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Andrey Rudskoy on Scholarly Traditions at Polytechnic University and Their Continuation

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Andrey Rudskoy, an academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), Rector of Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, provided an interview to Forpost Press. He talked about the institution's efforts to motivate researchers – most notably amongst the youth – to participate in scientific work. He also spoke on how the University made it through the quarantine and how well its educational programmes are adapted to the needs of the modern labour market.

How badly has the coronavirus pandemic affected Polytech? Was the transition to a distance learning system effective?

Yes, we have managed to build an effective system. It is mainly because we already had a good head start in this area. In particular, the practice of remote laboratory work based on Festo-Synergy, more than 100 online courses on internal and external portals. By the way, we opened up free access to them and electronic Polytech's library system for students of all Russian universities.

At the same time, I am deeply convinced that online education will never play a predominant role in the educational process. There is no substitute for face-to-face contact with a teacher; one cannot educate a person or gain remote experience in a social environment. I see online education as an auxiliary mechanism for gaining additional professional knowledge. It can also be applied to basic disciplines because there is routine in any job. Thisapproach will free up some time for teachers and students to use for something creative: science, self-development, sports, culture! And at Polytech, we have all the opportunities for this.

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Do you agree that the transition to the two-tier system of training specialists - Master and Bachelor - has negatively impacted the quality of higher technical education and the level of graduates? Is it essential to return to the former model - the speciality, which involves training for five and a half years?

As the rector, I believe that training highly qualified specialists is the main task of a higher education institution. Different tools can be used to achieve this goal. At Polytechnic University, we have understood the importance of using individual trajectories to form students' professional competencies. We have built a flexible training system within the "2+2+2" model (2+2 years of Bachelor's degree + two years of Master's degree). This system allows students to choose their educational trajectories. It provides the opportunity to gain knowledge in those areas that are important and interesting to the students and will enable them to become more competitive in the labour market.

The essence of the "2+2+2" system is the following: students can choose their profile (specialisation) twice - after their second year of study (distribution based on the results of the third semester) and after completing their bachelor degree. The key benefit of such a system is an increased awareness of the major, which increases motivation to learn and better mastery of professional knowledge.

Explain your University's example: what exactly has the higher education system lost compared to the Soviet period? Or has it gained? Is it inferior to its foreign counterparts, or, on the contrary, superior to them?

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A lot has been done during the Soviet period. Those achievements pushed the development of science and technology back then, and they still do today. One of the significant stages in that period was the formation of the most substantial scientific schools. Why am I talking about science in the question of education? Because these are inseparable things. One of the leading educational principles of the Polytechnic University is education through science. Students from their first years do research in laboratories, participate in scientific conferences, and work with industrial partners on real production projects. This kind of work arrangement is very potent.

Walk around our Main Study Building, and you will see a gallery of outstanding scientists who worked within the walls of Polytechnic. But, most importantly, you will find their followers at the University even now. At Polytechnic University, scientific schools and their continuity are strong. For example, Professor Vladimir Rozhansky was at the origin of the development of plasma physics. In 2018, he was part of the scientific team of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), the world's largest experimental thermonuclear reactor, from Russia. Together with his team, which includes graduates, postgraduates and students of the Plasma Physics Department - very many young people - they developed a numerical code for modelling the parameters of the tokamaks' near-wall plasma. This wall code has been adopted as the core code at ITER. Moreover, it is recommended to all researchers involved in controlled fusion to simulate tokamak wall plasma.

How much have the requirements of employers for graduates changed compared to 10 or 20 years ago? For example, to have a successful career in many companies, young people need to have knowledge and skills in their speciality, be proficient in English, understand production economics, have experience working with artificial intelligence, etc. Have universities been able to keep up with the changing demands of the labour market?

The emergence of new specialities in the labour market is ahead of educational standards and training programs, so Polytechnic University implements an advanced training system. She is in deep foresight and collaboration with high-tech corporations. We have a widespread practice of creating basic chairs at enterprises - there are already more than 20 of them. This format of cooperation with our industrial partners allows students to start early specialisation in production, allowing them to see actual manufacturing facilities during practice and the educational process. Thus, we solve the problem of the mismatch of curricula with the needs of the labour market.

