As proposed by the Rector, the meeting began with a moment of silence in memory of Professor Igor Froyanov.
1. About a meeting with Dmitry Chernyshenko, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation
On 2 December, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko met with the heads of the following organisations, all of which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government: Moscow State University, St Petersburg University, Kurchatov Institute, the Higher School of Economics, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and the University of Economics. St Petersburg University Rector Nikolay Kropachev and Vice-Rector for Research Sergey Mikushev participated in the meeting, during which the work of the Situation Centre of the Government of the Russian Federation and new approaches to contemporary digital management were demonstrated. Two lines of development were highlighted in the work of the Centre: teams of professionals, ad hoc groups of experts and government officials, who are engaged in dealing with particular tasks, and an approach to work predicated on the principle of co-working.
During the presentation of the Centre and the work that it is involved in, alternative solutions to several different problems were used as illustrations. One example was the current status of supplemental pay at clinics for medical staff who are working today in the ‘red zone’. The analysis was based on fast-track data received directly from the systems of the organisations and the supervisory agencies that were being monitored. Based on this data, the average payments for each health worker were analysed and decisions were made. A second example focused on monitoring the construction of new clinics in the Russian provinces. Instead of querying the regional administrations, connections were made to video surveillance cameras at the sites where renovation or construction were supposed to be in progress, and a real picture was obtained. At those sites where there were none, cameras were installed in a day and construction began immediately!
In this way, experts can analyse primary digital data that they receive within a system model, and the new information allows government agencies to respond very quickly when dealing with a variety of problems.
It was noted at the Rector’s meeting that this is a new approach to information management that takes into account its accuracy, integrity and verifiability. Performance requirements are also important, and they should be measureable, attainable and verifiable. The activities of individuals and organsations will be evaluated using a ‘digital footprint’ and data from as many sources as possible. Such an approach will make it possible to detect instances of data corruption fairly quickly. Quality requirements and the objectivity of information will be enhanced. At our University, a similar approach to data management has been in effect for many years.
For example, as far back as the early 1990s, it was well known at the University that the staff of the natural science divisions in Peterhof (especially the research institutes) worked differently on different days. But nobody could explain what exactly was behind this. In 2010-2012, however, the Vice-Rectors for Mathematics, Mechanics, Control Processes, Physics and Chemistry Ilia Dementiev and Vladimir Eremeev (‘On the way to a unified university: Vice-Rectors for the areas of study’) simply requested the data for electricity consumption on different days in the buildings in Peterhof. It became clear at once how active the research and teaching staff were on each day of the week, and two obvious ‘working days’ were identified. This made it possible to decide how to distribute the equipment of the Research Park (‘Research Park: On the Road to the Future’) and to use the premises in Peterhof more effectively.
Until an extensive inventory of all the University halls of residence was carried out in 2011-2012 and an open database was established, it was not known exactly how many vacant and occupied places there were overall and how many there were in each specific hall of residence (‘Please vacate the premises!’ and ‘Students’ halls of residence: past and present’). This made it impossible to properly organise student accommodation and to increase the effective use of the halls of residence. In 2012, the 1C software module was put into operation, and the administrative staff in the halls of residence worked with it. And since 2014, an open service with an external interface has been in use at the University. It is universally accessible, so anybody can see how many vacancies there are.
Until a single and open database of classrooms was created in 2014-2015, they were constantly in short supply (‘Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 12 May 2014’). Problems pertaining to the scheduling of classes were similarly addressed (2014-1015) (‘SPbU E-Services in Education: Past and Present ’), as were problems connected with access to and improved use of research equipment (since 2010) (‘Research Park: On the Road to the Future’), improved effectiveness of leasing out premises (since 2008) (‘Rental of University property: past and present’), improved operational efficiency of the Research Library (since 2011) (‘How we put an end to the chaos’), the organisation of museum activities and improved use of University collections in teaching and research (since 2011) (‘University museums: a triumphant leap from the past into the future, Part 1’ and ‘University museums: a triumphant leap from the past into the future, Part 2’), the publications of the academic and research staff (since 2015) (‘"Correction of errors" in RSCI ’) and increased efficacy of publishing (since 2016) (‘The University’s scholarly journals: from «homemade» to authoritative international publications’).
Following a discussion, the Vice-Rectors were instructed to assess how digitised the ongoing processes are in each of the subdivisions that are within their areas of responsibility, how prepared each of the University services is to present verified digital data on its work, and how prepared the staff are to work with this type of information. Our information-sharing system should comply with the principles and requirements of the digital economy. It was noted that the level of information integration of different services and divisions is still far from perfect, and the issue of digital literacy among the staff has not been fully resolved. What is more, expert assistance is needed to properly analyse the raw data of the organisations.
