‘If You Don’t Think About the Lost Opportunities, the Semester Hasn’t Been So Bad’
Student international academic mobility has been an integral part of life at HSE University for a long time. Every year, hundreds of HSE students study abroad at universities all over the world. Even now, during the pandemic, many of them did not come back to Russia, opting instead to continue their studies abroad. Students spoke with the HSE News Service about life in the university dorms during quarantine and taking their programme courses and exams online.
Igor Gladyshkevich, 3rd year, Faculty of Business and Management
The Beginning of Lockdown and Ruined Plans
I arrived in the Netherlands in mid-January (Igor is studying at the University of Tilburg - ed.). I planned on returning to Russia after June 22, when my dormitory accommodation contract ends, but due to the border closures, I don’t know when I will be able to come home.
The Dutch government announced three possible scenarios in terms of the virus outbreak. One of them was a universal lockdown, but it was abandoned. Instead, they chose the so-called ‘smart lockdown’ option: public places (cafes, cinemas, museums) were closed and measures were taken to ensure that people kept their distance from one another (violations of the rule were subject to a 390 euro fine). However, people could still go outside, go for walks, play sports, and take public transport. The main thing was to maintain your distance from others and only go out in small groups (no more than two people). Some cafes, by the way, continued to operate and provide takeaway. Now these measures are being softened.
HSE’s academic mobility programmes allow students to study full-time outside of their home faculty at a foreign university, participate in short-term seminars, and attend summer or winter schools abroad for course credits and a certificate. All grades earned from the partner university during the mobility period are transferrable to HSE.
When I found out about the new restrictions, I wasn’t surprised. We all knew it was coming sooner or later. Of course, it’s been very disappointing that I’ve had to cancel a lot of my plans and miss out on a lot of the things you usually get from studying abroad. But, on the other hand, I’ve been lucky. Like me, many of my friends did not return home, and we have tried and are still trying to get as much as we can out of the semester. For example, we did a bike trip to the Belgian border and rode along the tulip fields. Of course, this was only a small part of our plans before the crisis, but still it is at least something. If you don’t think about the lost opportunities, the semester hasn’t been so bad.
From the very beginning, I did not consider coming home. If you’re doing your studies online, it doesn’t matter where you are
Moreover, as I said, my friends also stayed, and I had paid for my dorm accommodation in advance (this was the biggest expense of the programme). Plus, when the outbreak hit Russia, everything was stable here. The only reason I considered returning was the chance that I might get stuck here all summer. However, I decided to take that chance and stay, which I do not regret at all.
Life and Taking Classes in Isolation
About 20% of the exchange students are still here in my dormitory. Of the 17 people who lived on my floor, seven are still here, which is a lot compared to other floors (for example, there is only one student on the floor above). There are no preventive measures we have to follow. According to the rules, you can receive medical assistance only if you have a fever higher than 38 degrees and are having trouble breathing. Even if it is coronavirus, you will not be able to confirm that you have it. It is also impossible to get tested for the virus or antibodies just because you want to. By the way, at the end of February (at this time the first case of the disease was discovered in the Netherlands—in our city), all the students on my floor had cold-like symptoms. At that point, no one knew that the disease could be asymptomatic, so no one thought too much of it. But now, when we think back to this time, it seems possible we’ve all already had it and don’t need to worry about it. But without an antibody test, we can’t know for sure.
All our classes are now online, either via web conference or previously recorded lectures. We will also take exams online through various systems. Proctoring will be used in some courses, but only in a small portion of them, as students have collected almost 5,000 signatures in a petition against it. Teachers use other methods of controlling for plagiarism, such as holding short discussions with a random sample of students after an exam, or giving essay exams where open-ended big questions make up the majority of the assessment (for example, 70% in one of my courses).
Keeping in Touch with HSE and the Pros and Cons of Lockdown
In general, in this situation, I am pleased with the support I’ve received from the University—we were not forced to cut the exchange programme short if we didn’t want to. I received information about various options from the HSE Student International Mobility Office, and I notified them of my plans. In addition, I was provided with contact information of people to contact if I were to need help. I can’t say that there is anything else I would have liked. It seems to me that this level of support is fully adequate.
