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What Do University Graduates Need to Build Successful Careers?

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In an interview to Forpost, Oleg Baulin, Rector of Ufa State Petroleum Technological University (USPTU), explains whether distance learning can replace contact study sessions and what competencies employers require from fresh graduates, aside from the field-specific knowledge and skills.

Founded in October 1948, Ufa State Petroleum Technological University is a regional backbone institution of higher education in Russia. More than 20 thousand people from 56 regions of the Russian Federation and 55 foreign countries are getting their education here. The employers' demand for young specialists from USPTU far exceeds the supply.

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- How has the coronavirus pandemic affected the University's work?

- In general, Ufa State Petroleum Technological University has seamlessly transitioned to a different format. There were no significant obstacles because the vast majority of the University's business processes go through an automated information system.

We only had to add to it the 'e-reception' module, which became the entry point for all incoming requests and enquiries from students, staff, partners, etc.

I must admit that those involved in research and development faced the most significant challenges. The laboratories' equipment is complex to operate and maintain, and engineering and scientific staff have to be there simultaneously. It isn't easy to streamline it.

Most of the scientific conferences will take place later. Some, traditional to USPTU, we have held online. For this purpose, we have developed a platform for presenting scientific developments and discussing them publicly.

However, there are some worrying issues, too. For example, the amount of additional educational programmes has decreased significantly. Virtually all major partner companies have informed of postponing employee training and education to a later date. Once we are free from the restrictions, we may see a far too high workload in this area.

- How efficient was the transition to the distance learning system? Can it fully replace face-to-face study?

- The University switched to distance learning in a very rapid time. We have succeeded in adjusting server capacities to minimise the likelihood of technical interference.

I should stress that we have accumulated considerable experience in e-learning. We had already moved some disciplines online and taught them via the Moodle education platform. We had also offered online education programmes, including those commissioned by industrial partners - notably by Transneft-Metrology.

The majority of teachers took professional development courses in distance learning. As part of intramural grants, we open new virtual labs or simulators every year. In 2019, we launched the open platform for oil & gas education oiledu.ru, and it has come in very handy now. More than 3,500 students have registered for eight online courses in disciplines studied at Russian technical and engineering universities. We have given free access to the platform for students of vocational education institutions and 14 universities.

There are pros and cons to distance learning. It takes some time getting used to it. We do not doubt its necessity as an auxiliary method for organising the educational process. But it is simply impossible to replace the face-to-face training system with distance learning for technical specialities. Most technical courses require practical and laboratory work using the appropriate equipment. A graduate should be aware of the responsibility and know what they will face once they proceed to work. Once again, I would like to emphasise that employers require us to graduate specialists with extensive practical training, which we cannot offer online.

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- 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?Is it necessary to restore the system we once had - Specialist's degree, implying 5.5-year-long studies?

- In 2009, Bachelor's and Master's degrees displaced the traditional engineering education system. Of course, the leading companies - employers of our graduates - perceived this innovation negatively. We had to work very closely with industry specialists to adapt the educational programmes to the companies' quality requirements.

I can cite the following examples of interacting with companies on the matter of Bachelor's and Master's degree programmes:

Together with Rosneft, we have created a project-oriented Master's programme "Organisational Development and HR Management in the Oil & Gas Industry". Besides SPTU's leading lecturers, we have invited management consultants, business trainers, Rosneft's executives and specialists, professors from Moscow and St. Petersburg. The company's subsidiaries offer internship opportunities in their respective HR departments, thereby resembling the dual education system.

Along with RN-BashNIPIneft, a Master's programme "Digital Technology for Oil & Gas Field Development and Operation" is being implemented. We have established a new department to coordinate this programme, mostly consisting of the partner company's employees.

In cooperation with Gazprom Transgaz Ufa, we are running the Gazprom Group educational project for Bachelor's students. As part of the classes, students of this group acquire the so-called 'corporate knowledge' not included in the principal educational programme.

At the end of 2019, we formed the Bashneft-Processing group. For this programme, we aligned the curriculum with requirements of Bashneft, notably including internships at the company's refineries.

The flexible educational plan allows us to organise employer-sponsored education for Master's students in SIBUR's corporate groups under an additional professional retraining programme, including vocational and on-the-job training.

We see a demand for Specialist's programmes in many companies. Industries need engineers with good practical training. That is why we offer all kinds of programmes at the University: Bachelor's, Master's, and Specialist's degree programmes.

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- How drastically have employers' requirements for graduates changed over the last 10 or 20 years?For instance, in addition to basic qualifications, nowadays a fresh graduate willing to build a successful career must have IT skills, knowledge of the English language, and an understanding of economics. Do universities keep up with the pace of change, as the labour market's demands do not stay the same?

- In the past, a graduate had to have sound theoretical knowledge and practical skills, but today this is not enough. As shown by surveys of HR departments in companies, employers' requirements are growing and broadening. They commonly include now: industry-specific and project work skills, knowledge of foreign languages and industrial software applications, organisational skills, and much more.

We strive to provide students with the opportunity to acquire the necessary competences. For example, we offer programmes in English or programmes allowing studying foreign languages - English, Chinese, Arabic, etc. - on an advanced level; we also offer a wide range of language study programmes leading to obtainment of international certificates.

