On Wednesday, 1 November, St. Petersburg Mining University will celebrate a significant date - 250 years since its foundation. Despite its advanced age, Russia's first technical university is a modern institution of higher education that has introduced many advanced technologies, including augmented and virtual reality. Thanks to their availability, future oilfield workers or operators of automated mining equipment can get practical skills in their speciality even in their initial courses without leaving the classroom.
Of course, even the most advanced student could not have imagined such educational formats a quarter of a millennium ago. Or rather, a non-commissioned officer. This was the name given to senior students at that time (younger students were called cadets). Nevertheless, many disciplines that were taught here in the times of Catherine II are present in the modern schedule of classes. There is nothing surprising in this, because the tasks that the St. Petersburg university solves today are practically the same as they were originally. These are, first of all, the training of competent personnel for the domestic mineral and raw materials complex and the creation of innovations that increase the efficiency of subsoil use, transport and processing of raw materials.
The high level of educational standards implemented in the University's curricula is recognised not only by the domestic but also by the international academic community. According to the British QS, one of the world's three most reputable companies that rank universities, Gorny "due to the effective implementation of its development strategy is among the top three best universities in the world with a mining engineering profile". If we take into account that there are almost 1200 of them on the planet, the achievement is, to put it bluntly, amazing. And unattainable for any other Russian institution of higher education.
On the eve of the anniversary, Forpost asked Rector Vladimir Litvinenko to make a brief excursion into the history, as well as to tell us what factors help the university look confidently into the future and set trends that others follow.
- Vladimir Stefanovich, 250 years ago, Catherine the Great signed a decree on the establishment of the Mining University, Russia's first higher technical educational institution. What was the motivation behind this decision?
Vladimir Litvinenko: It was necessary to form a community of her own managers, as well as masters of mining factories and trades through "the power of knowledge and technical art". The Empress understood perfectly well that it was possible to contribute to the prosperity of the state, to make it abundant and inspire respect from its neighbours only if the efficiency of subsoil use and processing of raw materials was increased. Without this there will be no development.
Our first pupils were senior students of the Moscow University and pupils of the chemical laboratory of the Berg Collegium. They graduated in 1776 and became the first domestic mining engineers. That is, these three years, from 1773 to 76, can rightly be considered the time of the birth of higher technical education in our country.
- What subjects did young people study in these classrooms 250 years ago? And which of them are still taught here?
Vladimir Litvinenko: The building itself was built somewhat later, in 1811 by the great Russian architect Andrey Voronikhin. But in the XVIII century, miners studied at approximately the same place, in two houses specially purchased for training engineers from Count Sheremetiev. As for the disciplines, two and a half centuries ago, physics, surveying, mineralogy and many other sciences were studied here, as well as now. Moreover, chemistry lessons were accompanied by experiments, and future metallurgists were taught to wash and smelt ores with their own hands. In other words, even at that time the university management perfectly understood the importance of laboratory and practical classes for the students' development as full-fledged young specialists.
Curricula were not static, they were constantly transforming. Of course, the modern pace of technological progress requires the academic community to react much faster to one or another challenge, but it was also necessary in the past. For example, it was originally planned that representatives of privileged estates would study here, and, for the most part, those youngsters who were transferred to us from Moscow University and had already received a certain set of knowledge. Later, however, we also began to enrol mixed people. For example, children of ore diggers or mining masters and other "free people".
But immediately there was a problem - they all had absolutely different level of initial training. Therefore, a number of grammar school subjects, including Russian language and arithmetic, had to be added to the curricula and made into a separate course, after which a young person was entitled to become a student. This led to the fact that the Mining School ceased to accept representatives of the Moscow University. There was simply no sense in it, as the university began to prepare its own applicants, bringing their threshold level of knowledge to the necessary heights for further study.
Here, by the way, we can draw parallels with modern realities. In recent years, we have faced a similar problem, as the USE scores, on the basis of which children enter higher education institutions, are not an objective criterion. These grades are a consequence of their "coaching", constant cramming, rather than an indicator of their real potential. First-year students have completely different potential, so within the framework of the pilot project to improve the higher education system, we decided to teach all students, regardless of their field of study, a single programme for the first three semesters.
