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‘The Central Role of Communication in Education Is Not Going Anywhere’: HSE Rector on the Revolution in Higher Education, the Prestige of Russian Education, and the Outcomes of the Pandemic

‘The Central Role of Communication in Education Is Not Going Anywhere’: HSE Rector on the Revolution in Higher Education, the Prestige of Russian Education, and the Outcomes of the Pandemic

© HSE University

In an interview with Forbes, HSE Rector and Supervisor for Education, Yaroslav Kuzminov spoke about digital learning and what he thinks the future holds in store for universities. Below is an abridged translation of the interview. The full-length interview in Russian is available on the Forbes website.

— The pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives, including the end of the 2019-2020 school year. How has Russian higher education continued to operate in the recent weeks?

— As you remember, the coronavirus outbreak spread very quickly. On March 14, the Minister of Science and Higher Education, Valery Falkov, gathered the rectors of Russia’s leading universities to discuss what we should do. The ideas proposed varied widely, including even cancelling classes entirely. By the way, in some countries they did just that. But universities in Russia, fortunately, have a generally high level of digital capability, and the county’s leading universities expressed their willingness to help other universities. As a result, it was decided that universities would transition to distance learning on March 17.

Russia’s leading universities have provided free access to about a thousand online courses. This is less than in China, where there are several tens of thousands of courses in the national system, but it is also not so small. The vast majority of Russian universities switched to synchronous online instruction—some did so immediately, while others did so within a 1-2-week period.

Three quarters of Russian students and teachers transitioned to online learning and were able to continue their classes as usual.

How is face-to-face instruction different than online instruction? Students work very intensively, are in constant communication with their teachers, and participate in seminars alongside their peers, which provides a different quality of education. It is not without reason that they say that the impact of education consists of three different but similarly significant factors: the student’s own abilities and efforts, the quality of the instructor’s teaching, and the quality (abilities plus motivation) of the classmates with whom the student studies.

At a number of universities, practice-oriented courses have been simply postponed to the next semester. We at HSE postponed only 4% of our courses. Overall, we were able to transition online almost the next day without any interruptions.

— Will HSE conduct its admissions process online as well?

— We admit students on the basis of their exam results, so their physical presence is not required. Internal exams are needed, for example, for ballet schools, which simply cannot conduct them otherwise. In this regard, we also have our own ‘ballet schools’—the HSE School of Art and Design and our programmes in journalism. They will conduct their admissions interviews online.

The ability to identify individuals who pass off other people’s work as their own depends on the professionalism of the evaluating committee, and not the format of the interview. And the professionalism of committees at universities that have internal exams is very high: they can tell when a student is cheating or being aided by outside sources—it is impossible not to see. In addition, we use special proctoring software for ensuring the integrity of our online exams. For example, in our programme with the London School of Economics, 100% of exams are administered with proctoring, so we have sufficient experience in organizing distance exams.

HSE University
Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

— Are you also currently conducting final exams online?

— Yes. In general, graduation exams at HSE are practically non-existent. At our university, from their very first year, students embark upon a strenuous course of study. They submit an average of two written papers a week, participate in seminars, and demonstrate their abilities in other ways. Their grades accumulate over time. The saying, ‘the exam sessions are hard but life is easy in between’, does not apply to HSE.

In the vast majority of cases, little depends on exams. Faculty members of our economics and mathematics departments believe that there should still be a final exam—students need to be evaluated once more, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Many HSE departments in the humanities deem final exams to be unnecessary, and I understand this. Students in these programmes basically receive a cumulative grade at the end of a course. In addition, students graduate by passing a defense of their work. It seems to me that this is wholly sufficient. This is what many universities did this year.

— From what you say, it seems that, in Russia, education is so well organized that many universities transitioned to online learning without any problems. Is this really the case?