Everything that is happening right now is an experience. To end up in a more or less emergency situation in another country with people from different countries is interesting at the very least
Either way, I am gaining academic skills and getting a positive experience interacting with people here—and all of this is why we need study abroad programmes. Of the cons, I will single out the huge number of lost opportunities, especially in terms of travel and social life. However, I am glad that I had two months here before the pandemic. I did quite a lot during that time, so my semester was not completely ruined by the coronavirus. And if you do not think about all these problems, then everything is not so bad.
Ivan Prostakov, Vice Rector, HSE University
Currently, there are 192 HSE students in outgoing mobility programmes at foreign partner universities (there were 339 at the beginning of the semester). At the same time, we have 82 incoming mobility programme students who have remained here at HSE (at the beginning of the semester, there were 218). The geography in both cases is mainly European (France, Germany, and Italy are the top three hosting and/or home countries involved).
Preparation for fall semester mobility programmes is continuing as usual. Most of our partner universities maintain existing programmes, although about 20 of them have notified us that they are either cancelling or postponing their programmes. In terms of the number of applications and nominations, we count on maintaining the level of the previous year, which is about 200-250 students in incoming mobility programmes and 300-350 in outgoing mobility programmes.
Of course, one has to take into account the uncertainty of the trajectory of the pandemic and its impact on travel restrictions. That is why we are preparing for scenarios of ‘virtual mobility’, in which international students would participate fully or partially in mobility programmes remotely. We are focusing not only on how to facilitate online instruction, but also on how to at least partially compensate for one of the most important elements of studying abroad: the ability to be included in university life and to immerse oneself in a different cultural and linguistic environment. That is why we would like to introduce elements such as distance project work with Russian students, online Russian history and culture courses, as well as Russian language courses into the programmes. We assume that the new online tools are not some kind of emergency solution that we will only use in the coming year. In all likelihood, we are at the very beginning of a new stage in the development of international student mobility, in which online instruction is not an alternative, but an important addition that expands the boundaries and scope of the internationalization of universities.
Zoya Yolkina, 3 year, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Lockdown in Germany
I arrived in Frankfurt at the end of January, because here, at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, the semester begins in February, which is much earlier than at other German universities. When Germany went into lockdown in March, I was more disappointed than frightened or scared. I wanted to participate in student initiatives and see the country, but I had to cancel all my plans. My parents, of course, were more worried than me. When the international students here started leaving to return to their home countries, my family and I decided that it was safer to stay where I am now and not to put myself at extra risk at the airport.
At the same time, I received instruction from HSE explaining what I should do if I want to return or, on the contrary, to stay. They advised me to register with the consulate.
Self-isolation in Frankfurt and Moscow
Unfortunately, much of what I had planned for my semester abroad did not work out—I did my exchange programme in self-isolation. But there have been pros. In Germany, the lockdown was never as strict as it is now in Moscow. We still had some freedom of movement.
The Dormitory, Distance Learning, and Local Attitudes
Out of 60 exchange students in my dorm, 15 stayed, and the rest returned to their home countries. Most of the local students also went home. The university took action very quickly: hand sanitizer dispensers were installed and the building closed for a while. Now the building is open, but you can only enter if you are wearing a mask. The building is also disinfected every day.
All classes were quickly transferred online via Zoom, and exams are being held there now. Of course, I, compared to other students, have a bigger workload, since HSE is also having final exams right now.
Local residents are not fazed by us foreign students. Frankfurt is an international city and people here are used to foreigners, so I don’t encounter any problems.
Benchmark data and the standard of living in the regions of Russia affect student mobility, according to a study by HSE Centre for Institutional Studies researchers Ilya Prakhov and Maria Bocharova. Strong graduates from more educated and wealthy families are more likely to enrol in a university far from home, but the economy usually affects such a decision. High wages draw students towards the regions, while a high cost of living pushes them away.