I’m Going to Be a Shipbuilder. Let Them Teach Me
In an interview to Forpost, Gleb Turichin, Rector of the Marine Technical University, spoke about how to prevent the engineering education from degradation, when Russian universities will meet employers' requirements, and why so far no one can take our country's institutions for PhD studies seriously.
The legendary Saint Petersburg State Marine Technical University (MTU) is the only university in Russia that trains world-class marine engineers in the entire range of shipbuilding fields, from submarine design and construction to offshore oil and gas production support facilities. Shipbuilding is now part of the strategic development programme of the Russian Federation, and it is this university which gives the industry up to 62% of its graduates, effectively covering all its needs.
- Mr Turichin, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected the university's work? How efficient was the transition to the distance learning system? Can it fully replace face-to-face study?
- Of course, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the way our university functions. The restrictions imposed have seriously hampered both the university's educational activities and the implementation of scientific work. After all, MTU is more than a university. It is also a major research centre. Nevertheless, we managed to solve the problems with minimal losses. The university was one of the first to move the learning process online. We are seriously engaged in industrial digitalisation. We have been digitalising university's activities, too. So we were prepared for the situation. We have developed the information management system for our use, but we also supply it to other universities. Of course, we cannot say that distance learning is sufficient for engineers. We cannot say that it is suitable for training specialists as full-time studies are either. Because then, students attend classrooms and laboratories. It can only be a temporary and emergency solution in the current extraordinary circumstances. In the distance format, engineering education cannot be of high quality because engineers spend much time using 'their hands' in laboratories and workshops.
- What impact has the transition to the two-level system of training specialists - Master's degree and Bachelor's degree - had on the quality of higher technical education in Russia and graduates' skills?
- The two-level system is not the right solution for technical education. It is more suitable for teachers, though. You can train a person to teach technical disciplines at a technical school in four years, but you cannot prepare a full-fledged engineer who can work in a factory, a design bureau or a research institute. The numerical mismatch between the number of Bachelor graduates and the number of Master graduates, naturally, reduces the quality of future specialists integrally. The main problem is the lack of time. It is impossible to train a qualified engineer for working in the industry in four years, whichever sector is concerned. We need to return to the former model: the Specialist degree, which requires five and a half years of study. Then we can talk about restoring the quality of graduates. The classical system of training engineers had been in use for decades, and in some countries for centuries. They have tried to replace it with a new one - invented and untested - which speaks rather poorly about the reformers who have introduced this system. Consequently, we see an increase in all sorts of technogenic failures in our country, which is a natural result of what has been happening to technical education.
- What exactly has the modern higher education system lost or gained compared to the Soviet period? Is it inferior or, on the contrary, superior to its foreign counterparts?
- Since the early 1990s, the system of domestic higher engineering education has degraded and stagnated. At first, this happened slowly. But after introducing the unified state examination in schools and the two-tier system in higher education institutions, there was a sharp jump in degradation. Speaking of today's MTU, I should note that we have practically managed to reverse this trend and bring the situation to a more reasonable state. We have returned to the classic Soviet system of training engineers, focusing on the fundamentals. Our curricula contain the very same amount of study hours in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and general engineering disciplines that we had before. For example, we have allocated 500 hours for maths in the first year of study; compare it to 180 hours three or four years ago. We have offset the adverse effects the education system has been going through over the last 30 years. As for comparing our higher education system to its foreign counterparts, we need to make clear distinctions. Germany is the global leader in engineering education. In Anglo-Saxon countries, this field is traditionally weaker. Today, MTU is not inferior to the average German technical universities but lags behind the leaders, just as all Russian universities do. So there is room for improvement. At the same time, domestic engineering education is a lot better than the American one. The American economy is built not on training, but on buying engineers - including Russian specialists - from abroad.
- How drastically have employers' requirements for graduates changed over the last 10 or 20 years? Do universities keep up with the pace of change, as the labour market's demands do not stay the same?
- Universities are doing all they can to keep up with the labour market's changing demands. In the best years of the domestic industry development employers understood that a young specialist needs a couple of years of further training, assistance in adapting to the enterprise. Not without reason the status of "young specialist" existed. The modern labour market has entirely changed the way employers treat university graduates - they want to have all at the same time. One popular requirement is the ability to speak foreign languages. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was impossible to become an engineer in Russia without knowing German. In the mid-20th century, a qualified engineer needed to have mastered English. By now it has become a necessity, a norm. The same applies to a high level of computer literacy, or what we call now 'soft skills' - flexible skills, the ability to communicate and work in a team. Our university provides all of this to its students. However, there will still be a gap between the employer's requirements and the educational community's response to them since it takes several years to graduate an engineer. If labour market needs change right now, we will have a result only five years on. Before then, we will not be able to suffice the new market requirements.
- Last year, Vladimir Putin, in his speech to the university community, emphasised that PhD studies are not just another level of higher education, but above all, an academic qualification. What does MTU do to ensure that PhD students further advance in science and become well-established scientists?
- The training of highly qualified staff is far from ideal in most universities at present. Postgraduate education, which has, for some reason, become a stage of the educational process, is mostly a sham. To engage exclusively in research and work on their thesis, a postgraduate student will need someone to pay their bills for them for several years. For now, PhD fellowship does not provide enough money to survive. Therefore talking seriously about institutions for PhD studies in Russia is meaningless. It is inherently impossible to implement the results originally intended. Nevertheless, since the postgraduate school at least somehow works, the Marine Technical University tries to enrol only those to whom the university can pay salaries for scientific work out of its academic money. Only when working on the dissertation and a professional research activity coincide, one can write and defend a high-quality thesis. Otherwise, if PhD students, who do not work professionally in science, present their dissertations and get positive feedback, questions to the quality of their works still arise.
- Shortly before the pandemic began, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education divided Russian universities into three groups. To which one does your university belong?
- MTU fell into the second group along with the majority of universities in St. Petersburg. Since the selection criteria are not entirely clear, it is hard to comment on them. What would be the point of substituting information with intuition? Although MTU is one of the Russian leaders in research efficiency and the research output per one employee exceeds 2 million roubles, our university is quantitatively small. And we have not earned the spot in the highest league so far. Maybe that was the reason, or perhaps the criteria were different.
- What do you think of various organisations attempting to compile private educational ratings? Do they help or, on the contrary, hinder
- It is a situation that could be described as "the tail wagging the dog". Higher education institutions have a specific performance target: to teach students and do research work. Improving rankings is not part of the target. The ranking system is not the right decision because these rankings form the basis for managing the higher school. As a result, everyone is concerned not with improving the quality of education but improving their position on this, say, "list of honour". Measures to evaluate universities should never substitute for goals, which has unfortunately happened in recent years. I hope that this new campaign, which started so suddenly, will end as abruptly as it started. A system for evaluating the effectiveness of educational institutions is undoubtedly needed. But it should not be the purpose of public administration - only a tool in the hands of the founder of an educational organisation.
- What should our universities do to increase their presence in the most prestigious global rankings - QS, THE and ARWU?
- If we look at the system of various university rankings, we may conclude that the more structured this system is, the more useful it is. It just makes no sense to compare a typical big university and a field-specific technical university in the same ranking. A technical university is subject to inclusion in the subject ranking, whereas a classical university is subject to inclusion in the global ranking. Again, I think the overall meaning of this system is overrated. It is clear why it exists in the Western educational market - it is merely a competition tool to get applicants to bring money to universities. However, the Russian market is independent and autonomous from the European and global education markets. Some of the reasons are the language barrier and the high degree of competitiveness in the Western educational space.