— We are not talking about regular activities, but about an emergency, and how we dealt with it. No one is suggesting that universities go completely online, but it is necessary to expand the use of this format. The situation revealed some specific problem areas. The first area was certain IT infrastructural aspects. Only 1% of students did not have internet access—this is not much, even compared to developed countries. However, almost 10% of students did not have the necessary devices—they only had a smartphone. It is difficult to do you coursework on a smartphone, so universities quickly repurposed computers that were used to equip computer classrooms and distributed them to students who needed them instead.

At the request of Minister Falkov, we opened our online courses for free on the Ministry of Science and Higher Education website. The number of students who use our online courses has increased from 7,500 to 27,500, and the number of partner universities at HSE, for example, has grown from 40 to 60.

— Every student should have the right to choose and take to the best courses and work with the best teachers.

— Yes, of course, and we started with ourselves. What do we have to fear? We have about 800 online courses built into our curriculum. Of these, about half are courses from Western universities, and 15% are courses of our colleagues from St. Petersburg University, Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, MIPT, Tomsk University, Moscow State University, and ITMO University. This is completely normal.

— Will students begin the new school year online or will they return to campus?

— We plan to start our classes on September 1 in the traditional format and are looking forward to returning to the classroom. But if we have to start the school year online, then we will do so. We have already prepared an online start of the school year for students from countries that will be closed. At present, 10% of our students are international, and we have students from Europe and the USA in our master’s programmes.

We will do our best to ensure that the beginning of their school year is the same in quality for all students.

HSE University Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov
Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

— What does Russian higher education have to offer to a student from the UK or Germany? How trusted and prestigious is Russian education?

— Undergraduate education at a leading Russian university is better than that at a leading American or Chinese university. The way in which students are taught is not worse but better—the curriculum is more demanding, more intense. The number of subject requirements that undergraduate students need to fulfill abroad is approximately half that of what Russian undergraduate students need to fulfill. In addition, students are very much helped in their studies.

The Russian system is potentially associated with overloading students. True, in two-thirds or three-quarters of universities, this overloading is purely formal in nature: in practice, students do not fulfill all of these requirements, much in the way Russian laws are not actually followed. But in the top quarter of Russian universities, this load is enforced.

We are in constant communication with our foreign colleagues, and we compare our graduates with those from different countries. A graduate of a Russian bachelor’s programme at Moscow State University, MIPT, HSE, or Novosibirsk University is in very high demand, because they are better prepared and they perform better in master’s programmes than their counterparts from British or American universities.

At the master’s level, the situation is different. There, students study under leading scholars or professionals in their field. The best scientists, scholars, and professionals from all over the world work at foreign universities, where they are paid 10 times more than professors at Russian universities. It makes perfect sense to pursue an advanced degree abroad, and 15% of HSE graduates do so upon graduation. Some even enter PhD programmes immediately after completing their undergraduate studies here—this is also a testament to the quality of our programmes.

HSE collaborates with the University of London. How does HSE benefit from this partnership, and why is internationalization of the university so important to you?

— An international university competes in the global market and easily integrates people of different nationalities and languages into its environment. HSE has a large international student body, and 5% of our teaching staff are international. Some of them do not speak Russian at all, and they are able to carry out their work unhindered.

We have a large circle of affiliated teachers. These are colleagues from other universities in the world who work with HSE, teach courses, participate in our research work, and they are not even paid employees. A national university that works for the good of its country must be international. Without this, the country loses access to advanced knowledge.

You have programmes that award students two diplomas—one from HSE and another from a foreign university. What does a graduate get out of this? Do double-degree holders go on to have successful careers?

— We have joint undergraduate programs not only with the University of London, but also with Kyung Hee University (South Korea). Students of more than forty master's programmes at HSE have the option of pursuing a double degree track that allows them to earn a second diploma from a European or American university. We are ready to consider a wide range of universities as potential partners. What is important is that the partnership creates added value to our education.

