Rector of Bashkir State University: “Postgraduate Education Undergoing Severe Crisis!”

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BashSU is the first higher educational institution to have been established in Bashkortostan, Russia. The University was founded in 1909. Back then, it was a teacher's institute, as the region was in dire need of educators, with its transformation to a classical university taking place well after. From that point on, the emphasis shifted to training a wide range of specialists; students could choose from human, mathematical, natural and social sciences. Nowadays, the University also offers engineering programmes, and its graduates are highly demanded by enterprises of the commodity-based industries. In this interview, Nikolay Morozkin, Bashkir State University's Rector, speaks on the changes BashSU has been going through now, challenges that higher school in Bashkortostan is facing, and the prospects arising from inter-university collaborations.

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Several years ago, BashSU established the faculty of Engineering & IT and began to develop study fields not typical for classical educational institutions. And at the end of 2020, the University joined the Nedra University Consortium. What made you make that decision?

First of all, expanding the range of areas in which we provide training was dictated by the demand of leading enterprises for engineering staff.

As for us entering the Nedra University Consortium, the decision is based on the fact that we graduate specialists who will work in the mineral resources sector. We teach them geology, cartography and geoinformatics, hydrometeorology, physics, chemical technology, ecology and environmental management. And this is the profile of the association.

Our graduates will thereby have new job and career opportunities in the future. Besides, joint work with other educational institutions, research institutes and manufacturing enterprises present in the Consortium will enable faculty staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students to improve their professional competencies, qualifications, mobility, research and publication activities.

On the last day of 2020, BashSU and USPTU signed an agreement on strategic cooperation. Both universities are members of the Nedra Consortium. You have been competing with each other for many years, and now you have joined forces for enhancing scientific research and offering your students exchange opportunities. How important are these academic collaborations for solving the country's scientific and technological tasks?

Three universities from Bashkortostan have joined the Nedra consortium: BashSU, USPTU, and USATU. We are working together on the same task - ensuring high-quality personnel training for the region and the country; hence, we are partners. Although USPTU and USATU are technical universities, we have a lot in common. For instance, we offer studies in the same fields, focusing on meeting the extractive and processing industries' needs. Yet we have our own unique programmes.

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We conduct joint scientific research, share physical and technological infrastructure, and publish scientific articles in co-authorship. The cooperation in higher education in our republic is also evident through the work the world-class Eurasian Studies Research and Education Centre has been doing. All the universities and the Ufa Federal Research Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences are involved in the research project portfolio.

More than 200 participants from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China took part in the Winter School for Foreigners 'Study and Holidays in Russia', which you organised this year. How relevant is it nowadays?

Academic exchange is an integral part of studies at nearly every Russian educational institution. It is an essential tool for creating an effective regional labour market, exchanging qualified human resources, and training leaders regardless of the field of study.

We are particularly interested in academic mobility programmes carried out through the Nedra Consortium, such as those offering exchange or internship opportunities for our students in the EU or Russian universities. BashSU always supports and encourages students and teaching staff to participate in such events. We actively cooperate with such foreign universities as Nanchang University in China, Cergy-Pontoise University in France, Pai Chai University in South Korea, Sts. Cyril and Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria.

Future employment opportunities are the factor students take into account the most when choosing a university. As you noted earlier in one of your interviews, today's most popular field among the many that BashSU offers is oil & gas engineering. How would you explain this trend? Is it a long-term one? Where do your students go to work upon graduation?

The popularity of oil & gas engineering programmes is undebatable, evident, and it will keep growing. The industry is going through large-scale digitalisation, new technologies are being introduced, thus creating a demand for specialists capable of developing digital simulators. Some of our graduates stay here and work at regional enterprises. Others are employed at leading oil & gas and fuel & energy companies in Russia and worldwide - notably, the USA, France, the Middle East, and Norway. According to the ranking compiled by Gazprom Neft, BashSU is a top-10 petroleum engineering university in Russia.

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As for the overall picture, monitoring data suggest that 75% of the region's graduates in math and natural sciences are graduates of BashSU. In other specialities, the figures are the following: 72% for the humanities, 46% for social sciences, and 42% for education sciences. These figures are supported by the branches in Sterlitamak and Birsk. Almost half of the teachers in the region graduated from BashSU.

Engineering specialities are in demand also due to the region offering jobs in such highly developed industries as mechanical engineering, metalworking, oil production and processing, chemicals. Last year, we were contacted by Bashneft, PepsiCo, LasselsbergerCeramics, Kronospan, and other companies looking for engineering graduates.

What steps are being taken to encourage youngsters not to leave Bashkortostan but to study or work in the region?

There is a whole set of measures we are implementing to solve this problem.

We have established and are also working on new double degree programmes (international, Russian, intra-university), create opportunities for academic mobility of students, invite leading foreign and Russian scholars. Our graduates may request the European Diploma Supplement if they want their degree to have academic and professional credibility in the EU.

