-being of academics and students and organising vaccinations. They also discussed the problems that international students faced when participating in exchange programmes overseas at the time when the pandemic broke out.

The Rector of St Petersburg University Nikolay Kropachev listed challenges faced by Russian universities and shared some successful solutions found and implemented at the University. Thus, St Petersburg University was the first among Russian universities in 2013 to start conducting dissertation defences under its own rules and awarding academic degrees of candidates and doctors of science that are recognised by the state. According to these rules, a dissertation council must consist of specialists on the research topic, including scientists and scholars from other academic or research organisations and it must include foreign experts. A public defence is broadcast in real time with simultaneous interpreting into English, and anyone can put questions to the degree seeker.

Addressing the meeting participants, Nikolay Kropachev said that over the last few years, all orders of St Petersburg University have been concluded by the phrase: ‘Suggestions on changes and/or additions to this present order should be sent to the corporate email address of the official who signed the order’. He also encouraged German colleagues to submit their proposals regarding, for instance: the rules of the dissertation defence procedures at St Petersburg University; the formats of the University degree diplomas; the organisation of work on the opening of double degree programmes; and the information included in digital portfolios for the University students and graduates to name just a few.

Peter Scharff, Rector of the Technische Universität Ilmenau, and Viktor Tupik, Vice-Rector for Research of Saint Petersburg Electrotechnical University ‘LETI’, spoke on behalf of the working group of experts created by the Association of Leading Russian Universities and the German Rectors’ Conference. They put forward recommendations for implementation of joint master’s programmes, as well as for the joint supervision of doctoral theses with the awarding of double or joint degrees. The recommendations of the expert group should help to overcome the legal discrepancies between higher education systems in the Federal Republic of Germany and the Russian Federation and contribute to the harmonisation of their legal frameworks.

The outcome of the meeting was to send recommendations made on behalf of the universities in Russia and Germany to the ministries of education of the two countries, as well as to other universities – as a practical guide. Besides, the meeting supported Nikolay Kropachev’s proposal to organise a series of roundtables for Russian and German experts on vaccine use and the fight against COVID-19.