KFU Rector: “Society Expects Universities to Help Students Develop Personal Potential”

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One of the oldest universities in Russia – Kazan (Volga region) Federal University, KFU – got a new lease on life in 2010, when it received a federal status. The new decade is anticipated to be no less exciting.

KFU has joined Priority 2030, a strategic academic leadership programme aimed at supporting universities, having been awarded both a base and a special grant in regional/industry leadership. The largest educational institution in the Volga (Privolzhsky) Federal District, with over 50,000 students enrolled, is entering this decade being ready for educational and scientific transformation, open to embracing innovations.

Ilshat Gafurov, Rector of Kazan Federal University, gave an interview to Forpost Press. He talked about scientific activities, the most in-demand specialities and educational programmes, the challenge of moving from the research stage to innovation, and how KFU builds up individual educational trajectories starting with pre-school aged children.

In all countries, higher education is moving towards attracting sponsor investors. No university in the modern world can exist well and keep up with global trends in education and science on budgetary allocations alone. As part of the KFU development program for 2010-2019, about 450 educational and research laboratories equipped with the latest instrumentation have been opened at the University. What allows you to develop so actively?

Quite right, and at our University, for more than ten years now, the Board of Trustees from among the heads of crucial enterprises and organisations has been helping to solve development tasks. It regularly gives constructive recommendations on the University's future activities and actively participates financially in the implementation of KFU projects.

All of this has resulted in a more than 3.2-fold increase in research and development (R&D) to RUB 1.9 billion. At the same time, the number of publications has increased 35-fold. More than 450 teaching and research laboratories with the latest instrumentation have been opened.

In addition to close ties with industry, several factors contribute to the dynamic development of the University. These include a focus on topical, globally-oriented priority areas, the established concept of open innovation, which makes it possible to attract promising like-minded people, and a vast number of staff and students in the initiatives and activities of the University's development programmes.

Tell us about the most iconic developments of KFU in recent years? What tasks are they aimed at, and are they in demand in the real economy?

The University has landmark developments in chemistry, new materials, medicine, and biology. I will mention a few challenging products in oil and gas technology that have been made just this year.

Young scientists at the University's World-Class Research Centers (WCRC) have developed a unique technology for using natural compounds to store associated gas in hydrate form. A distinctive feature of the technology is the creation of a new promoter based on natural raw materials (castor oil). It can intensify the formation of gas hydrates. This component has shown high efficiency in increasing the conversion of associated petroleum gas to hydrate form and significantly reduced the time of this process.

The technology is widely used in oil companies and is, in a sense, a competitor to liquefied natural gas. It does not require expensive, sophisticated equipment. It can be implemented at remote oil extraction sites where there is no pipeline. The associated gas can be then transported in containers to the point of gathering it in the tube.

Another example is developing a technology framework for identifying zones of anomalous crustal structure with increased heat flux and high thermal maturity of oil and gas-bearing rocks using satellite gravimetry data in poorly explored areas.

The technology includes:

  • Methodology and software for solving inverse problems with satellite gravity data.
  • Creation of the crustal model.
  • Determination of the thickness of sedimentary cover and granite layer.
  • Estimation of the density of upper mantle rocks.
  • Assessment of heat flow in crust and temperature anomalies in the upper mantle.
  • Analysis of the level of thermal maturity of oil and gas matrix rocks.

The technology will be used for preliminary assessment of oil and gas-bearing capacity of large inaccessible areas, especially the shelf of northern seas.

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You met with the chairman of the board of ERIELL Group, the oilfield services company that is the founder of Dzhizak Petroleum. Kazan University is implementing several contracts for this company. What scientific research do you carry out in this area, and how successful is it implemented in this and other leading oil-producing and refining companies?