Also, we have launched new applied programmes: National Security Legal Support, Judicial and Prosecutorial Activities, Cartography and Geoinformatics, Geodesy and Remote Sensing, and many others. Programmes in Medical Biochemistry, Medical Biophysics, and Medical Cybernetics are to be licensed soon.

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The University supports talented students and allocates merit scholarships to winners and runners-up of all-Russian and local olympiads and applicants who got high test results in the USE. There is a discount system for students who end up paying for their education. If an applicant fails to get a state-funded place but earns high scores in the USE, they are offered tuition discounts varying from 5 to 15% and valid for the first year of study.

To make our graduates more competitive and sought after, BashSU holds presentations, job fairs and business games, focusing on establishing links between the University and employers. Every year we sign over a hundred long-term contracts and cooperation agreements with regional companies that offer our students internships and work placements.

What are the problem areas for engineering education in Bashkortostan nowadays?

One of the acute problems is that engineering education requires large expenditure. Equipment, infrastructure, facilities have to be upgraded all the time to keep them aligned with modern technological requirements.

Many students have problems with their internships since the coronavirus pandemic caused organisations and factories to impose restrictions on access to their facilities. We are trying to help overcome these difficulties. We set up new contracts with enterprises ready to admit our students, employ engineers with applied skills to work as teachers. Our students can also undergo internships at the University's departments.

Vladimir Putin signed a federal law obliging PhD students to defend their theses. As of now, the proportion of those who does has fallen to 18%. How many of BashSU's students defend their dissertations? And what do you do to encourage talented youth to not withdraw from science?

The situation is terrible. Postgraduate education in Russia is undergoing a severe crisis. At BashSU, only 15% of students proceed to defend PhD theses. That is why the amendments to the Federal Law "On Education in the Russian Federation" that Putin has proposed are very relevant.

One of the challenges comes from the need to combine work and studies, which can be solved by increasing the state funding of postgraduate education or encouraging universities to involve PhD students in paid projects.

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We try to support BashSU's PhD students in every possible way because we see them as the main engine of innovation and development. They are provided allowances from the Academic Council of the University and are offered research assistant positions. They may apply for grants. They are awarded grants from the President of the Russian Federation, the Government of the Russian Federation and the Head of the Republic of Bashkortostan.

BashSU employs prominent scientists who work in a variety of disciplines and scientific fields. We have science and research schools working on our premises. Therefore applicants from other regions are interested in studying at the University. For instance, in 2020, graduates of Moscow State University, D. Mendeleev University, and many other Russian universities enrolled in BashSU's PhD programmes. Besides, we admitted Master's students from such foreign universities as Chongqing University, China, the University of Urbino, Italy, and M. Utemisov West-Kazakhstan State University.

Would you share some of the University's most significant developments of recent years? What is their designation? When can we expect to have them put into production?

Many years of research enabled us to create an environmentally safe product. It is a plant regulator with an immunomodulatory effect, which effectively increases the yield of grain crops without significant financial expenditures. It is successfully utilised by enterprises of Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chelyabinsk and Orenburg Oblasts.

A new method for protecting buildings and various constructions, also developed by chemists, is widely used in the construction and road industries, hydroelectric engineering. Akvastat, a universal mineral-based dipping solution, protects building materials against weather impact and chemical attack by forming a nanoscale water-repellent coating.

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Researchers from the Faculty of Engineering & IT have developed a technology for manufacturing multifunctional composite ceramics used by petrochemical, oil refining, machine-building and construction companies. Lightweight heat-insulating products with high durability can be applied in civil and industrial construction, especially in low-rise construction in rural areas or the Far North.

What is your attitude to global universities rankings: their credibility, significance, and role? Do we need to establish our own rating of domestic universities, which would include all Russian universities? What numerical indicators should it be based on?

There are over 200,000 universities globally. University rankings are a useful tool for comparing universities, allowing us to look at ourselves from a different perspective, check out the competitors and see our vulnerable areas. However, there is no definitive ranking, completely objective, that would account for all aspects, such as how national educational systems developed, cultural context, linguistic and territorial features.

Global rankings are turning into a benchmark for decision-making at the institutional and national levels. Their impact on state policies in science and higher education is also growing stronger.

We already have some national rankings in Russia, but there are local specifics to take into account. For example, oil & gas engineering universities are on a completely different scale compared to pedagogical institutions. Comparing them under the same criteria would make a ranking non-credible. Therefore, a national rating should differentiate between universities of each particular type. Alternatively, it may be based on distinguishing between activity categories within a specific university (rating of admission quality, rating of inventive activity, others). Besides, neighbourhood effects should be levelled off, especially in the financial and economic sphere. For example, universities in Moscow are often higher-ranked - yet not because of their performance or work quality but due to the higher living standards therein.

BashSU now consists of five institutes, ten faculties, and four branches in Sterlitamak, Sibai, Birsk, and Neftekamsk. A total of 27,500 undergraduate and postgraduate students from 42 regions of Russia and 39 countries are studying here.