On January 14, 2022, the French-Russian University hosted the session “French-Russian University: Priorities 2022 – New Opportunities” (part of the Gaidar Forum 2022), which united Russian and French experts in the field of science and higher education. The Russian party was represented by Vladimir Vasiliev, Rector of ITMO University; Vladimir Shevchenko, Rector of the National Research Nuclear University MEPhI; Vladimir Mau, Rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration; and Vladimir Filippov, President RUDN. Attendees from the French side included Abdo Malac, Counselor on Science and Technologies at the Embassy of the French Republic to the Russian Federation; Eric Berton, president of the Aix-Marseille University; Delphine Manceau, Dean of NEOMA Business School; and Patrice Houdayer, Vice Dean of SKEMA Business School. The session was moderated by Sergey Sinelnikov-Murylev, Rector of the Russian Foreign Trade Academy of the Ministry for Economic Development of the Russian Federation, and Karine Samuel, Vice-President International Relations And Outreach at the University of Grenoble Alpes.

The panelists were asked to answer several questions about new opportunities and priorities for network universities in the year ahead.

How do experts envisage the development of network universities? What are the features of this development given the new environment?

Answering the question, Abdo Malac, Counselor on Science and Technologies at the Embassy of France in Russia, noted that network universities have become the engines of French-Russian cooperation, heavily reliant on innovative solutions. All network participants contribute to the development of pedagogical and research ecosystems in an effort to improve their effectiveness. The pandemic had a particularly strong impact on education and science. The sector had to switch to digital urgently, which also implies a change of mindset. The students must have been hit the hardest, with a growing gap in the quality of education at the pre-university stage and high inequality of access to digital technologies.  This situation is likely to continue until 2025-2027, according to an expert, which will result in deterioration of the accessibility of higher education. Abdo Malac believes that while virtual platforms have been created, they are only a part of the solution. This model is unlikely to stand, because studying in another country is the most important moment in student life. Universities must continue to work together to overcome the situation. A European study of network universities shows that 80% of the institutions actively shared their innovations and developments within their networks, 65% began sharing their MOOCs and other trainings with partners, and 85% have created serious digitalization programs for their campuses. As a result, networked universities allowed their members to respond better to the challenges of the pandemic. We consider every crisis as a window of opportunity, which makes network universities extremely important.

RUDN President Vladimir Filippov also stressed the importance of networking between universities, which will be expanded in the future. He is convinced that it is necessary to build purposeful interaction at the French-Russian University, taking into account the personal experience of all the partners in the consortium in various networks. The key is to expand personalized opportunities for students, to have stronger universities helping weaker ones, which do not have sufficient capacity of their own, and to develop elite Master’s degree programs. The latter should be implemented within the framework of the FRU, taking into account individual strengths of all participants. The idea is to develop joint elite educational programs by two or three members of the consortium, which would be hard to implement by individual universities.   Vladimir Filippov believes that given the current level of online technologies, students will be able to master individual disciplines of their choice, for which they will ultimately earn credits at their institutions as part of the agreed curriculum. For this purpose, he suggested to start by identifying the most interesting and unique disciplines that FRU could offer its students. Next, it is necessary to determine whether we should trust and recognize the results of such training, or develop a unified mechanism for the recognition of the performance in these disciplines to be automatically credited towards the completion of our educational programs. Finally, it is necessary to agree for which specific educational programs these disciplines can count towards. In light of the above, the RUDN President proposed to define, during the forthcoming FRU Council meetings, the tasks faced by the organization and their implementation stages as the roadmap for the French-Russian University.

Patrice Houdayer, Vice Dean of SKEMA Business School, said that thanks to the network model, collaboration between universities has improved greatly in recent years. In his opinion, hybrid learning model can be efficient within the framework of the French-Russian University.

Delphine Manceau, Dean of NEOMA Business School, shared her experience of creating a virtual campus that allows the learning process to continue from anywhere in the world. Thanks to this, students in France could cooperate closely with Chinese students. Of course, the virtual campus will continue to evolve after the pandemic. A platform called “Better Together” was also launched for partners. In her opinion, the education sector is evolving, and the distance learning format will continue to exist in the future.

Karine Samuel, Vice-President International Relations And Outreach at the University of Grenoble Alpes, continued discussion of the topic. She believes that the trend toward network universities has really taken off in recent years, and there are currently 41 network universities in Europe alone. University of Grenoble Alpes is a member of several dozen such networks, including transnational ones. There are also so-called partner networks, which unite business schools, engineering schools, and others. However, this raises new questions: How do we choose which networks make sense for an institution to get involved in and which resources to invest in? The development of new educational products adapted to the digital world has also accelerated over the past two years, in part due to the pandemic.

What do experts think about these products and their further development? According to MEPhI Rector Vladimir Shevchenko, the pandemic has changed the structure of competition between universities, as students now have a choice of where to get an online education. The universities are now competing to create more attractive educational programs and to engage famous professors, not just to make school graduates come to the university. A new question is on the agenda: How can we help students navigate this sea of possibilities to make the right choices? The role of tutors will increase, and general language training will be extremely important.  National Research Nuclear University MEPhI is currently preparing a joint program with the Aix-Marseille University on thermonuclear fusion. In doing so, the partners proceed from the assumption that now is the time to offer an educational product of the highest quality. This product will be a great representation of the universities that stand behind it, complementing all sorts of rankings.  

ITMO University Rector Vladimir Vasiliev believes that universities will eventually move to blended learning with the use of online technologies, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data. After all, they are already turning towards personalized learning paths for their students. These trajectories should become as flexible as possible in the learning process. It is during this period that universities will need to pay special attention to student motivation. The rector proposed discussing the issue of student motivation together with the FRU French partners and advancing work in this direction. How do the panelists understand human-centricity in university education? How does the development of network universities, particularly the FRU, contribute to this trend? Eric Berton, president of the Aix-Marseille University, noted the positive aspects of new educational technologies in the creation of network universities, as well as in the preparation of MOOCs. While digitalization and distance learning were useful solutions for the beginning of the new era, he believes it is fundamentally important to maintain live human exchanges in higher education. There is only one way to fully experience another culture, and that is by traveling to another country. New technology can definitely come in handy in some disciplines, especially in the early years. But then we should strive for real contact, first of all, in the scientific environment. In addition, mutual recognition of diplomas becomes important, as it increases openness to the outside world. All the more so, as the “nomadic” nature of the students intensifies in the future.  It is normal for young people to want to take the best from different universities. This is the reality of tomorrow. In this environment, it becomes an important task for universities to fully promote intercultural enrichment between young people of different nations.

Concluding the discussion, RANEPA Rector Vladimir Mau noted that the hybrid form of teaching is better suited to personalizing the learning process, and that the next step could be to establish joint research groups and develop a pool of the best teachers who would lecture within the FRU. Universities are currently seeing a lot of space opening up for experimenting. There is no doubt that over the past two years we have made great advances in digitalization, but only time will tell how it is going to work in the long run.  What we have yet to realize and bring to life is much harder than what we have done so far.