With Jizzakh Petroleum, we are currently working on one of the prospects - performing petrophysical studies, organic matter studies and petroleum core samples. We have also started evaluating various methods of viscous oil displacement in laboratory conditions, primarily using thermal effects. If a good target is found, we plan to create an optimal field development technology. If tests in the laboratory are successful, we plan to carry out field tests on pilot wells and prepare a field development project.

We carry out similar work on thermal oil production technologies with other companies - Tatneft, RITEK, Rosneft and small oil companies. These works are carried out within the framework of the WCRC programme Rational Development of Liquid Hydrocarbon Reserves of the Planet, which was established within the framework of the National project Science under the direction Environmentally Friendly Resource-Saving Energy, Efficient Regional Use of Subsoil and Bio-Resources. WCRC was established in cooperation with four leading oil and gas universities: Ufa State Oil Technical University, Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas (National Research University), Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology under the coordination of the Kazan (Volga Region) Federal University.

Kazan Federal University is a member of the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI), the American Association for Higher Education Accreditation, the Association of Eurasian Universities EURAS and other international communities. Not so long ago, you joined the Nedra Consortium of Engineering Universities. What do you expect from participation in the collaboration which brings together higher education institutions that train specialists for the mineral sector?

It is essential today to develop networking in any field. For instance, in virtual cooperation, you can solve any complex task by gathering the best specialists from all over the world in a network. Similarly, within Russia, universities interact to solve common issues and develop a joint position on a particular task, using the resources of each member of the consortium.

Joining the Nedra consortium, which includes engineering universities that produce specialists in the exploration and production of natural resources, is also aimed at implementing joint educational initiatives and sharing experiences. I think that we will make use of the opportunities of this consortium and, in turn, we will be helpful to our colleagues. To date, we are actively exchanging information and news in the field of scientific research.

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Many factors influence a university's place in international and Russian rankings, including the number of research articles. Today Russia ranks 12th by the number of articles in scientific publications indexed by the Scopus database and 47th by the Global Innovation Index (GII) calculated by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. Moreover, the position of scientific articles in the second-ranking has been declining for the fourth year. What is preventing Russia from building an effective system to foster innovation in the economy and society? What steps need to be taken to do so?

The existing structure of the economy and industry, which is more focused on the previous industrial economic system and domestic needs, has a severe impact. As a result of these factors, the current demand for breakthrough innovations and research in the fields of the fourth industrial revolution has hardly been generated.

The country's current system of science and education management is not free of problems either. The fact is that the innovation infrastructure is still disconnected from universities. Instead of being an integral part of a cluster of generation and support of R&D, the innovation 'packaging' and promotion institutions have become monopolistic, unfair and, most importantly, expensive intermediaries.

Combined with the highly harsh existing approaches to regulating small innovative enterprises (inability to offer preferential placement in universities, use of university equipment), this leads to a drop in motivation for creative activity at universities - the leading suppliers of ideas and initiative staff for this process. In addition, financing is a significant problem. Even though the country has a wide variety of development institutions, access to financial resources and their price and the absence of a "right to make a mistake" also reduce interest in introducing innovation.

Last but not least, a cultural factor plays a role in the difficulties of implementing the results of scientific research, which introduces inevitable disagreements between the University, faculty, scientist and enterprise in assessing the contribution of each party and the value of this type of intellectual property.

Let's move on from issues of science to training. Today the nationwide job database "Work in Russia" has 131 thousand vacancies for job seekers with higher education without full-time work experience. However, there are 267 thousand full-time university graduates in the country (based on 2020). Only every second graduate will be able to find a job. What do you see as the reason for the current situation in the labour market? What support measures can universities provide to their graduates?

I think the reasons for the current situation are shortage of jobs in the labour market, the general attitude of the younger generation to work and their excessive requirements. Moreover, several categories of graduates and certain social groups cannot compete in the labour market. On the one hand, this is due to the mismatch between the motivation for entering an educational institution and the life trajectory strategy chosen. On the other hand, these numbers reflect that many educational institutions are strongly oriented towards the individual's need for vocational education rather than towards the real needs of the regional labour markets.