2. The University has been allocated funds from the Reserve Fund of the Government of the Russian Federation
In connection with the pandemic, additional funds were allocated to the chief administrators of federal budget funds (ministries and departments of the Russian Federation, along with state-financed institutions with dedicated federal government funding) by a government decree of 15 June 2020. It should be recalled that our University was given the status of chief administrator of federal funding in 2009 with the adoption of a special law on Moscow State University and St Petersburg State University. In June, the University received 148.6 million roubles to support educational activities and 37.7 million roubles to develop medical activities. This decision was based on sharply defined criteria used to evaluate universities that are chief administrators of federal funds.
According to the results of the monitoring of financial management carried out by the chief administrators of funds from the federal budget, in the past three years St Petersburg University has gone from 84th to 5th place in the rating of the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation and has joined the AA+ group (‘Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 8 June 2020’). The results of this monitoring are taken into consideration when decisions are made on the allocation of funds to ministries, departments and other chief administrators of federal funds.
The decision to allocate funds was also based on an efficiency audit of how effectively chief administrators used the federal government funding previously provided to them. Based on an analysis of decree No 3154-r of the Russian Federation, dated 28 November 2020, St Petersburg University was allocated 96 million roubles to support educational activities and 97.2 million roubles to develop medical activities. These funds may be used to pay academic and research staff, healthcare workers and staff involved in the arts and culture (the categories used in the monitoring). These funds will be disbursed before the end of the calendar year.
3. About organisation of the learning process
In the past week, the Virtual Reception has received 30 appeals from teachers and from students and their parents (of which 16 were about academic issues), and the Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods has received another 15 by email. These included questions about the schedule for retaking exams and about the format of classes and the midterm assessments (for example: ‘About the midterm assessment and online classes’).
The Virtual Reception has also received appeals from students who complained to the St Petersburg University Ethics Committee about the improper behaviour of one teacher. This allegation is being reviewed by the Committee. The students believe that this teacher might unfairly assess their knowledge during a pass/fail and a graded exam and have asked that they be replaced by another teacher. It turns out that the teacher had classes with several groups. Classes in this subject, however, have already been completed for the autumn semester, and, according to the curriculum, the midterm assessment will be held during exams at the end of the spring semester. The students’ request for a replacement will be taken into account: another teacher will be appointed for the pass/fail and the graded exam, but not necessarily the one the students have requested. In this way, maximum objectivity will be ensured for these students during the midterm assessment.
At the last Rector’s meeting, on 30 November, in terms of the scheduling for resitting pass/fail and graded exams (both of which will be part of an additional exam period), it was reported that, according to University regulations, a student must be informed three calendar days prior to a pass/fail exam and one week prior to a graded exam (‘Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 30 November 2020’). One undergraduate student wrote to the Virtual Reception that for a long time they were unable to learn when the resitting of a pass/fail exam would take place, and when they were finally informed (in the middle of the day on which the pass/fail exam was to be held), it was already too late. As a result, they missed the resitting. This happened, in their opinion, because they had been misinformed by the staff in the Academic Office. An investigation was conducted into the student’s appeal. It turned out that the date and time of the pass/fail exam had been posted in the electronic timetable in time, but the staff in the Academic Office had incorrectly advised the student. As a result, the student took the exam on another day, and disciplinary action will be taken against the staff of the Academic Office.
All of the directors and deans continue to be in regular contact with the teachers and the student councils of the academic and research departments in order to recognise glitches in the academic process as soon as they arise. As an example, the Senior Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies, Alexey Rodionov, read out a number of questions that had been put to him during a meeting with the faculty’s student council. One question concerned physical training classes. At the meeting, it came out that these classes are being held, but, in order to participate, students must first sign up for teams in individual sports, for sections. These activities are organised by physical training supervisors in each sport (teachers in the Department of Physical Culture). Physical training classes, provided for by the curriculum, are held in accordance with the timetable (as video lessons, theoretical classes on the MS Teams platform and other forms, depending on the sport). The directors and deans were reminded that all first-year students (including international students) should be assigned to different groups for physical training classes.
Another question from Asian and African Studies students was about the system of proctoring in online courses. The same question was asked recently by biology students (‘Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 2 November 2020’) and by mathematics students (‘Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 30 November 2020’). It was reported at the meeting that the Director of the Centre of E-Learning Development at St Petersburg University, Vladimir Starostenko, is prepared to hold separate meetings with students from different academic programmes in order to explain everything, to answer questions and to remove all of the students’ apprehensions about what is for them a new procedure.
The Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science, Sergei Ivanov, passed along a question that he had been asked during a meeting with the student council of the faculty about the use of the Examus proctoring system. Information about the possibility of using the Linux Information System when taking an exam with Examus proctoring was quickly verified. During testing of this software, no problems whatsoever have arisen. Mr Starostenko proposed that the faculty’s student council should be convened in an online video conference to give the students advice, to answer their questions and to assuage their concerns (as has already been done at the request of the deans of the Biology, Law and other faculties).
It was explained that there are limitations on the use of the Examus system during assessment procedures when mobile devices are used. The mobile communication format is intentionally not used in Examus proctoring from a methodological point of view, since it is possible with mobile devices to bypass a screen recording and to cheat (there is no way of verifying who is answering the questions).
Should problems arise in equipping students with personal computers or video cameras during a pass/fail or graded exam, the dean of the faculty, the director of the institute or the administration of the division should be contacted directly. In such situations, these issues are dealt with there and then: the student can take the exam or the assessment for an online course in an equipped classroom in one of the University’s teaching facilities or a hall of residence. To help students accessing the exam from a location in Russia outside St Petersburg, the University will find a way to use equipment in one of its partner universities. Facilities are available for international students either in university-based Russian language testing centres in different countries or at international partner universities. In any case (as it has been reported time and again), in a discipline in which there are technical problems in taking exams, it is possible to file a request for the exams to be set up outside the regular exam timetable. This request should be sent directly to the head of the Academic Office or the deputy administrator of the academic division in the relevant field.
There was yet another question from Asian and African Studies students about the working hours of their branch of the Scientific Library. It was explained that the Rector’s staff includes persons who are in high-risk groups (those who are either in the 65+ category or who suffer from chronic illnesses). In accordance with the recommendations of Rospotrebnadzor (the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing), they have been transferred to a remote work format. According to the data obtained during the past three weeks, the incidence of COVID-19 among the administrative staff is higher than among the academic and research staff. For this reason, the staff of the Scientific Library (including those who work in its faculty branches) take shifts, which ensures that the library is open to visitors. This takes into account that some staff members are ill. The students proposed that the working hours of the branch library be shifted so that it would open and close at later times. This proposal has already been put into effect. The directors and the deans were advised to consult with representatives of their student councils and find out what their students’ wishes were concerning the timetable of their branch of the library.
4. St Petersburg University online courses are at the top of Russian, European and world rankings
On 3 December, Coursera published its ranking of the most popular online courses for 2020 by country (Most Popular Courses by Country 2020). In the category ‘Most popular courses in Russia’, first place went to the St Petersburg University online course Neurolinguistics, authored by a team of contributors under the supervision of Professor Tatiana Chernigovskaya. This course is offered in English.
Courses from other Russian universities were included in the ranking: ‘Python Programming Basics’ and ‘Economics for Non-Economists’, from the Higher School of Economics (2nd and 6th places, respectively); ‘Mathematics and Python for Data Analysis’, from the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute (8th place); ‘The Basics of Photography’, from Novosibirsk State University (9th place); and An Introduction to Machine Learning, from Yandex and the Higher School of Economics (10th place). There are also courses from foreign universities among the top ten most popular online courses in Russia: Learning How to Learn, from the University of San Diego; English for Career Development, from the University of Pennsylvania; The Science of Well-Being, from Yale University; and Machine Learning, from Stanford University.
A bit earlier, the largest international aggregator of online courses, Class Central, which regularly reviews the major trends in massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the statistics, had come out with its ranking of the most popular online courses in the world (The 100 Most Popular Free Online Courses), and it included two English-language courses from St Petersburg University. In the top 100 for 2020, our courses, Neurolinguistics (under the supervision of Professor Tatiana Chernigovskaya) and Japanese for Beginners (under the supervision of Associate Professor Inga Ibrakhim) are in 29th and 31st places, respectively. The audience for these courses, which were launched on 26 March and 4 May, has already exceeded 50,000. Another Russian university, the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, is also represented in the ranking, with the course Diving in Python, which is in 63rd place.
It was noted that the presence of St Petersburg University online courses in international rankings is not an accident but the result of the systematic and concerted efforts of teams of professionals.
For a number of years (beginning in 2013), the Higher School of Economics had been the leader in online education. Last spring, however, St Petersburg University was able to turn the tide in its favour, to take over the leadership, and we are continuing to widen the gap. Students prefer our online courses, which are based on the latest advances from the top-ranked schools of thought and have been developed by the best teaching staff.
