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Opinion

According to international forecasts student mobility will decrease worldwide due to the current epidemiological situation, limitations to international travel, psychological barriers and economic opportunities.

Written by: Kristīne Stepiņa
Interview first published: 28 April 2020, Dienas Bizness Magazine
www.db.lv

Professor Aigars Pētersons, Head of the Latvian Association of Universities and Rector of Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU), acknowledges that universitites’ daily processes will have to be organised in a much more efficient, transparent and proactive manner than before.

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Photo: Ritvars Skuja, Dienas Bizness

What is the greatest concern currently facing Latvian university management relating to COVID-19?

At the beginning of the year, none of us could imagine that the situation would change so rapidly worldwide. In one day, we had to transfer our entire study process into the virtual environment. We are currently thinking about how to close out the academic year successfully. We are getting ready for the defence of final papers and examinations using modern technologies. RSU was the first Latvian university to take the step into organising remote studies. To protect our students, as well as our lecturers, we switched to on-line studies before the announcement of the emergency situation by using IT platforms endorsed at Western European universities. We currently use Zoom and Respondus Monitor to organise various final tests and examinations. This requires more careful planning than before. RSU lecturers had already developed Moodle tests and tasks for the e-studies environment before emergency situation arose.

The centralised examinations are causing a serious concern for us, however – how this year’s examinations go might affect the enrolment process. Recruitment events, which we traditionally organise in May, cannot be conducted in the usual manner either. This forces us to be creative and apply non-standard solutions. This year, the local Open Days will be conducted virtually – the lecturers, heads of study programmes and students will introduce what RSU can offer using live sessions on our website, as well as the LMT Smart TV and LMT Straume streaming applications. We invite people to take advantage of these opportunities, as well as attend Zoom conversations with the heads of study programmes who are ready to answer applicants’ questions. We will do our best to ensure that prospective students are well informed and can make decisions regarding their future profession and university without having to leave their homes. The RSU name is widely recognised and is a symbol of quality. In this respect, I feel positive and expect a lot of interest from local applicants. We do, however, also have a B and C scenario in the event of the pandemic lasting longer and if the so-called second or third waves occur. Then the situation could be much graver.

We are currently reviewing our investment plans to get ready for the drop in the growth of the national economy that economists predict. At present, the situation at RSU is stable, by all accounts – lecturers are receiving their salaries, there are no job losses and students are not leaving.

How are remote studies currently taking place? What are the major problems that students and lecturers face?

Since 12 March, when studies at RSU started to be conducted remotely, almost 3,500 virtual Zoom sessions have been held and more than 1,000 new videos have been created for students, for instance recordings of simulations, lectures, various manipulations, as well as auxiliary materials for stress management. The number of activities on RSU e-studies has increased from 50,000 in February to 120,000 in April.

We were ready to work in the e-environment, because we have been persistently developing the RSU e-studies platform for several years. The biggest challenge was to transfer the entire study process to the virtual environment in a couple of days.

We mobilised our IT specialists and diverted additional financial resources to purchase additional laptops, as well as licences and applications. In a very short period of time, training courses for students and lecturers were developed and multiple remote training sessions were organised. As a result, we significantly increased the range of e-lectures and e-classes in Latvian, as well as in English. Our employees performed a huge amount of work. The briefing was conducted at all levels to ensure that the study process would be able to continue in this non-standard situation.

We have currently managed to ensure comprehensive remote training of the highest quality. Concurrently, we are actively studying the needs of all parties and seeing what can be done to improve the processes by conducting a student survey on the remote study process.

Could the number of international students at Latvian universities decrease the next academic year and what could the percentage of the decrease be? What would be the main reasons?

International forecasts show that international student mobility will decrease worldwide due to the epidemiological situation, limitations to international mobility, psychological barriers, the worsening of economic possibilities and other reasons.

It is currently too early to make specific forecasts about the number of international students in the next academic year, since there are at present too many unknown factors. We are currently not aware of when the borders will open again, or whether and how freely people will be able to move as the new academic year approaches. I am not optimistic in this respect. Our colleagues from the International Department are investing a huge amount of work to co-operate with their international contacts in order to get information to international exhibitions for prospective students electronically. We have approached the Ministry of Education and Science with a request to simplify the enrolment process for international students and reduce various bureaucratic obstacles, which would ensure more operative work in case the borders are opened again.

What needs to be done in order not to lose current international students and to promote the export of education after the crisis?

Universities’ daily processes must be more efficient, transparent and pro-active than before – there has to be the opportunity for on-line studies, various types of support for international students concerning the study process and their living conditions, for instance, regular communication on the developments in Latvia and at the university. Psychological support must also be provided.

For instance, we regularly organise on-line meetings with students and psychotherapy consultations for employees and students. All of the above is offered in both Latvian and English. The response is huge. Students require support. The first meeting between international students and the Dean was viewed by more than a thousand students worldwide.

What scenario for centralised examinations would be the most appropriate for Latvian universities? Why? 

The current situation is still rather uncertain, and all safety regulations must still be observed. RSU and other universities will consider the solutions offered by the ministry. Three scenarios have been put forward so far. First – if the emergency situation is not extended after 12 May, the national exams for primary school pupils and centralised examinations for secondary school pupils could happen in June and July. Second – if the emergency situation is extended, the general examination period could be extended as well. Third – if safety measures are not lifted for a long period of time, there is the possibility that pupils will graduate the academic year with their average grades. These would then be used for enrolment. 

The worst scenario would be if the centralised exams were scheduled for the end of summer or even later. This would delay the commencement of the new academic year. RSU in its turn is ready to help applicants and organise additional chemistry and biology courses before the beginning of the academic year, thus helping newly admitted students prepare for their studies.

How could the format and deadlines of centralised examinations affect enrolment?

The later the centralised exams take place, the more this will affect the enrolment process. The enrolment process will have to be adapted to the dates that the results of the centralised exams are given.

Could secondary school graduates’ knowledge levels be lower than in previous years considering studies have taken place remotely? And if so, how will it affect enrolment and studying at institutions of higher education? 

The emergency situation was announced on 12 March, and at the moment when remote education was launched, two and a half months were left until the end of the academic year.

Pupils have been preparing for their final examinations during the entire academic year and even earlier, therefore I do not think that remote education would considerably affect their results.

I am following what teachers say in the media. They have said that the spring months are the months when the material students have learned over the year is consolidated, and since the largest part of the study year proceeded as usual, the restrictions would not affect results. Teachers are currently investing a lot of effort into seeking the most efficient digital tools in order to continue teaching, and consultations are also available. A lot has depended on the diligence and motivation of each pupil to date.

Will the crisis affect tuition fees?

As I have already mentioned, I am feeling positive about the issue. We are expecting that RSU will see a positive influx of local applicants to state-funded places despite the current situation. We are not planning to either raise or reduce our tuition fees.

We are considering permitting students to pay their tuition fees in several instalments, thus accommodating applicants affected by the economic decline.

Is there a possibility that prospective students wishing to study abroad will not manage to take care of the required paperwork in time to enrol? How do you think this issue will be resolved internationally?

Considering the current situation, this option is definitely a possibility, but universities also follow developments and work out various scenarios. We need to be very flexible in order to ensure we provide applicants with maximum support. The fact that electronic systems permit resolving certain questions remotely is positive.