Rector of South Ural State University on the Advantages of Russian Education

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In an interview to Forpost, Aleksandr Shestakov, Rector of South Ural State University (SUSU), speaks on the drawbacks of higher school in comparison to the Soviet system. He also mentions areas in which Russia is lagging behind foreign universities and areas in which our country manages to outstrip them.

SUSU is the largest university in Chelyabinsk Oblast; since 2010, it has been holding a status of a National Research University. Nowadays it offers more than 250 Bachelor's and Specialist's degree programmes, 150 Master's degree programmes, and 82 PhD programmes. Chelyabinsk and Chelyabinsk Oblast are part of the region forming one of the country's largest industrial clusters. The university contributes to developing critical for the Ural industries - mechanical engineering, metallurgy, electrical engineering, and the defence sector - through its educational and research activities. It provides such companies as Emerson, Roscosmos, ChTZ, Uralvagonzavod, and Rosatom with qualified engineering specialists.

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- Mr Shestakov, how badly has the coronavirus pandemic affected the work of your university?

- We were able to switch to remote learning without any problems - the university's information system pulled it through. Of course, distance education cannot fully replace regular contact sessions. It is difficult to overestimate the educational value of face-to-face contact with a teacher. Another challenge of remote studies is that students cannot work with equipment - do lab research or fieldwork.

- How would you evaluate the effectiveness of the two-tier education system, i.e. limited to Master's and Bachelor's degrees only?

- In my opinion, the transition to this system has harmed the quality of domestic higher technical education and affected education levels badly, which, in particular, applies to engineering education. Its distinguishing feature in our country was fundamentalism, which is essential in two aspects: industrial process control and design. For example, successful work with software products requires mastery of complex mathematical methods: neural network technology, fuzzy logic, optimisation and statistical methods. There is not enough time to study it all in detail during a four-year-long Bachelor's programme.

On the other hand, we have a Master's degree. Yet its main objective is to provide practical and in-depth knowledge tailored to a particular speciality, so there is no emphasis on fundamental education here either. I would say that a five-year-long education could be the best decision for all but defence-related programmes, which should take five and a half years to complete.

- What do you think of the statement made by the Rector of Moscow State University Viktor Sadovnichiy, who called for the rejection of the Bologna Process? How will it affect the development of higher education in our country?

- I can say that he is right. Before introducing the Bologna process, our engineering graduates left for the US and received employment offers. Graduates of the aerospace department went to work at NASA. To put it differently, Specialist's degree holders of our universities had the same benefits that Master's degree graduates of American institutions had.

When I studied at CPI (now SUSU), I had six semesters of mathematics. And this allowed me to successfully perform the complex technical tasks I encountered as a young specialist. I would not raise the question of abolition so categorically, though. We need to integrate into the international educational space. Yet we should preserve the advantages our education system once had.

- What exactly has the higher education system lost or gained compared to the Soviet period?

- As I said, we have lost fundamentality, which is very crucial. We need to maintain it when it comes to engineering, natural and human sciences. Today, we teach students the applied skills they need for work. But technology is constantly changing, becoming more sophisticated. If there is no fundamental basis, it will be challenging to master the equipment that will appear, for example, in 10 years from now.

What have we acquired? Information technology. Today, students are quite well versed in this field. Many new courses have appeared. But if we are talking about in-depth theoretical studies, there are gaps even in the IT field. The best programmers are graduates in applied mathematics. They rarely have employment problems and know how to solve complex tasks, including those related to artificial intelligence. Creating sophisticated programs requires a good knowledge of mathematics.

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- Is the higher education system inferior or, on the contrary, superior to its foreign counterparts?

- This question is inextricably linked to the previous one. Where we manage to maintain fundamentality, we win. In my opinion, foreign education mostly focuses on teaching applied skills. Our advantage lies in an industrial work placement. Russian universities maintain connections with industry organisations. For instance, SUSU has been partnering with 3,000 different companies that provide our students with internship opportunities. It is vital. Students in other countries don't have such a possibility.

Where do we fall short? In the versatility of the training of specialists. We have many study fields to choose from - much more than aborad. The domestic education system is very good at graduating highly specialised experts. But if a person decides to change their profession, they will have to undergo complete retraining.

This process is more painless abroad, as therein technical students acquire an extensive and diverse education. They can subsequently demonstrate a broader knowledge base when applying for a job.

- How much have employers' requirements for graduates changed compared to 10 or 20 years ago

- They did not change much. A fresh graduate becomes an employee, and they should start solving the problems as soon as possible.

The employer's requirements have become stricter, however. Modern life is more dynamic. We no longer live in the Soviet Union with its state-planned economy. Enterprises have to both survive and grow. Therefore, a young specialist who starts working has to produce results immediately. Naturally, competence requirements have increased, and new requirements have appeared which did not exist 20 years ago. In addition to basic qualifications, nowadays a graduate must have IT skills, knowledge of the English language, and an understanding of economics.

- 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. Do all SUSU's PhD students defend their dissertations?

- Some do not defend, unfortunately. The defence percentage has dropped dramatically. On the one hand, PhD students consistently do not have enough time for proper research. On the other hand, some do not aspire to do it. They pursue PhD studies to avoid serving in the army. Three or four years pass, depending on the duration of the programme they enrolled in, and they no longer have to do the military service. Same applies to defending a dissertation.

- What does SUSU do to encourage PhD students to advance in science?

- We try to approve only students interested in science, and we ensure that thesis supervisors maintain constant contact with PhD students.

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- The Ministry of Science and Higher Education divided Russian universities into three groups. To which one does your university belong?

- SUSU fell into the second group despite being a National Research University and a participant of Project 5-100. Since the implementation of the programme, which took place four years ago, the number of publications and citations increased by seven or eight times. Yet we are still in the second group. Why? It is not entirely clear.

- Do you think that the state needs to develop a system of distinguished numerical indicators to produce an objective national ranking of universities? Does the higher education community need it?

- I would say it does. Currently, any organisation can assess us if they want to. We take notice of various rankings created by agencies making money on that. It would be useful if there were clear-cut to our country criteria informing what a particular university represents.

- What do you think of various organisations attempting to compile private educational ratings? Do they help or, on the contrary, hinder?

- At this moment, rankings are the primary and only digital tool for assessing how good a university is. But participating in all of them makes no sense. There are just too many, and it is not evident why some institutions take top spots, whereas others - not. Of course, there are credible organisations, global rankings. When we work with their experts, we understand why our position is better here, and it is worse there. It helps us check ourselves against other universities by multiple specific indicators.

- What should our universities do to increase their presence in the most prestigious global rankings - QS, THE and ARWU?

- Firstly, it is necessary to engage in relevant and in-depth research at the forefront of science. Secondly, international collaborations are essential. To be effective means to cooperate with leading professors from foreign universities. It helps with scientific activities, problem-setting and problem-solving, and publication results, too, since journals indexing scientific articles are foreign-based

Additionally, I would point out that rankings should not be a goal in themselves. Scientific work should focus on solving those problems that thwart our country's economic progress. By solving them effectively at the global level, we should also move up in the rankings.

- Should we pay instead more attention to the subject rankings? Comparing economic and medical universities is not that correct, after all.

- Of course! On the one hand, we are talking about universities of different profiles. But on the other hand, at such university as SUSU, with a vast choice of disciplines to choose from, all subjects cannot be equally developed. Even if the region needs specialists in all these study fields, universities rarely have more than a few international-level programmes.