Since last spring, St Petersburg University has borne the palm on the national Open Education platform, on which 146 (out of 663) courses are currently posted. The Higher School of Economics is in second place, with 100 courses, and St Petersburg Polytechnic University is in third place, with 90. It should be pointed out that Polytechnic won the tender to set up the Regional Centre of Competencies in Online Education with funding of 22 million roubles. Other universities represented on the National Platform of Open Education (NPOE) — Moscow State University, along with Tomsk State University and Tyumen State University — have received similar grants, while St Petersburg University has absolutely no government support for the development of online courses.
St Petersburg University, however, now ranks first not only in the number of courses but also in the audience its courses reach: the number of participants in St Petersburg University online courses has already surpassed 1.7 million people. The Higher School of Economics is in second place, and St Petersburg Polytechnic University holds third place.
In December, thanks to the posting of a large amount of educational content, St Petersburg University was able to enter the top five among educational institutions posting online courses on the Coursera platform. By comparison, the absolute leader on Coursera — Google Cloud (USA) — offered 204 online courses. In second and third place were the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (148 courses) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (125 courses). As of 5 December, St Petersburg University had posted 122 online courses there and shared fourth place with the University of Pennsylvania. From among Russian universities, our closest competitor is the Higher School of Economics, which has posted 106 online courses on Coursera and is in ninth place.
The Director of the Centre of E-Learning Development at St Petersburg University, Vladimir Starostenko, noted that the audience for online courses is also growing steadily, with an increase of up to 1,500 participants a week for popular courses. The collaborative efforts of the teaching staff who are the authors of these courses and the team at the Centre are aimed at producing superior online courses in line with the latest developments in information technology and business practices.
Thanks to the persistence of the teams of authors, who have continued to work during the pandemic, St Petersburg University significantly expanded the range of its courses in the autumn of 2020. Many of the new courses represented genuine breakthroughs in the technology of online courses. Among them, The Computer Game Industry: Key Legal Problems (created by Vladislav Arkhipov) and Criminology (authored by Anna Gurinskaya), which were filmed in a completely new style, deserve special attention.
The Computer Game Industry: Key Legal Problems was filmed as a computer game, which the user plays as they go through the course, and Criminology, as a crash course. Both courses are already available on the Open Education platform and have been well received by the outside audience.
By means of illustration, as of 12 December 2020, 2,081 people had registered on the Online Education platform for The Computer Game Industry: Key Legal Problems. The author of the course, Doctor of Law and Associate Professor Vladislav Arkhipov, recently won the Digital Lawyer of the Year award, which is part of the Runet Prize 2020, in the special category of the Moscow Digital School, Best Teacher of Digital Law, for significant achievements in pedagogy and for putting into practice supplementary pre-professional programmes in the field of digital and information law. What tipped the scales in his favour was, in large part, the online courses that he has developed.
In addition to the growth in the audience, St Petersburg University online courses have shown good financial results. Financial projections were reported at the Rector’s Meeting at the end of October (‘Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting dated 26 October 2020’). New data, based on the results of the fourth quarter, will be announced after we receive data from the platforms in February 2021.
In the near future, a contest will be announced on the St Petersburg University website in order to come up with new online courses in 2021, and more authors and groups of authors, inspired by the success of their colleagues, will be able to put forward their ideas to further expand the range of online offerings. The profitability of this undertaking and the payment of royalties from sales will provide an additional incentive for the creation of new St Petersburg University online courses, unique in form and content.
5. Two St Petersburg University projects have won megagrants
The results have been tallied for the eighth round of the competition for governmental support of research to be carried out under the supervision of leading scholars (megagrants of the Government of the Russian Federation). There were 465 bids from 222 organisations (of which 138 were universities and 84, research organisations). Based on a review of these documents by the Competition Commission of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, 49 bids were rejected and 416 were admitted to the competition (of which two were withdrawn by participants and were not considered by the Commission). In the end, there were 43 winning bids.
There were 11 bidders from St Petersburg University, and two of them received support for their projects:
- Håkan Per Hedenmalm with the project Probabilistic Methods in Analysis: Point Processes, Operators and Spaces of Holomorphic Functions (field: mathematics; St Petersburg University contact: Professor Yurii Belov from the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Sciences)
- Evgenii Rozanov with the project Prediction of the State of the Ozone Layer Using Atmospheric Composition Modelling and Measurements (field: earth sciences and related environmental sciences; St Petersburg University contact: Professor Yurii Timofeev from the Department of Physics of Atmosphere)
The total amount of financing for each of the projects is 90 million roubles from the grant funds for the three years it will take to carry out the projects (2021-2023).