Our international programmes are developed in accordance with the canons of our partner universities: there are fewer courses, there are more detailed methods. And we try to get the most out of them: we look at how they work, we take useful elements and develop them. As for students of our international programmes, they usually complete their coursework in English. Thus, they are better prepared for the international market, and they are more focused on it. This has long ceased to be an exclusive path in a career. It’s just a good option for those who are guided by the global market.

HSE University Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov
Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

— Now everyone is requiring that everyone go digital, and everyone understands digitalization in their own way. For some, it means distributing laptops at the expense of the school, while for others it means taking classes and exams online. And still for others, it means using amazing futuristic technology. How do you understand it?

— Here you need to define the terms. There are courses that are conducted synchronously online but are not in themselves ‘digital’: it is simply the method of delivery or communication that is digital. These courses have their advantages, which we saw during the months of quarantine: a significantly higher level of concentration and attention among students, and a one-and-a-half increase in student attendance. No time is wasted on raising hands or asking questions—the teacher sees them in the chat and immediately answers. But these are the simple things. The real digitalization—not forced, but voluntary—begins when a robot performs routine, boring processes.

As for universities, all these elements of digitalization will probably come into play, but at a much lower rate. Higher education works with unique material, ideally at the forefront of the development of science and technology. Everything is constantly changing. There are few routine mass processes that would be worth more effort and cost. Let me remind you that today the average budget of a successful computer game is several million euros. A training simulator differs from a role-playing or strategic game only in content.

In universities, you can talk about massive online courses that save time, space, and lecturers.

At one time, we calculated that only 15% of students attend lectures—this is incredibly low energy conversion efficiency. Some kind of phantasmagoria arises when we send the most valuable resources (and professors are the most valuable resource of the university) to places where they are not in demand. But then we learned that students who attend lectures simply stream them for their classmates who aren’t there. They take turns attending class, recording the lectures, and using them. So why then are these lectures needed? Why don’t we simply record them once and use funds to hire a director so that the video recording looks better than the usual stream in which we see the teacher yawn, take a drink from his or her water bottle, or look at the students in the front row. In this scenario, only routine updates of the course will be necessary.

— If students just watch all of their lectures online and participate in seminars via Zoom, it seems possible they will lose touch with the university and cease to distinguish between their teachers. What about communication?

— Two years ago, when I first said that we would replace all lectures with online courses, there was a huge uproar and a lot of resistance. We explained that no one limits teachers to anything. We want students in your large and useful course to listen to all of your lectures without fail. And if you want to communicate with your students, announce that you will give eight more additional lectures on what was not covered in the main course, and let them sign up for them voluntarily. These will be students of a different quality, it will be easier for the teacher to work with them—they won’t be eating in class, playing battle ship, or whispering amongst themselves. Over the next three to five years, we will be recording online lectures for all of our courses. They will be open to other universities. But most importantly, they will dramatically increase the efficiency of coursework and the mastery of the material.

Online course material is actually mastered more effectively than in-person lecture material.

An online course is grouped into 15–20-minute modules, because this is the psychological threshold for learning fatigue. You go through the module, answer questions, give feedback to the system. Students will not be able to just talk their way out of a question: the automated teacher will not accept ambiguity. And then you can listen to the next module or go for a cup of tea. All this cannot be done at a regular lecture, when no one lets students go for a walk.

Schools and universities will definitely remain. Digital elements will replace routine ones, universities will be largely virtualized, and more and more will employ or teach people who participate remotely from faraway locations. But the central role of communication in education is not going anywhere.

Admissions to HSE’s Bachelor's and Master’s programmes are now open. International students can apply online. To learn more about HSE University, its admission process, or life in Moscow, please visit International Admissions website, or contact the Education & Training Advisory Centre at: inter@hse.ru, or via WhatsApp at: +7 (916) 311 8521.

Undergraduate applicants can take mock exams online to evaluate their chances of being accepted. Graduate applicants can register for preliminary portfolio assessment.