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17 Июня 2020

Rector of the Financial University, told "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" about the experience obtained by universities from forced digitisation in the era of the pandemic.

The pandemic put universities into complicated conditions. Obviously, the education system was not prepared for such radical changes. What does this mean for universities?

Mikhail Eskindarov: In my opinion, everything can be described by a well-known quotation, which is used so often that I couldn’t determine who its author is, "In a critical situation you will not rise to the level of your expectations, but you will fall to the level of your training". Russian universities have already been applying online learning tools for many years, but most universities have not had any experience of using such technologies so extensively.

Many universities now use online learning technologies in the simplest form. More emphasis is placed on replacing the form of communication rather than on redefining the whole methodical approach to the educational process using digital tools, which in the current circumstances is the right solution.

Did the FinU teaching staff possess sufficient skills and did the university have all the necessary technical resources? Or did the university require additional efforts? What was the most difficult part?

Mikhail Eskindarov: Our university has not only sufficient teaching materials and technical facilities for the educational process in the current conditions, but also long-term experience of correspondence programmes and distance learning. This, in its turn, made it possible to adapt quickly to the current situation and to ensure a continuous learning process. However, most of the teachers had to change the way they work, change the way they teach, it was a laborious and an extremely difficult task that most of our colleagues managed to accomplish. We are also grateful to our students, who were understanding of the changes that had to be made. They not only adapted quickly to the conditions and continued their studies in a new format, but also assisted university teachers.

Most universities state that they are ready to organise final examinations remotely. The teachers will go on holiday from August 1st instead of July 1st as usual. To what extent will this month help in organising the system of examinations, and defense of graduation theses?

Mikhail Eskinarov: That’s not exactly true. Indeed, a group of professors at our university, even before it was decided to organise final examinations online, proposed to postpone going on holidays for one month in order to hold the final examinations in person. But due to the fact that an absolute majority of universities stated that they were ready to organise final exams remotely, the teachers’ holiday will begin as usual, at the beginning of July.

In our case, most of the teachers will go on holiday starting from July 3rd and will return to work at the end of August and start, hopefully, face-to-face classes.

Did Financial University retain state examinations and thesis defense this year, or did it decide to leave only thesis defense?

Mikhail Eskindarov: Our university was the first Russian university to abandon two forms of final testing and opt for one. All graduates, except lawyers, are to defend their thesis. However, the State Examination Commission may ask questions not only on the subject of the thesis, but also of the training in general. The examination procedure and step-by-step regulations were published on the university’s website a month ago and were brought to the attention of students and the commission members. I know that many universities made the same decision. I think that’s the best option under the present circumstances.

Leading universities have opened online courses free of charge for all students. Is Financial University among them? Are they popular?

Mikhail Eskinarov: Yes, we have offered 34 online courses, which are recommended by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation and are open for public on a free basis. More than 1,000 students from 18 universities in Russia have benefited from these courses. We will continue to expand our presence in open platforms.

Restrictions have put many families on the verge of survival. What material assistance can students and their families receive (instalments, residence hall fees, higher scholarships, etc)?

Mikhail Eskindarov: About 50 students at the Financial University have already received some financial support. Students who are paying tuition fees as well as applicants who will be studying on fee-based terms are allowed to pay their tuition fees in instalments, if necessary even with monthly payments. Residence hall fees will be waived, as it was done in March and April. For those in a very difficult situation, e.g loss of a breadwinner or total unemployment in the family, we will first consider the possibility of transferring this student to a state-subsidised place. Each year a number of such places appear to be vacant due to academic failures. We are not going to keep any of these places, as we are going to transfer these students as soon as possible. Another option is transferring students to distance learning or correspondence programmes, while retaining the same academic programmes.

It is great that President Vladimir Putin has given instructions to revise the terms of educational loans, lowering the interest rate to 3%. and increasing the repayment period to 15 years. Such programme will greatly help those who are studying and those who intend to study on a fee-paying basis.

Minister of Science and Higher Education Valery Falkov announced that the cost of education in the academic year 2020/2021 would remain as in 2019. How do you feel about this decision? Does this mean that salaries of the university staff will not be indexed?

Mikhail Eskindarov: Despite serious financial problems that universities will face, we must do so to support current and future students. For us losses will amount to several millions of rubles, and we will be forced, bearing in mind that other losses are expected, to reduce costs other than salaries. Regarding indexation, it will depend on the financial assistance from the state. At the meeting on education, it was stated that funds had been allocated for this purpose. Such support for universities exists in many countries, and we are no exception.

