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Rector of South Ural Mining University on Leadership Role of Nedra Consortium for Number of Industries

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Back in the past, mining engineers from the Ural had to leave for St. Petersburg to earn a degree. However, a little over a hundred years ago, Nicholas II signed an order to establish a higher educational institution not far off the deposits rich in the critical for the country minerals. The educational establishment admitted its first students in 1917, with 306 applicants becoming first-year students. By contrast, more than 3,000 undergraduates entered the university and started their education in 2020.

Alexey Dushin, Rector of UrSMU, gave an interview to Forpost Press. He talked on various matters — why domestic engineering universities should not abandon specialist's degree programmes, which specialities are currently of the most interest to employers, and how the pandemic has affected the educational process.

Mr Dushin, could you tell us what the Nedra Consortium of Mineral Resources Universities is all about? Can this kind of formation be an effective instrument of industry influence?

The Nedra Consortium of Mineral Resources Universities is an association of Russia's leading mineral resource universities, all united by the common idea of providing quality higher education. These are the top academic schools conducting research and training of specialists, bachelors and masters for the mining, oil and gas and coal industries. These include St Petersburg and Ural Mining Universities, MISIS, Gubkin Russian State University, Tomsk Polytechnic and Kuzbass Technical Universities, Tyumen Industrial and other universities. And, of course, our common position is weighty for several target industries.

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How badly has the pandemic affected the work of your university? Can online education fully replace the face-to-face education system?

The pandemic has made adjustments to the university. Still, looking back, I can say that Ural Mining was one of the first to fully transition to remote work and successfully come out of it when the restriction regime was lifted. The university has wholly overhauled its electronic information and education environment. A unified Learning Management System (LMS system) is in place, the digital infrastructure has been updated, teachers have been trained, and the Virtual Volunteering Project is in place. Should the situation with coronavirus worsen, we are ready to switch back to a fully remote format, but we see such an option as highly unfavourable. It's all about our education programmes: you can't learn engineering by distance learning! The training of qualified specialists mandatorily includes practical classes in laboratories and science centres and training and on-the-job practice.

How has the accession to the Bologna Process and the transition to a two-tiered education system - bachelor's and master's degrees - affected the quality of Russian higher technical education? What do you think of the idea of returning to the former model - the specialist degree?

From a purely technical point of view, the 4+2 (bachelor + master) or 5.5 (Specialist) systems look a lot alike. The first model formally assumes a more flexible and varied training, but this approach misses some critical points. I am referring to the readiness and openness of the systems for accepting trainees for apprenticeships by industrial manufacturers and providing them with the full range of information required for training and the involvement of the real sector in the educational process. In addition, it should be noted that formal monitoring of the fulfilment of trainees' obligations to the manufacturing facility has to be ensured. The real sector has an interest in shortening the duration of the training. Still, it also has a critical interest in quality and the depth of the subject area covered by the educational programme. In other words: you cannot learn in 4 years what you learn in 5.5 years. Another important nuance determines the national specifics of Russian mining education: the subject area of mining engineering in Russia is much broader than in Germany, Canada, Australia or the USA. That is why at present, I support the decision to retain the specialisation in mining and geological sciences. Today, our university is searching for new formats for teaching the mining sciences, including applying the bachelor's degree ideology.

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In one of your interviews, you said there is now a renewed interest among young people in science after decades of failure. How can this trend be explained? How does the university encourage its students to participate in the scientific process and research? How many students are going on to postgraduate studies, and how many of them are defending their thesis?

The new generations of guys entering university do have a strong interest in science and technological entrepreneurship. But the demand for knowledge is different from that which existed, for example, during the Soviet Union. It is undoubtedly facilitated by the deeds and successes of the heroes of our time - entrepreneurs.

The university supports the interest of young scientists, including directly through new tools. One of them is the Training Programme we have created. We have a personalised approach to organising the work of young scientists, and we have built into the collective agreement instruments of financial support for postgraduates and doctoral students. If they confirm the results of their research work at the annual defence, the university pays a substantial stipend. In addition, we develop students' project activities and involve scientific institutes in implementing our educational programmes.

In my opinion, there is no higher education without science, without creating new knowledge. Every year, we can increase the amount of Research and Advanced Development work that the university does. The number of departments involved in science is growing steadily, and we are systematically developing the university's laboratory facilities. On the whole, the educational programmes at the Ural Mining University are practice-oriented. They include a substantially more significant number of modules aimed at studying substances and practical work experience in solving production problems with instrumental and managerial qualities.

Unfortunately, the allocated budgetary places in postgraduate study at us are many times less than those wishing to study on them. To address this issue, the University's Training Programme pays for doctoral studies for its staff. However, as measured by the ratio of defence to enrolment, its efficiency still needs significant improvement.

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What is the level of government funding for your university? Is it possible to compare the number of funds allocated with its Western counterparts? Is it possible to commercialise scientific ideas? Do you attract additional funds from contractual activities? To what extent?

About 55-60% of the Ural Mining University's budget comes from subsidies and other state funds, and more than 80% of the R&D budget comes from manufacturing companies. The problem of universities being underfunded by the state is most apparent when comparing them to universities in China, the EU, and the US. UGMU is no exception in this regard. We send 10-20 technical projects annually for specialised grants and external funding. It is pleasing to note that most of them are projects involving undergraduate and postgraduate students.

What universities, businesses, and research institutes do the Ural Mining University cooperate with? In what areas is it developing?

Our university partners are dozens of leading companies operating across various sectors — mining, metallurgical, oil & gas. We also partner with first-rate design and academic institutions; they specialise in solutions for mining, metallurgy, geology and geophysics, and industrial ecology. At the same time, the university is also building research and production relationships with new, 'non-traditional' partners, including in chemistry, agriculture and biology.

Could you tell us about the most significant developments at UrSMU in recent years? What tasks are they aimed at, and are they in demand in the real sector of the economy?

Among the wide range of scientific and production issues that the staff at Ural Mining University are dealing with in the year of ecology, I would single out the project on reclamation of land disturbed by the mining and metallurgical complex. Equally important is the project to monitor the condition of the environment and stability of tailings dams; to extraction valuable components from industrial waste; and survey, monitor, and control the situation of industrial facilities. It should be noted that the control is carried out, including the state of underground industrial structures, to prevent technological accidents and disasters. All of the above topics are now being underway by our university throughout Russia and abroad.

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What are the problems facing engineering education in Russia? What kind of personnel is there a tremendous demand for? How often do your graduates leave to work in Moscow, St. Petersburg or abroad? What steps are being taken to keep young people (university applicants and graduates) studying and working in the Urals?

As a result of the fact that Ural Mining University's research is aimed at solving the problems of industrial enterprises, we have managed to maintain connections and interest on the part of employers in our educational programmes. It is a mistake to view our university as exclusively regional. In addition to the Sverdlovsk region, where the mining and metals sector provides 16% of GRP, the university is just as visible in the Chelyabinsk, Orenburg and Magadan regions, the Perm and Krasnoyarsk territories, Bashkortostan, KhMAO-Yugra, Yamal and many other areas. These regions not only send us students but are also the largest employers of graduates. USMU has the highest competition in computer science, mechanical engineering, surveying, oil and gas geology, and mineral processing. For example, the demand for graduates in the Mining Machines and Complexes programme in 2019 is seven times higher than the actual number of graduates.

Competition between agglomerations for a better quality of life intensifies every year, and Ekaterinburg's position as a business centre in Russia is strengthening. In the struggle for scientific and teaching staff, the University of Mining as an employer provides scientific infrastructure, a development programme and support for young scientists.

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