In other words, they spend a year and a half studying fundamental disciplines that are essential for every engineer, wherever he or she may work in the future. Basics of Russian statehood, Russian language, culture of speech, higher mathematics, physics, introduction to IT, descriptive geometry, mathematical and computer modelling, industry economics and so on. And then they move on to specialised subjects.
- Did students of the Mining University initially wear uniforms?
Vladimir Litvinenko: Yes, their style, as well as the colour scheme, have been changed from time to time, but the uniform was introduced from the very first day of our university's existence. Among other things, it allows to erase social differences and symbolises equal chances for everyone. No matter who you were yesterday, if you study hard today, you will have brilliant prospects in the future. This was the case at the end of the 18th century, and it is still the case today.
- What milestones in the development of the university could you highlight in the 19th and 20th centuries?
Vladimir Litvinenko: Let's say that in 1817, Evgraf Mechnikov was appointed rector of the Mining University. He introduced notable changes to the educational programme. He added such subjects as astronomy, mining law, political economy. But most importantly, he introduced the practice of public examinations, during which students had to demonstrate not only their knowledge of mining and related sciences, but also their fencing, musical, choreographic and vocal abilities. Accordingly, the teachers began to place much greater emphasis on training young people in these areas. The experiment turned out to be remarkably successful, the status of our university increased noticeably, which led to a record at that time increase in the number of students to 400.
During the reign of Alexander III, it was declared at the highest level that the mineral and raw materials complex of Russia was "the most important part of the economic development of our state". Since the Mining Institute was the only "design bureau" for the mining industry at that time, its development was of paramount importance. The curricula at that time included such highly specialised subjects as forestry, architecture with application to mining structures, palaeontology, atmospherology. In other words, our university began to produce engineers who were in demand in various sectors of the economy, not only in mining.
In the twenties of the last century in Leningrad, on the basis of the Mining Institute or with the participation of our scientists and graduates, numerous research institutes were organised: Mekhanobr, GIPKh, Institute of Metals, Kurnakov Academic Institutes, as well as various "gipro" - Gipromez, Giprotsvetmet, Giproaluminium, Giprozoloto, Giproshakht, Giproruda. All of them solved the problems of development of the domestic mining and metallurgical industry and created a scientific and technological base for future enterprises. This allowed the USSR to make a breakthrough in economic development and levelling the lag behind the Western industrial countries, which had taken place before the civil war, but after it became simply threatening.
As for the post-war period, the Soviet Union as a whole had an ideal system of higher education at that time. The state motivated young people to join the ranks of the technical intelligentsia. It was prestigious. Such professions as military man, doctor, teacher, scientist, engineer up to the 90s of the last century were real elite in our country. And the leading world powers copied our curricula, as they were, without any exaggeration, the best on the planet.
- Why then did we start copying Western standards?
Vladimir Litvinenko: We wanted to integrate into the international educational community, we wanted to achieve official recognition of Russian diplomas in the West. We were promised this, we were told that if we joined the Bologna Process, our higher education documents would have the same status as European or American ones. But this did not happen.
But the main problem is not even this, but the fact that higher education in post-industrial countries today is designed primarily to humanise society, not to train engineers. And there is a quite logical explanation for this. Remember, just at the time when the Bologna Process was born, i.e. in the nineties of the last century, a lot of production sites were actively moving from the USA and Europe to countries with cheap labour, primarily to Asia. In other words, the West still had control over them, but the need to train its own specialists with higher technical education was obviously becoming less. In addition, the United States and the EU were then undoubted centres of attraction and could solve the problem of staff shortage at the expense of emigrants, which in parallel restrained the development of potential competitors - those states where these people came from.
Russia cannot limit itself to the task of humanising society. We are a raw material country, we have the entire Mendeleev table in our subsoil, and we simply must take advantage of this advantage. But this requires, firstly, technological sovereignty and, secondly, a well-established system of training engineers capable of ensuring the continuity of generations in industry, primarily in the field of mining and processing of raw materials.
