On How Tsar-Liberator Reformed Mining Institute
In mid-June 1866, Alexander II approved the new charter of the Mining Institute. It was an event of particular importance to the institution, being inferior only to its foundation, which dates back to October 21, 1773. What changes did the Emperor of Russia, known for abolishing serfdom and reorganising the country's judicial system, make?
The Government reforms imposed by Tsar Alexander II were unprecedented by their scale. They were carried out over the 1860s and 70s and became widely known as the Great Reforms of the Russian Empire. Some notable reforms include the: zemstva, relaxation of censorship, modernisation of the army, economic modernisation. Russia went through a massive transformation during the reign of Alexander II, with its primary purpose being to improve the socio-economic situation, expand the boundaries of civil society, ensure the country was on track to a capitalistic, rule-of-law state. Educational innovations took place, too.
The Corps of Mining Engineers was established on the premises of Russia's first higher technical university. There was one peculiarity, however - in 1834, the institute was reorganised into a quasi-military educational institution to which 320 officers were commissioned. The specific titles of mining ranks were replaced by military ones. Although such a change had its pluses, affecting discipline and upbringing positively, it harmed the quality of education. For instance, the institute's administration paid a lot more attention to arranging military exercises for its cadets. A great deal of time was devoted to preparing for parades and other events instead of teaching.
Besides, cadets, primarily children of the nobles and officers, began their studies upon turning 12. Maximilian de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg, appointed Commander in Chief of the Corps in 1844, drew attention to the 'poor performance' shown by students of lower and middle grades. He attributed the problem to the very young age at which neither intellectual abilities nor inclinations towards higher learning can be identified. An adequate system of mining education required adding more field-specific subjects and separating classes focusing on general education from special ones.
It seemed as if the institute was waiting for an emperor who could turn around the system of training mining professionals. The changes were highly relevant, as already then it was declared at the highest level that the mineral resources sector was "the most important part for the economic development of our state". The only training unit of the time graduating specialists for the mining industry should have served the stated purpose.
On June 15, 1866, Alexander II approved the Charter of the Institute of the Corps of Mining Engineers, under which it changed its name to the Mining Institute. Since then, it became an institution of higher engineering education admitting, amongst others, commoners and countrymen. The institute was given a push to strengthen academic activities - preparatory education was cancelled, the boarding school was closed, and the focus from that moment on was on offering mining courses. Applicants who enrolled at the Mining Institute had to be at least 16 years old and needed to have successfully completed their upper secondary education. Mining and fundamental disciplines had been taught for three years, but with the charter coming into force, the length of studies was extended to five years. It took four years to complete theoretical courses, whereas the fifth year was spent entirely on doing projects in mining engineering, metallurgy, applied mechanics, assaying and surveying. Put it differently, the introduced system was analogous to the modern specialist's degree. It was a rebirth - the Mining Institute became an open technical higher educational institution of the first rank!
One of the most significant reforms concerned the number of hours allocated to practical and field studies. For this purpose, the institute's administration decided to build a separate building that would house a chemical laboratory, laboratories of applied and structural mechanics, and a hydraulics research facility. Therein would also be located the laboratory of the Department of Mountains and the Geological Committee.
Before the reformation, field trips were often limited to brief visits to plants and factories. Yet after 1866, students had as well some new assignments to deal with. They had to perform mineralogical, palaeontological and geognostic observations, underground and land surveys. In other words, pupils of the institute were faced with spending half of their holidays carrying out their tasks, in a way that is quite similar to how today's students do.
Following the education reform initiated by Alexander II, it became possible to graduate specialists in a variety of scientific disciplines, not just mining engineers. It was then that the institute obtained permission to keep talented graduates within its walls and grow them into teachers.
It was also then that the 'qualification courses' term appeared in Russia. Previously only students were allowed to take the exam to become mining engineers. From then on, it could be any person with at least a year of experience at one of the country's mining enterprises.
The Charter of 1866 was not Alexander II's only initiative concerning the institute that had first attracted close attention of his in the late 1850s. Back then, the military sector was undergoing radical changes due to Russia losing in the Crimean War of 1853-1856. The conflict had shown how technologically backward were Russian armed forces. Retooling and upgrading the structure of the military industry was as essential as modernising the system of military training.
In particular, it was decided "to prevent unreliable cast-iron products from entering into service by concentrating on special training of persons destined to examine them at factories". The emperor embraced the idea and approved it at the legislative level, which thereupon gave a start to an annual competition between the most tech-savvy gunnery officers. A few amongst them, chosen winners, entered then a two-year course in metallurgy and related sciences - indeed, at the Institute of the Corps of Mining Engineers. The officers were entitled to attend all the lectures and use the library and laboratories. Russia's military authorities highly praised the skills and knowledge gained at the renowned institution. Therefore they continued using this scheme of training officers - mining school's graduates - for many years to come. This framework, later on, became the prototype for the programme of supplementary vocational education. The latter is received in addition to either secondary vocational or higher education, and its principal aim is to acquire competencies needed for succeeding in some new activity.
Alexander II's contribution to the formation of Mining University is invaluable - specialist's degree, internship programmes as they are now, qualification courses. His input in the prosperity of the Mining Museum is by no means less important. Some of his gifts that are worth particular mention include one of Russia's biggest copper nuggets, which has a form of bearskin, and a giant druse of rock crystal from Japan. Both items are the true gems of the museum's collection, constantly gathering crowds of visitors around them.