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Where will the reform of higher education take Russia?

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

The reform of the higher education system initiated by President Vladimir Putin is underway in Russia. Almost everyone in the country is sure that the reform is overdue, but at the same time, few people understand what specific changes should take place in order to significantly increase the quality of training of graduates of Russian universities.

Perhaps the only institution where the transformation of the educational process has begun not in words but in deeds is the Empress Catherine II Saint Petersburg Mining University. This university is one of the six participants of the pilot project aimed at improving the quality of engineering personnel training for various sectors of the national economy. Forpost decided to summarise information about all the changes that have already been introduced in the curricula of the first higher technical education institution of our country or will be introduced soon, to draw historical parallels and, most importantly, to understand: why do we need this reform at all?

250 years ago

горный университет
© Общественное достояние

"What has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun," said Ecclesiastes. History made another turn in the spiral and Russia faced challenges painfully similar to those that faced our country a quarter of a millennium ago. Then in the south began an incredibly difficult war with the Ottoman Empire, necessary to put an end to the raids of the Crimean Tatars forever. In Poland, the Bar Confederation was raging. In the east, Pugachev revolted.

All these threats sharply increased the needs of the state in iron, copper, bronze and other ore necessary for the production of armaments, but, most importantly, in engineers capable of increasing the qualitative and quantitative indicators of the Ural metallurgical plants, to establish their uninterrupted operation. The problem was that foreigners did not want to go to regions deprived of the elementary benefits of civilisation and preferred to work in the central part of Russia, closer to Moscow and St. Petersburg. And there were not enough of their own competent personnel, who were educated abroad.

In this situation Catherine II made the only right decision - she signed a decree on the opening of the Mining School, the future St. Petersburg Mining University, where by the end of the XVIII century more than a hundred people were studying. The course to train engineers inside the country for the development of the domestic mineral and raw materials complex was not a spontaneous idea. After all, the principles of ruling the state, proclaimed by the Empress, say that "it is necessary to promote the prosperity of the state and make it abundant", "it is necessary to make the state formidable in itself and inspiring respect from its neighbours", "it is necessary to educate the nation, which should be ruled".

Why do we need a reform of higher technical education?

Фосагро - Белаз

Today, as 250 years ago, Russia is facing many challenges that threaten not only the sustainability of the country's development, but can, under certain circumstances, lead to the loss of state sovereignty. Among them is the need for accelerated technological progress in the extractive and processing sectors, which are the backbone of the domestic and global economy. After all, their functioning is at the heart of any production chain.

According to expert estimates, in the foreseeable future the demand for many groups of metals will not only not decrease, but also increase significantly. For example, in the next 25-30 years, mankind will consume as much copper as in its entire history, as it is needed, among other things, for the construction of wind turbines and the manufacture of electric car batteries.

Rare earth metals, nickel, lithium, iron, graphite, platinum... the demand for all these and many other elements will also increase. "Traditional energy resources, such as coal, which is the foundation of energy security of many countries of the world, primarily Asian countries, will also remain in play. In other words, the sustainability of civilisation development will still depend on the stability and reliability of the mineral and raw materials sector.

If we recall the former "partnership" relations between Russia and the West, they were based, if I may say so, on a certain "distribution of roles". Our country was tasked with extracting resources and sending them to Europe or the United States, where advanced technologies were produced from these raw materials. "Unwritten" rules said that they were for everyone, including developing countries. But this turned out to be an illusion.....

© gazprom

Today it has become obvious that we must independently provide ourselves with all the technologies necessary for socio-economic progress and introduce the best of them at production facilities localised within the country. But such a development paradigm is impossible without changes in the higher education system, because its current standards, imposed on us from the outside 20 years ago, do not meet Russia's needs at all. The real sector of the national economy needs not bachelors, but young engineers who will have a certain set of knowledge, skills, additional competences in IT, management, economics and a number of other areas already at the stage of graduation from their "alma mater". This is especially important given the current realities - artificial intelligence, globalisation, ever-accelerating technological progress.

It is well known that human resources decide everything, but having switched to a two-tier system at the beginning of the century, we, without any exaggeration, became hostages of the liberal idea, an integral part of which is the reduction of requirements to the quality of curricula all over the world. The consequence of this agenda is a planetary shortage of engineers and scientists. Given that the best of them emigrate to the centres of attraction in the West, the problem of brain drain in the regions where they were born becomes even more acute and leads to a loss of generational continuity. It is this strategy that allows the US, Europe and a number of other powers to limit the development of competitors and "stay on top".

The new structure of higher technical education

So how can domestic higher education get out of the liberal trap? The management of St. Petersburg Mining University is convinced that this requires the introduction of a unified approach to the training of engineers, which, on the one hand, will meet the needs of business and, on the other hand, will contribute to the solution of state tasks. In other words, it will significantly improve the competitiveness of university graduates given the great uncertainty of the labour market and ensure the continuity of generations in industry and science.

© Пресс-служба компании "ФосАгро"/ Оператор дистанционного управления буро-взрывными работами

The unified structure of basic higher technical education, developed at the St. Petersburg Mining University of Empress Catherine II for subsequent implementation throughout Russia, consists of three modules. The first is the "core" of higher technical education, designed for the first three semesters. During these one and a half years, all students, regardless of their field of study, follow exactly the same programmes. That is, they study general education and general technical disciplines, which are necessary to form a fundamental base, regardless of specialisation. These are the basics of Russian statehood, Russian language and culture of speech, higher mathematics, physics, introduction to IT, descriptive geometry, mathematical and computer modelling, economics of the industry....