At present, many young people are seeking to change their profession, place of work, combine jobs, and start businesses due to the search for higher earnings.

The world is changing very rapidly, and we have to learn to live with this condition. Business models, social landscapes and communication practices are changing. And all this against a backdrop of pandemic and global digitalisation. There is no doubt that the educational system needs radical transformation. It is necessary to develop and bring new methods and technologies of training students to promote functional literacy, skills for self-actualisation and effective positioning of oneself in the changing world. In this context, the role of the learner as a subject of activity in contemporary Russian education is starting to increase, and one of the main trends today is the personalisation of learning. No one questions the necessity for students to design their development trajectory any longer.

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Kazan Federal University, as you know, is among the world leaders in educational research. One of the priority areas of our work is research and translational practice in forming individual educational trajectories that take into account the complex characteristics of learners. Since pre-school age, we have been doing this in a university kindergarten designed for children with autism spectrum disorders.

The University seeks to create a system whereby students are empowered to manage their cognitive activities, can design their learning paths and have the freedom to choose their learning activities.

Further, the University seeks to create an optimal education system through its lycées and secondary schools - to higher education and VET (further vocational education and training). Within this system, learners will be delegated the management of cognitive activities and allowed to design their educational trajectories and the freedom to choose their learning activities.

When choosing a university and a profession, most university applicants and their parents assess, first of all, the prospects of their professional, creative and career development. Public expectations require that the strengths of each student's personality be fully revealed and that their strengths be tested in activities related to the intended profession. And here, the quality of education at KFU is well established in the domestic labour market.

Our graduates successfully withstand competition among job seekers. Every year, no less than 70% of Kazan University graduates are employed; the remaining 30% include those who continue their education in Master's, Postgraduate and Residency programmes and those studying for military service.

We hold regular events aimed at promoting education and employing graduates. In particular, the University monitors the labour market, concludes cooperation agreements with potential employers, organises excursions to enterprises and internships in leading organisations, posts the most exciting vacancies on the official website and in social networks, organises interviews and meetings of students and graduates with employers. Large-scale job fairs and many other events are held every year.

In addition, one of the most effective ways to bring students closer to employment in their speciality is to organise training and internships at potential employers, as a result of which well-established students are often employed and successfully combine work with their studies. KFU also invites representatives of employers to the final state attestation, where they can see for themselves how well trained a particular graduate is and offer them a job.

What professions are currently at the peak of demand at your University? How can you explain the choice of applicants? How often do your graduates go to work in Moscow, St. Petersburg or abroad? What steps are being taken to retain young people (university applicants and graduates) to study and work in the region?

In today's realities, IT and modern technology, HR management, logistics and medicine are in the highest demand from employers. Let's evaluate the popularity of the number of applications submitted for competitive selection. The most popular areas are linguistics, international relations, law, economics, journalism, oil and gas, and digital technologies. The level of demand for psychological and pedagogical specialisations is increasing.

The country needs qualified specialists, so a quality university education should be available to many talented graduates.

I should also note that a phenomenon of the last two years is a sharp rise in the popularity of biomedical profiles. In general, I believe that the 21st century can confidently be called the century of biology, which, in its modern format, is a multidisciplinary and education-oriented science. It has the potential to fundamentally change our perception of the world, affecting all areas of human activity.

Our graduates are successfully employed and working all over Russia and abroad. Foreign nationals mostly leave the country to work overseas, and less than 1% of our graduates are Russian citizens. About 1-2% of our graduates go to Moscow and St. Petersburg to live and work permanently. Most of them stay and find a job in the Republic of Tatarstan because there is suitable employment, development, and career growth.

Kazan University is interested in ensuring that the most talented graduates stay and work to benefit our republic. We carry out a set of activities to support our employers, for example, by organising internships in organisations and enterprises of Tatarstan. There is also admission for targeted places from organisations in the region, scholarships, comfortable dormitories, support for students' initiative to combine work and study, and much more.