Students with a technical background can take a management or economics programme and graduate with two degrees simultaneously. We also offer classes helping gain communicative skills and contributing to personal growth.

To help students improve IT and AI skills, we have teamed up with Huawei ICT Academy and Samsung.

Regardless of the faculty, our students can take an elective course in technological entrepreneurship.

Ideally, universities should be proactive. Their task is to forecast the demand for individual competencies and offer students respective educational paths.

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- 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 USPTU's PhD students defend their dissertations? What does the University do to ensure that PhD students further advance in science and become well-established scientists?

- According to the Education Act of 2013, PhD studies are now the third stage of higher education. It has led to a significant drop in the number of PhD theses. Whereas in our higher education institution, before 2013, the defence within the term study had reached over 40 per cent, by 2019 this percentage dropped significantly.

The drop does not only come from the fact that the emphasis shifted from scientific to educational activities. A graduate entering the workforce earns a far higher salary than the PhD stipend. And even if they defend their thesis, their wages will not equal salaries of oil & gas workers.

We are trying to rectify this situation. The training process for PhD students at USPTU focuses on strengthening the research module, a fundamental component of a successful dissertation. Besides, to support novice researchers, we have established comprehensive measures to develop human resources potential. They include internships at leading production, research and educational centres in Russia and abroad, grant and social support for graduates, postgraduate students, and young teachers. We organise competitions to promote publication activity, professional excellence, innovation in scientific and educational processes, etc. The University spends over 30 million roubles annually for these purposes.

- Shortly before the pandemic began, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education divided Russian universities into three groups. To which one does USPTU belong? Do you understand what specific criteria influenced this decision?

- According to the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian (Minobrnauki of Russia) Federation, USPTU fell into the second category. It consists of universities that do research, experimental and design, and technological work for civilian purposes. The absolute majority of USPTU's scientific productivity indicators are above the median values of state and municipal higher education institutions. However, some areas require improvement. Among them are citation metrics of research papers published by university staff in the journals indexed in the RSCI; grant activity shown by scientific workers and teaching employees. We also need to pay particular attention to the commercialisation of intellectual products. We hope to improve these indicators shortly.

- 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?And if it does, what criteria should it take into account? What do you think of various organisations attempting to compile private educational ratings? Do they help or, on the contrary, hinder?

- Certainly, clear indicators help universities see their strengths and areas of improvement. Minobrnauki of Russia publishes an annual study of universities, and we carefully examine its results. We take all of its reference values and use them as performance benchmarks for the University's structural units.

The national ranking is needed to assess what universities have achieved and orient them towards solving state strategic tasks.

As for the rankings of non-governmental organisations, for the most part, they create information noise that hinders objective evaluation. What matters here is how they rank universities, what criteria they use, and whether the information they use is reliable.

- What should our universities do to increase their presence in the most prestigious global rankings - QS, THE and ARWU? Or should we pay instead more attention to the subject rankings?

We pay much attention to how international ranking agencies use, select and evaluate indicators. It is particularly crucial now when the state support for university development depends on these rankings.

Academic reputation forming through ongoing scientific research plays an important role here. That is why we are building up scientific potential, developing research laboratories, attracting the best scientists, and increasing cooperation with foreign scientific schools.

The subject rankings provide more specific information for potential applicants who have chosen their future specialisation. They also help identify leaders in particular areas.

I want to add: participation in rankings should not be a goal in itself. After all, behind some of the indicators, it is easy to see the desire to adjust everyone to the Western standard or check how far the foreign competitors have advanced and what studies they are doing.

"Ye shall know them by their fruits" is a system of evaluation that we have been using for centuries, and not without reason. Therefore, it is necessary to evaluate graduates' quality, how effective university research is, and how studies contribute to developing the country's economy.

- If we take USPTU as an example,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 I graduated from USPTU in 2003, I would like to readdress this question to my senior colleague, Airat Shammazov. He is the President of USPTU, a 1966 graduate of Ufa Petroleum University and USPTU's Rector from 1994 to 2014.

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- The Soviet system of higher education trained engineers and scientists to develop the economy. A well-developed programme of internships, R&D activities and the distribution of graduates helped solve the staffing problems of oil and gas companies. It was USPTU to have established the first student scientific research institute in the country in 1971. The institute received the Lenin Komsomol Prize in 1974. Our young scientists' scientific developments were implemented at production facilities and produced a significant economic effect. Students developed practical skills, teamwork skills and organisational abilities during the third labour term in special student teams. I participated in such myself in the summer of 1967. We were then in Ukhta, helping construct the oil and gas complex. Student construction brigades were a mass movement that educated many production managers. Unfortunately, today there is much less time allocated to develop practical skills.

What has higher education gained? Variability, greater flexibility. In the 1990s, we started admitting students to the English-taught programmes. To make it happen, our teachers undertook internships in England. We hoped that these programmes' graduates would be in demand by Russian companies operating abroad. But it turned out that they can likewise find a job in international companies offering considerably higher salaries.

I can assure that our engineering education was superior to that abroad, and even today, technical universities with a long history behind them maintain a high quality of education.