Vladimir Putin has previously emphasised to the university community that postgraduate study is not just another level of higher education but, above all, the training of a young scholar. Do all doctoral students at your institution defend their dissertations? What does the university administration do to ensure these students establish themselves as young scientists and continue to engage in science?

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Of course, postgraduate students and young scientists are the future of the University, so we use various tools to support and motivate them. In particular, as part of the NTI Centre's New Manufacturing Technologies projects, the National Centre for World-class Advanced Digital Technologies, a specific emphasis is placed on supporting PhD students and incorporating them into existing laboratories in priority areas of Politech's research.

We develop and support postgraduate students' internships at leading scientific centres and their participation in international forums. In this way, we push our doctoral students to the scientific frontier. They learn about cutting-edge scientific trends at such conferences and publish articles in highly-rated journals, which helps them defend their theses later on.

In 2018, Polytechnic University received the right to award candidates and doctors of academic science degrees independently. This right shows that the level of preparation of applicants for academic degrees in our University is sufficiently high. Therefore, the Ministry felt it possible to give us those functions, which the Higher Attestation Commission previously supervised. In turn, this obliges us to strengthen the work on the quality of theses and dissertations and the objectivity of the judgment on awarding academic degrees. About 100 dissertation councils have begun work on this

Do you think the state needs to develop a system of clear numerical indicators to produce an objective national ranking of universities? Does the higher education community need it? What criteria, in the first place, should it take into account? And what is your attitude to attempts by various organisations to compile such ratings privately? Do they help or, on the contrary, hinder?

First of all, we must understand that the ratings must not be an end in itself of all the University's activities. They are just external attributes for tracking a university's development dynamics and a marketing tool for attracting external audiences and working with academic reputation.

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Nevertheless, looking as objectively as possible at the status and development of actors in the national higher education system is helpful. It facilitates orientation, including that of the management team, to the "field", a more accurate understanding of the situation and benchmarks, and adjustments in goal-setting. A large number of rankings is a normal phenomenon, as not all of them are "long-lived", some of them will not be conducted naturally. Following its strategy, a university's performance may be represented in one ranking more than in another.

Indeed, it is essential to assess both the research-intensive potential of a university and its academic reputation. However, the assessment methods require continuous improvement in terms of transparency and comprehensibility of monitoring each rating. Regarding priorities, particularly in the international rankings, societal impact and economic contribution indicators are underrepresented or given little weight.

What should our universities do to increase their presence in the most prestigious global rankings - QS, THE and ARWU? And shouldn't greater attention be paid to subject rankings? After all, it is not entirely correct to compare economic and medical schools unless, of course, one has an ideal environment and the other is in shambles.

The advantage of St. Petersburg Polytechnic University is that our University has many points of growth for the development of interdisciplinary research due to its 'polytechnic nature', which is an essential vector for strengthening the University's competitive position. SPbPU is represented in 19 rankings within the international rating agencies QS, THE and ARWU. For us, this is evidence of systematic work to position the University as a leader in developing technologies and solutions to applied science-intensive problems for industries.

It is essential to improve the quality of research and maintain focus, given resource constraints to scaling success. In addition, it is imperative to understand with which research groups further breakthrough is possible and how to maximise youth involvement for the future University. The effectiveness of promotion in subject rankings cannot be achieved without investment in infrastructure solutions and systematisation of the processes of organising research activities, which integrally lead to the acceleration of the production of experimental data, research and development. That means, and for the subsequent implementation and application in industries, the reputation growth among the academic community and employers.

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I would also like to note that the Polytechnic University has been granted a world-class research centre "Advanced Digital Technology" status. A consortium based on four organisations was granted the status of the NCMU "Advanced Digital Technology": Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University (coordinator of the consortium), St. Petersburg State Marine Technical University, Tyumen State University, A.A. Smorodintsev Research Institute of Influenza of the Russian Ministry of Health.