On January 14, 2021, expert discussion “Universities After the Pandemic”, which brought together French and Russian experts in science in higher education, was held at the Gaidar Forum with the support of French-Russian University.

The Russian side was represented by: Vladimir Vasiliev, Rector of ITMO University; Vladimir Mau, Rector of the RANEPA; Mikhail Strikhanov, Rector of the MEPhI; Vladimir Filippov, President of the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (PFUR); Tatiana Klyachko, Director of the Continuous Education Center of the RANEPA. The French side was represented by: Abdo Malac, Counselor for Science and Technology at the Embassy of France in Russia; Delphine Manceau, Dean of NEOMA Business School; Karine Samuel, Vice President for International Relations at the Grenoble Alpes University; and Patrice Houdayer, Deputy Dean of SKEMA Business School. The event was moderated by Sergey Sinelnikov-Murylev, Rector of the Russian Foreign Trade Academy of the Ministry for Economic Development of the Russian Federation and Emmanuel Tric, Vice President, University of Cote d’Azur.

The panelists were asked several questions concerning changes in higher education caused by the pandemic.

What has been the biggest challenge in the transition to the new normal?

Responding to this question, Karine Samuel,Vice President for International Relations and Public Affairs at the Grenoble Alpes University, noted the importance of social relationships, namely those between the faculty and the students, which have been severely impacted by distance learning.

The importance of psychological and social aspects was also noted by Vladimir Vasiliev, Rector of ITMO University: “We need to work with psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists to make sure we do not break the ties we have established, and we must eliminate the separation from the university environment.”

Patrice Houdayer, Deputy Dean of SKEMA Business School, shared the experience of the School’s Chinese campus, which was among the first educational institutions to face the new coronavirus infection.

What lessons should the academic community learn from the pandemic?

Inviting his colleagues to answer the question, Sergey Sinelnikov-Murylev, Rector of the Russian Foreign Trade Academy (RFTA) of the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation, spoke about the most important lesson, which is to have some margin of safety consisting of solid teaching staff and administrative personnel, as well as accumulated experience of using advanced technologies, which allowed to quickly establish remote work within the academy.

Vladimir Mau, Rector of the RANEPA, responded to the question by stressing the importance of developing the digital environment and its diversity. Another lesson learned was an understanding that information technology would be the basis for the development of university networks: “The Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation focuses on building networks of Universities, and this is absolutely right. Distance learning, on the one hand, pushes the development of networking and, on the other hand, creates great opportunities for it. Our French-Russian University, which we started in 2015, is one such network. This is extremely important. I think we caught that trend when we created it.” To illustrate the third lesson, the Rector of the Presidential Academy gave an example of online communication culture development: today, online participation in conferences and forums has become the absolute standard due to the psychological barrier having been overcome, which made the personal presence of the participant at the event be more valued. “Over the course of this year, online communication has become proper. We overcame a very important psychological barrier of remote work.”

Vladimir Filippov, President of RUDN: “In the post-pandemic period we will not be the same as we were before. The only question is what experience we will bring into the future from this.”

The President of RUDN highlighted three points that warrant more attention in the future: to conduct online surveys among students more frequently, including those regarding the quality of education; to provide targeted assistance to Russian and foreign students who need it; to pay constant attention to educational work, students’ participation in sports and volunteer activities.

Mikhail Strikhanov, Rector of MEPhI: “Talking about lessons learned, we should use the students’ language and never forget that we are just at the beginning of the journey. We have mastered the basic course in the past year, but we have a very difficult task ahead of us and I think we have not passed any exam yet.” According to the Rector of MEPhI, the most important task will be to maintain a balance between distance and face-to-face learning.

The Dean of the French business school NEOMA reminded her colleagues that all of them had advanced further in digital technologies than in the last 10 years, and this is, in her opinion, the main lesson. The continued use of information technology in the work of educational institutions will also be an important element of the post-pandemic future: “The relationships between higher education institutions may go partially online. For example, I think we will be able to communicate online more often, within the framework of the French-Russian University. We will have to combine online and offline activities, based on the experience we have gained in these months.”

Will we be able to properly invest our experience in the future, will we move to a new system or will we completely revert to what we had before?

Abdo Malac, Counselor for Science and Technology at the Embassy of France in Russia, noted the positive aspects of the reforms in higher education. The pandemic will undoubtedly leave its mark, but the transition to digital technologies in education cannot be total: “In my point of view, in the university environment it is a challenge that has already been accepted and will strongly influence our future activities.”

Concluding the discussion, the moderators agreed that digital technologies should be used only in those areas where they are truly effective, and that distance learning technologies can transmit knowledge but cannot teach students to think. The advance of digitalization can no longer be slowed down, which raises the need to adapt teachers and students to the inevitable changes. Even though the crisis has destabilized our society, we have learned how to deal with it and we will bring that experience into the future. Flexibility and adaptability to change, as well as the desire for creativity, should help us in this.