Vladimir Litvinenko: Education Reform Is on Hold but the University Is Moving Forward
Last year, Valery Falkov, the Minister of Science and Higher Education of Russia, unveiled a new Programme of Academic Strategic Leadership outlining the growth trajectory for the system of higher education in Russia. The programme, among others, established mechanisms through which universities can increase their international visibility. But although the initiative was generally supported in academic environments, the document was never submitted for consideration to the Russian Government. So do Russian universities need it? And what issues are they facing with the lack of state funding in the new academic year? These and other questions Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of Saint Petersburg Mining University, answers in an interview to 'Forpost'.
- An impact of the pandemic on the educational process, which has just started to recover, is evident. But how did it affect the plans on infrastructure development?
- The University is advancing, growing, while also shaping the scientific, educational and social environment required for boosting the intellectual level of faculty staff and students - both undergraduates and postgraduates. We are well aware that training future scientists and engineers is otherwise impossible, and even the highest wages would not be enough to retain good teachers. With the pandemic still going on, we, however, have already carried out works on an area totalling over 40,000 square metres, thus having spent more than 305 mln roubles this year.
There are three foundations on which we focus our scientific development. First one is our unique, globally recognised achievements at the Vostok station in Antarctica, wherein we have penetrated the world's largest subglacial lake located at a depth of over 3,700 metres. Then we have research in improving extraction and use efficiency of traditional energy sources, as well as we work on lowering anthropogenic ecosystem impact, also through studying alternative energy carriers - particularly, hydrogen. Finally, we conduct research linked to the use of mineral resources extracted on the Arctic shelf.
Nicely decorated halls and auditoriums do not suffice to provide high-quality education and develop science, but modernly equipped laboratory facilities and tools are needed. Such companies as Caterpillar, Schneider Electric, Orica, PhosAgro, Cisco, Novatek, Rosneft, SIBUR, and some others, are helping us to upgrade infrastructure. We managed to get them involved in the scientific and educational process and, with their help, establish several competence centres at the premises of the Mining University. There we have the best technologies presented, the ones that are applied nowadays by leading enterprises in different industry sectors, such as mechanical engineering, telecommunications, oil & gas and LNG industries, and others. All in all, we deliver a brand new approach with a completely new learning format allowing its users to gain additional professional competencies and obtain appropriate certificates.
- What are these papers useful for?
- Certificate holders enjoy significantly higher demand on the labour market. Moreover, we are expanding this system in a way that starting from next year our graduates will learn at least 12 additional certified competencies, including, for instance, training in technical English, economics and processes in manufacturing engineering, or knowledge of applied software products.
- What size are education costs at the Mining University per student?
- Per one student, we allocate annually between 550 and 650 thousand roubles. The share of public financing, excluding scholarships, amounts to 30-35% only. The rest is income from research activities and our partners' investments. Around 80% of that money is coming from PhosAgro and a few of its shareholders.
- How do you use these funds?
- We are building and renovating classrooms, auditoriums, laboratories, gyms, dormitories, facilities in field locations. But, what is more important, we are building the foundation on which is based education of future scientists and engineers. After all, one of our missions is to graduate highly-educated technical specialists capable of thinking outside the box. Guests who come to visit the University say in one voice we have established here an environment encouraging to work, study, socialise, and progress. And it is not some motto but a reality!
To make it happen, we have introduced the "Assistant to Researcher amongst Students" programme, which is a system of academic advisement and scientific engagement aimed at attracting youth to the world of science. We have professional student organisations active in 15 various fields. We have also created a competitive landscape in which students' performance is prioritised, and particular attention is paid to knowledge of a foreign language, involvement in public activities, and the presence of additional professional competences. Our students are motivated to move forward, for they understand what prospects are lying ahead of them and which they may take advantage of if working hard and striving for new knowledge.
- Last year you spoke on the need to reconsider the mission of PhD studies. Did something happen here? Are they now considered more important than before?
- As of now, PhD programmes are almost entirely financed by the University's funds. We ensure a better quality of education, thereby creating motivation for youngsters to master a foreign language, publish own articles in top-ranked scientific journals, and eventually build their career - as members of teaching staff or researchers - at the University. We provide an opportunity for postgraduates to present their PhD theses at the Mining University and at the same time earn a PhD degree from one of the world's best engineering universities, with German, Austrian, and educational institutions of other countries being among them.
It all costs a lot. Hence annual investments in one PhD student vary between 900,000 and 2,300,000 roubles. High-quality education is expensive; we understand that and purposefully develop and improve PhD programmes. The share of our students who manage to finalise their studies in time currently equals about 70%. It is a good result, thanks to which almost half of our academic research staff is represented by employees aged under 40.
- And can they all realise their potential at the Mining University?
- Being the leader of a sizeable educational body, I know I need to enable the best possible conditions for running scientific experiments resulting in new knowledge while encouraging both students and leading researchers to take part in them. Indeed the progress is not driven by some blurred concept of 'scientific work', instead experiments are the key to progress, which shape tomorrow's technological development of humankind.
We also must work at improving the quality and quantity of publications. Though it is directly linked to research studies, and we are seeing here positive dynamics now. Over the last two years, university researchers delivered an average of 1.5 articles each, and we are expecting 40-45% of their papers to be published in first or second quartile journals during this year. An averaged out citation index for the period of three years should not, in turn, fall below the value of 2.
Back to your question, yes, all the scientists and PhD students who work with us can fulfil themselves. Of course, we have research centres and laboratories, but then there are four flagship universities in Austria, China, Finland, and the UK we partner with, and whose facilities are accessible as well. We are collaborating with reputable foreign scientists, the number of which will have reached 140 by the end of 2021.
- Do you succeed in retaining the best teachers?
- An average salary among our teaching staff members equals 150,000 roubles, which is a proper motivator for employees to keep working at the Mining University and advance in their fields of expertise. We do not only fulfil financial obligations but are also continually working on improving workplaces at departments and providing social benefits. As such, we help with buying real estate worth over one mln roubles and offer sign-on bonuses to young specialists, with monthly payments spread out over three years.
- What can you say about the Programme of Academic Strategic Leadership? Are you planning to take part in it?
- It seems to be made by professionals and, provided it gets approved, may turn out to be quite useful. I, on my part, have some objections, notably concerning the evaluation of academic performance. Yet apart from that, as I noted, the programme meets the requirements of the academic community.
We will certainly participate in this programme since we aim to be ranked as high across top universities worldwide as we are now. Furthermore, we are going to strengthen our positions in the rankings by subject because programmes in mining engineering are not the only ones we are promoting.
The most important here is that the programme execution would not lead to the emergence of some new structure with the right to assess universities' performance. I am convinced that it should be up to the Ministry to decide on which digital indicators to introduce for evaluating higher educational institutions, and the Minister's responsibility is to control how they are used and develop a competitive environment, with the most crucial stimulus towards work for the future being transparency of evaluation criteria.
Summing up what I have said, I want to underline that we are not waiting but acting. Our position may be described in the words of Ayn Rand, a Russian-American writer known for developing a philosophical system of Objectivism: "Imitators who are unable to think independently, who supply the market with something they believe meets the typical taste of society, are constantly losing out to innovators whose products increase knowledge and cultivate tastes. It is, therefore, consumers, not manufacturers, who run the free market, and the greatest achievers are those who open up new manufacturing fields, of which no one ever knew before".