Mastering the "core" of higher technical education, which also includes disciplines on basic scientific competence, is a kind of a pass to speciality studies. In order to ensure that the maximum number of young men and women get it, a new structural unit - the Institute of Basic Engineering Education - was created at the Mining University. Its task is to improve the quality of knowledge and skills of recent schoolchildren, which, unfortunately, has noticeably "sagged" in recent years, as well as educational work. After all, the state needs not only competent specialists, but also patriots aimed at realising their potential for the benefit of the Fatherland.

The main goal of all the current transformations is to develop a pool of a new generation of engineers, whose mentality combines the desire for high education and love for the Motherland, people who are less consumers and more creators. Eighty-four mentors, appointed from among the Institute's faculty members, are responsible for its direct implementation. They are tasked with establishing contacts with specific groups and providing young people with all the necessary counselling and assistance in solving various problems, including domestic ones.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

After receiving a certificate of mastery of the "core of higher education", students begin to master the disciplines of the enlarged area of training and specialised subjects. This is the second module of basic higher education, which will take another 4 years (i.e. a total of 5.5 years of study). If we take drilling engineers as an example, starting from the fourth semester they start training in general for the whole oil and gas faculty, for example, in oil and gas well drilling technologies, and in specialised subjects. Such as "Installation and operation of drilling equipment".

By this time the knowledge of general education and general engineering disciplines is already completed, but humanities subjects and basic scientific competences are still included in the curricula. In addition, students must acquire at least eight additional professional competences. For example, when it comes to working professions, at one of the training bases of the Mining University in Sablino it is possible to master such additional professional training programmes as oil and gas operator, well control, line pipefitter, and so on.

As for IT, young people can acquire knowledge and skills in numerical modelling of oil and gas structures and equipment using various software packages, learn the basics of geological modelling and so on. In total, the university has prepared more than 260 programmes of additional professional competences, and this is not accidental. It is obvious that if a miner or geologist has skills in the digital sphere, economics, management or possesses working professions, his/her adaptation to production will take much less time, which means that he/she will be more in demand in the labour market.

Горный университет
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Additional educational modules, which take 80 to 200 hours to master, are implemented in parallel with the basic programme as a compulsory elective. The aim is to obtain a certificate of additional professional competence, which enables the holder to continue their studies after 5.5 years for another six months.

This period of time is used to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to obtain a second vocational qualification, which is issued "in addition" to the basic higher education qualification. Why is it necessary? It is no secret that the modern labour market is unstable, and therefore it is very problematic to give an accurate forecast of the demand for certain professions in the horizon of 5-6 years. In this regard, the percentage of graduates who find jobs not in the speciality they studied for, but in related or narrowly focused segments of the market, is gradually growing. And this trend will only increase in the future.

Let's say an oil and gas student realises that his career prospects are primarily related to increasing energy efficiency of hydrocarbon production, but in order to fulfil himself in this field, he needs additional professional competences. It will take him the last six months to master them.

Similarly, graduates of the university who are already active employees of mining or oil and gas companies, but believe that they need new specialised knowledge for further promotion, can receive additional education at the Mining University. The study process in this case will last 10 months.

Горный университет
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Returning to the disciplines of basic scientific competence, which are part of the "core of higher education" and familiarise students with the fundamental rules of publishing, patenting, research methodology and a number of other areas, they are a springboard to a career as a scientist. In case a student is interested in this paradigm of his/her professional development, he/she can acquire an additional professional qualification "Research Engineer" after obtaining the main diploma. For this purpose it is necessary to fulfil a scientific project connected with carrying out a number of laboratory experiments and defend it at the specialised scientific council. Such an opportunity will be given to 8-15% of graduates.

Professional practice

One of the most serious complaints of employers to the undergraduate curriculum is the apparent lack of time allocated for industrial practice. It is conducted only once during the whole period of study, at the end of the third year, for two, maximum four weeks. It is unrealistic to acquire all the necessary competences within this period, so it will be increased to 10 months.

Горный университет
© Форпост Северо-Запад

At the first stage, students should hone their skills on simulators. For example, representatives of the Oil and Gas Faculty of the Mining University can do this in the "Offshore Drilling" training and simulator complex created jointly with Novatek. Augmented and virtual reality technologies simulate an operating field, and a special programme sets the working conditions, alternating between normal and abnormal situations.

The second stage is educational and technological practice at one of the university's polygons, during which young people are shown production processes, told about the principles of their organisation and, to a greater or lesser extent, are involved in them. In other words, students get an opportunity to perform certain operations on their own, which they used to do only on simulators.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

One of the objectives is to create conditions for students to obtain two compulsory working professions. For this purpose, in collaboration with leading Russian companies, training and production sites in various training areas are being created today. There young people will receive all the necessary specialised competences. The time to master them is up to 16 weeks.

And, finally, industrial practice at real enterprises. These include field trips, for example, to the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, where the fields operated by Gazprom subsidiaries are located, as well as much closer locations. For example, the majority of students majoring in Oil and Gas Transport and Storage will, as they do today, learn their skills at Gazprom Mezhregiongaz or Gazprom Transgaz facilities located in St. Petersburg. All the necessary conditions have been created there. As well as at the enterprises of the Russian Copper Company, Titan, SIBUR, BelAZ and other partners of the Mining University.

These and other changes in the structure of higher technical education are aimed at reviving the best of the Soviet system and not to lose the recent achievements. This is exactly what was formulated in the February message of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Federal Assembly. Its true meaning lies in solving the most important task: to return to universities the mission of training competent personnel for the national industry in order to strengthen the country's sovereignty. And to fill the diploma of higher engineering education, which many employers have long perceived as a paper devoid of any significant internal content, with new meaning.