University during the COVID19 pandemic: survival or incentive to development?
2020 became a challenge for all educational organizations: everyone felt the need for an emergency transfer of all students to online learning, and until the very beginning of the admission campaign, universities were in a "suspended" state in all matters concerning admission to training and beginning of the next academic year. Will the Ministry of Education allow everyone to organize admission in the usual "face-to-face" mode? How will the next academic year start? Will foreign students be allowed to enroll? And if yes, from which countries? This is only a small part of the issues universities face. Another acute problem is holding information events. After all, it will no longer be possible to hold an open day in the classic mode: the pandemic situation in the regions is different, and the issue of letting visitors in to the events also remains open. The usual educational exhibitions in a "live" format, when one can talk to an applicant, learn their interests, offer training course, tell some interesting facts about the university, or just give an information brochure which an applicant will bring home and show to parents to discuss the issue of admission to the university again, practically disappeared. In fact, universities have found themselves in a situation where no one knows what to do but something needs to be done since no one has canceled the admission plan and the admission numbers have already been distributed. We do have online exhibitions which have both their pros and cons, but, unfortunately, they cannot fully replace work at the exhibition stand with live communication. Anyways, in the current situation this is one of the best solutions. Firstly, it attracts participants who, for some reason, could not attend a live exhibition, which allows us to talk about expanding the potential circle of participants. Secondly, it also makes it easier to collect contact information from participants, and then make additional newsletters to potential applicants. Moreover, it allows us to collect firsthand information about the applicant, because they themselves fill out an electronic questionnaire.

But it was 2020, it was difficult, but at the same time it became a challenge universities had to accept. And what about 2021? What has changed in the life of educational organizations in the year since the beginning of the pandemic? In fact, we can't yet say that the situation very much changed relative to 2020. Various restrictive measures are in place in a number of regions. Some universities are still in the online learning mode, the admission campaign of 2021 was a little easier since they had the experience of the previous year, but for many, especially for foreign applicants and their parents, the decision to enroll in a Russian university was very difficult to make. They think, why go to a Russian university online when there is an opportunity to enroll in a national university and study there in person. Russian Government opened entry for students from all countries, and this allowed to motivate those who did not want to study remotely to enter the university with the prospect of still coming to study in Russia. But then applicants and, accordingly, universities faced another problem. The prices of air travel are high, and not all countries have established direct flights. The organization of observation for newly arrived students was now the universities' duty. The observation now does take only 3 or 4 days until receiving a negative PCR test, but we are talking about potential dozens of students arriving at the same time. This required the universities to address issues related to the organization of entry flows. The second important point is tracking entry process itself. The student must be included in the entry lists on the Gosuslugi platform, but this does not guarantee that they will be able to cross the border. That means that the employees who are responsible for this process, in fact, switch to a clock round duration, since they may receive a call from the airport or any other border checkpoint at any time and be asked to confirm whether an applicant really is going to enroll. Together with the separation of incoming flows, the universities needed to solve the issue of mixed education format for students who would be able to start full-time classes later than their course mates. The decision to transfer a student to an individual curriculum or to organize their full remote involvement in the educational process was made individually for each student, depending on training program and entry timing.

So after all, what did 2020 and 2021 give us? In my opinion, these years have become an incentive for many universities to develop, pushing them towards the development of new educational technologies, despite all the problems and difficulties we have encountered.

Distance learning is no more that "unknown beast" that lives on online platforms. It has become an integral part of any university, as we can be transferred to remote work at any moment due to back-set of the situation. Universities have begun to look for special solutions for organizing educational process. Online courses that involve asynchronous learning have received a new round of development. Universities now are not afraid of conducting entrance tests remotely, because now it is an integral part of the admission campaign. Yes, there are certain difficulties with this issue, for example, identifying participants of the entrance test or organizing proctoring. But in any case, this is a big advantage, firstly, for an applicant who no longer has to go to another country with a 50-50 chance of admission, spend money on flights, rent housing for this period, and then eventually return home with nothing. Now they can take the exam without leaving home and wait for the results there. Secondly, it is an advantage for an educational organization that has the opportunity to admit any person to the entrance tests online, regardless of their geographical location. The main task here is to solve all technical and organizational issues. We began to master hybrid classes, when some students are right in the classroom, and some join classes remotely, which reduces the load on the classroom fund. It also allows applicants who live in remote areas of the city to join classes without spending several hours on the way to university and back, as they can connect to lectures online. Naturally, we are talking about lecture classes, since conducting laboratory work and practical classes in natural science areas of training requires the direct presence of a student in the audience, but even offloading lecture flows is already a very big advantage.

In addition to universities, the sites for organizing distance learning also got an incentive for development. Comparing Microsoft Teams in the beginning of 2020 and in the end of 2021, we can say that it has evolved several times: there are new options, integration with various other platforms, and support for NDI cameras, which brings hybrid learning to a new level. LMS systems are developing, and what is more, universities are beginning to develop their own platforms for distance learning as well. We are talking about full-fledged digitalization and transformation of educational organizations.

Of course, it is impossible to say that the COVI 9 pandemic has become a boon for educational organizations, but it has become exactly the forced impetus that allowed us to move forward, see new opportunities and discover new horizons.
Sergey Odintsov,
Assistant Director, Department of International Relations,
Kuban State University