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In 2019, Kazan Federal University ranked second in Russia regarding the number of international students. In addition, a dual degree programme is being implemented with partner universities from Germany, France, Finland and the Czech Republic. However, there is no denying that the pandemic has had a severe impact on the international cooperation of the higher education community. How do you assess the prospects for the recovery and further development of academic mobility in the post-COVID era?

For a year and a half now, we have been working in a new reality, significantly modifying our daily practices in the field of international cooperation. Students and academics' physical global mobility has decreased considerably and has partly moved to a virtual format. Classes at partner universities are held remotely, conferences and seminars are also performed remotely.

On the whole, this broadens the opportunities for participation: travel expenses are reduced, problems with visas and other formalities disappear. I think that this practice will continue in the post-COVID time as well. But at the same time, it is essential that our students get a live experience of multicultural communication, immersion in a new academic environment, expanding their competencies and professional contacts. We are doing everything we can, working together to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic: the University offers vaccination to those willing to get vaccinated at our clinic and provides PCR testing needed for travelling abroad. For us, the health of our students and staff comes first.

At the same time, I would like to point out that, on the whole, interest in education in Russia and at Kazan Federal University, in particular, remains at a high level among foreign applicants. Many school leavers come to us to study Russian as a foreign language. Today, Kazan Federal University maintains one of the largest contingents of international students in Russia. Our goal is to make their stay in Kazan and our branches as comfortable as possible so that students can concentrate primarily on their studies and search for themselves in science or improve their professional skills.

During the past academic year, up to 25% of our international students could not enter Russia and studied using distance learning technologies. Some students encountered difficulties of a technical nature. For our part, we tried to do our best to ensure that these problems did not interfere with their ability to master the curriculum.

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KFU has branches in Naberezhnye Chelny and Yelabuga. Today, we are talking about setting up another branch in the Republic of Uzbekistan. How do you ensure the high quality of teaching by "replicating" the University in remote locations? How are the teaching staff at the branch formed? Who is the prominent investor in new educational institutions?

To begin with, we at the University are very attentive to the quality of education. And if you look back over the ten years since the foundation of a federal university, you can see that, on the contrary, we have closed branches of all the universities that were part of us. We realised that only strong teams could rise to the challenge of creating unified standards.

You mention our two branches in Naberezhnye Chelny and Yelabuga, but they are independent institutes. The institute in Naberezhnye Chelny was created in the early 80s as the base institute of the Kama Automobile Plant. It was equipped with highly qualified personnel from Kazan and the whole Soviet Union to provide engineering staff for new production facilities, construction complex of the rapidly developing city and the industrial cluster, which was developing around it.

The second branch is the former Yelabuga Pedagogical Institute - an educational organisation with a century-long history and tradition of training pedagogical staff for the eastern regions of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Urals. Today, our Yelabuga Institute actively cooperates with the Special Economic Zone Alabuga in training highly qualified personnel.

They are branches only formally. In reality, they are full-fledged institutes of Kazan University with highly qualified teams, their tasks and recognisable "face".

If we talk about the branch in Uzbekistan, it is an entirely new project. Today it is being developed as part of the agreements reached by the presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan on cooperation in higher education in 2018. On the one hand, it is a joint initiative due to the rapid growth of Uzbekistan's economy and the demand for highly qualified personnel in that country.

On the other hand, here in Kazan, we record an increase in applicants and students from Uzbekistan. Today, more than 2,500 students from this country study at KFU. In addition, today, we are already implementing some 20 joint educational programmes with Uzbek higher education institutions attended by over 800 students. It was to improve the quality of collaborative educational projects that it was decided to open a branch. We see severe intentions from Uzbekistan's leadership to invest in developing their country's human potential, and Kazan University is undoubtedly ready to be part of this movement.