How does the university work with the invited professors now? Have you ceased collaboration or is it still continuing?

Mikhail Eskindarov: We have a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship with both Russian and foreign professors. In the present circumstances, of course, this relationship has changed. Those who have been directly involved in the educational process continue to work in the new environment. Unfortunately, the arrival of some wonderful professors from abroad had to be postponed.

Representatives of the Government of Moscow and the Moscow Oblast, the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Industrial Development, the Central Bank, Sberbank, VTB and many other organisations still took part in Career Day, which was held March 28th in the online format. We need to support our alumni in this difficult moment and help them get a job.

Many famous scientists, deputies and senators participated in the project "Man of Wisdom Online", recordings of which can be found on the university’s website. In other words, "stars" are always with us.

How are the summer admissions going? Will there be any relaxation of the rules?

Mikhail Eskindarov: The summer admissions will take place online, the documents from the applicants will be accepted exclusively through the university’s electronic system or through the portal of public service. The deadlines have been moved, they are now tied to the dates of the announcement of the Unified State Exams results, so the applicants and their parents should not worry. In order to enter a university, an applicant has to pass three Unified State Exams, the disciplines chosen depend on the future specialty or the direction of training. Speaking about relaxation of the rules, there are some. For example, depending on the number of points scored, a fee-paying student can receive a discount up to 60 percent. Quotas and benefits for certain categories of applicants (orphans, disabled persons, etc.) remain unchanged.

In your opinion, how much damage has the pandemic done and will do to education? What kind of support do you think the universities need in case they need it?

Mikhail Eskindarov: We are not ready to perceive the current situation as a set of problems, we initially perceived it as difficult to be solved. In addition, it was very important for us to find new opportunities for growth, and we found them. Our teachers learnt how to use platforms for webinars, and they widely use them and understand limitations and possibilities of most distance learning technologies. We have gained invaluable experience in organising university’s activities remotely, including mid-term and final examinations. We expect that, having considered what is happening after the end of the lockdown, we will be able to form a new strategy for technological development, which we would not have been able to understand without this stressful situation.

Many believe that our lives will not be the same, much of the educational process will go online, the epidemic has only spurred this process. Do you agree with that?

Mikhail Eskindarov: Face-to-face interaction between a teacher and a student is difficult to be replaced, I would even say impossible. Today’s situation has definitely changed the requirements of educational institutions regarding the quality of digital services. But the digital experience that has emerged should not disappear.

According to my observations and interviews, the faculty, the students and even the FinU staff, are anxious to meet at the university as soon as possible. I don’t know how much the period of the lockdown, teaching and working online will be missed, I don’t know how nostalgic we will feel.

Can online education substitute distance and correspondence education? Where is the line between them and full time education right now?

Mikhail Eskindarov: Our university is one of the few leading universities that has kept both correspondence and part-time education. Today, it is difficult to state unequivocally that online education will soon replace these forms. Given that the current mode of education is a decision taken within a limited period of time, it is inferior to the traditional offline education. But this kind of massive online learning, I believe, can form a qualitatively different model of online learning that will be very competitive.

The main risk is a reassessment of expectations from today’s moving to the online mode. In my view, it is not possible to treat what happened as a confirmation of the hypothesis that online education possesses comprehensive high efficiency.

The situation that is developing today only shows that higher education institutions have the necessary level of digital competence to preserve "survivability" and are able to maintain the learning process even in the current difficult conditions by using previously tested and implemented technologies. But in the long run, such substitution is possible.

How will the next academic year begin? Will the training requirements be changed from the organisational point of view (smaller groups, other seatings, etc)?

Mikhail Eskindarov: Of course, everything will depend on the epidemiological situation not only in Moscow, but in each of the 27 regions where there are branches of our university. Of course, we would like to start the academic year offline on September 1st. If there are some organisational constraints, we will look for solutions, although this will be quite difficult. We will be ready for any scenarios.

According to Valery Falkov, the number of state-subsidised places will substantially increase in the admissions campaign 21/22. To what extent? Will this process affect the Financial University?

Mikhail Eskindarov: The Minister has shown himself as a man of courage. Despite the threat of infection, he personally held meetings on switching universities to online education, unfortunately, got infected and soon after the recovery returned to work and took up his duties. Well, additional 30,000 state-subsidised places have been added this year. It was previously decided that additional places will be assigned primarily to regional universities. But given that we have 27 branches in the regions, we have requested additional places for them. I hope we will get them. Our branches have a long history, have good resources and highly-qualified teaching staff.

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