Bachelor's degree programmes, as you know, are designed for four years, but this time is not enough to train an engineer. And, of course, when the documents on our country's accession to the Bologna Process were signed, this had to be taken into account. We should not blindly copy foreign standards, but adapt them to our realities.
By the way, in many Western countries this was done. In Austria, for example, the number of places at the Master's programme is the same as at the Bachelor's programme. And almost all students, with few exceptions, study for two more years after finishing the fourth year. In other words, they are educated according to a mould very similar to Soviet standards.
- Vladimir Putin initiated a reform of the higher education system in spring. The Mining University became a participant of the pilot project to improve it and has already introduced many innovations into its curricula. Which of them would you emphasise?
Vladimir Litvinenko: I would like to say right away that we are not striving for a return to the Soviet model of higher education, which is impossible in principle, as we have been living in a completely different state for a long time. Our task is to find an optimal balance between fundamental and specialised knowledge, as well as practical skills and additional competences that modern graduates should possess. In other words, to create an exemplary model that would not only provide young people with academic knowledge, but also, from the very first days of their studies, orient them towards building a career in the industry, which is in dire need of an influx of a new wave of qualified specialists.
We highly appreciate the trust that our President has placed in us by including St. Petersburg Mining University among the participants of the pilot project, and we are confident that we will justify it by becoming an example for other Russian universities. Our ideas and solutions have already been partially implemented and, judging by the feedback from parents, employers and students themselves, clearly indicate that we are on the right track.
I have already spoken above about the one-size-fits-all "core of higher education". As for the duration of studies, it has been increased to 5.5 or 6 years. This time will be enough for young people to master all the necessary disciplines in their speciality, as well as to receive a choice of at least eight of 260 additional professional competences in IT, economics, management, rhetoric, and so on. Up to 200 hours are allocated for mastering these compulsory electives. The timeframe for gaining industrial skills and experience will also increase to 10 months. All these curricular transformations are aimed at increasing the value of graduates on the labour market and helping them to adapt as quickly as possible to the workplace after graduating from their alma mater.
- Despite its age, what allows the Mining University to remain a flagship of Russian and international mining education? What innovative ideas and teaching technologies help you to do this? Perhaps the introduction of online courses?
Vladimir Litvinenko: Distance learning can only be an auxiliary tool, for example, when it comes to joint short-term educational programmes with foreign partners. It is sometimes useful to show your vision of a particular problem, to listen to the point of view of your colleagues from abroad, and at the same time to avoid unnecessary expenses for flights and hotel accommodation. But online learning deprives us of the main thing - it does not give us the opportunity to feel a part of the scientific and educational environment. And personal, eye contact between teachers and students is an integral part of it. It motivates and inspires young people, and no digital technology can replace it.
But, of course, we use the opportunities that scientific and technological progress opens up for us. We are actively introducing into the educational process software used by current specialists of specialised companies, as well as simulators. They allow us to simulate both regular and emergency situations at enterprises or fields, and contribute to the fact that children already at the initial courses have an idea of their future speciality. This also helps them during further work practices, as they are less likely to get lost and adapt to their new environment much faster. It is clear that virtual or augmented reality cannot reproduce it 100 per cent, but it certainly allows them to acquire certain skills.
Carefully selected teaching staff, investments in infrastructure modernisation, construction of new modern academic buildings, dormitories, congress halls, sports halls have allowed us to create an environment in which students feel comfortable. And this is undoubtedly one of the components of our success. Equally important are historical traditions, the very continuity of generations that I spoke about in relation to industry. We remember who our predecessors were, how many fields they discovered, how many enterprises they designed and built, how many scientific discoveries they made.
That is, on the one hand, we have someone to look up to, and on the other hand, we are well aware of the direction in which we need to move. The mission of St. Petersburg Mining University, to which Vladimir Putin returned the name of Empress Catherine II in May this year, is to contribute to the prosperity of our country in partnership with the entire academic community of Russia. By increasing the efficiency of natural resource extraction and processing, we will make it an abundant, powerful, self-sufficient power that inspires respect from its neighbours, as our foundress willed.