For the sake of comparison, statistics were provided at the meeting for bids from other universities that were approved and supported:
- ITMO University (3 supported out of 11approved)
- Tomsk Polytechnic University (2 out of 4)
- Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (2 out of 5)
- Kazan (Volga) Federal University (2 out of 5)
- Tomsk State University (2 out of 14)
- St Petersburg Electrotechnical University ‘LETI’ (1 out of 2)
- Moscow State University (1 out of 5)
- National University of Science and Technology MISIS (1 out of 8)
- National Research University Higher School of Economics (0 out of 9)
- Saint Petersburg Polytechnic University (0 out of 9)
The participants in the meeting applauded our winners, top-level researchers who will be in charge of the St Petersburg University research laboratories.
6. The bidding for Russian Science Foundation research infrastructure grants has closed
In August of this year, a competition was announced for Russian Science Foundation grants in connection with the initiative ‘Research Conducted on the Base of the Existing World Class Research Infrastructure’, which is part of a presidential programme of research projects carried out by leading scholars, some of whom are young. The call for applications closed on 15 October.
The results of this year’s call for applications were analysed at the meeting. This year, 1,346 applications were submitted. As a result, 189 infrastructure facilities (core facility centres and unique scientific facilities) based at 144 organisations are participating in the competition. In 2019, 1,458 applications were submitted, and 256 infrastructure facilities (core facility centres and unique scientific facilities) based at 192 organisations took part in the competition.
In this year’s competition, 25 applications have been submitted from St Petersburg University to carry out projects using various educational organisations, and ten of them will involve use of the University Research Park. In 2019, 28 applications were submitted from St Petersburg University to carry out projects using various educational organisations, and 12 of them involved use of the Research Park.
In terms of the number of applications filed, this year’s leaders among educational institutions are the following:
- The Kurchatov Synchrotron Radiation Source, National Research Center ‘Kurchatov Institute’ (50 applications filed)
- The St Petersburg University Research Park (49 applications)
- Third and fourth places are shared by ’Human proteome’ Core Facility (the Institute of Biomedical Chemistry) and the Moscow State University Supercomputing Centre (33 applications)
In terms of the number of applications filed, the leaders in 2019 among educational institutions were the following:
- St Petersburg University Research Park (44 applications)
- The Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (29 applications)
- The Almazov Centre of Preclinical and Translational Research (28 applications)
- The Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (27 applications)
In terms of the number of applications, Moscow State University is the leader with 69, and they break down as follows: the Moscow State University Supercomputing Centre (33 applications), the National Depository Bank of Living Systems (16 applications), the Accelerator Complex of the Institute of Nuclear Physics, Moscow State University (12 applications), the 3D Electron Microscopy Unique Scientific Facility (5 applications), and the Sub-diffraction Microscopy Core Facility Centre (3 applications).
The Kurchatov Institute is in second place with 58 applications, including 50 applications from the Kurchatov Synchrotron Radiation Source and 8 from the Neutron Research Complex on the premises of the IR-8 reactor. With 51 applications, Tomsk State University is in third place. This number includes 18 applications from the High-Performance Systems and Technologies Core Facility, 14 applications from the Research Library of Tomsk State University, 7 applications from the Mega-facility system of experimental bases located along the latitudinal gradient, 7 applications from the Tomsk Regional Core Facility Centre, and 5 applications from the Radiophysical Complex: High-Altitude Polarisation Lidar for Atmospheric Sensing and the Tomsk Ionospheric Station.
Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology is in fourth place with 50 applications, including 18 from the Advanced Imaging Core Facility, 16 from the BioImaging and Spectroscopy Core Facility and 16 from Genomics Core Facility. The St Petersburg University Research Park is in fifth place with 49 applications.
The Peter the Great St Petersburg Polytechnic University is in sixth place with 42 applications, including 25 from the Polytechnic Supercomputer Centre, 11 from the Computer Engineering Centre, 5 from the Information and Library Complex and one from the Laboratory of Aerodynamics and Heat Exchange.
It was noted at the meeting that what we are talking about at the moment is the applications that have been accepted. The results of the competition will be announced on 1 March 2021. There have been changes in the infrastructure portfolios provided by the leading organisations to external users, and this has resulted in additional applications. It makes sense for the University to re-evaluate its resources and activities and to identify elements of its research infrastructure that need to be reformatted in order to be able to present them to the wider academic community. It was suggested that the directors and deans review the applications that have been filed, assess the possibilities of the academic and research divisions and then make proposals based on unique elements of the research infrastructure.