Rector of Almetyevsk State Oil Institute Says It Will Hit the World’s Top 100 Universities in Its Category by 2030

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Ample rooms equipped with new furniture and air conditioning, coworking spaces and laundry facilities on each floor — this is how new dormitories, 2 buildings accommodating 712 beds, in Almetyevsk look like. The dorms have been completed this year, with Almetyevsk State Oil Institute (ASOI) already providing housing to its students.

ASOI is the only institution of higher education in Tatarstan specialising in oil engineering, headed by its rector, Aleksandr Diakonov. Just 32 years of age, Mr Diakonov became Russia's youngest-ever Doctor of Technical Science. Acting as a rector of ASOI since October 2020, he is the one behind the new strategic programme that will ensure the development of the Institute over the decade. As a result, ASOI should hit the top 100 of the world's best engineering schools by 2030.

In his interview with Forpost Press, Aleksandr Diakonov shares the institution's achievements and plans.

Mr Diakonov, a joint delegation of the Almetyevsk State Oil Institute (ASOI) and Tatneft visited St. Petersburg Mining University on September 23. They discussed the establishment of a scientific and educational centre in Almetyevsk, which would promote innovations in oil production and hydrocarbon processing. What are your expectations from this project?

It is significant for Tatneft and us that the National Competence Center in the oil and gas field will soon be opened based on our Institute in Tatarstan, as a supporting region of the UNESCO Center. It will further develop the higher technical and professional education system for the oil and gas industry, including acquiring specialists of the whole range of knowledge, skills, and experience necessary for integration into the international professional environment.

I am sure that it will allow us to expand our international relations and participate more actively in the global mobility programs for students and teachers. And, in the future, to hold international summer schools at ASOI as well.

How are the construction of the new ASOI campus and the creation of the Graduate School of Petroleum in general progressing? In particular, are you interested in scientific and technical cooperation with businesses, with anyone other than Tatneft, the leading partner of the university?

As you know, understanding the importance of training personnel, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov and TATNEFT CEO Nail Maganov decided in 2018 to build a world-class Higher Oil School campus in Almetyevsk. It will house the Almetyevsk State Oil Institute and the Tatar Oil Research and Design Institute (TatNIPIneft). The total area of the campus will be 20 hectares, the cost of its construction and equipment exceeds RUB 6 billion.

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The construction of the campus is part of the university's development strategy until 2030, elaborated in cooperation with Tatneft and given the green light in 2021. The development aims to make the university one of the world's top 100 oil universities. Within the framework of its strategy, ASOI is currently implementing large-scale transformational changes in the educational and scientific spheres.

One of the main accents in developing science and education in our university is focusing on the comprehensive application of digital technologies. Systematic work is being carried out in this direction. Thus, in June 2021, we signed an agreement to open a branch of ICT [information and communication technologies] Academy Huawei, a leading global position in IT development based on ASOI. This cooperation is necessary for advanced training of undergraduates, postgraduates and teachers in ICT. Consultations and work are underway to organise a similar collaboration with Samsung.

The application of artificial intelligence, extensive data analysis and machine learning in the development and operation of oil and gas fields are growth points for Tatarstan's oil and gas and engineering industries. Equally important are digital solutions in ecology (combating atmospheric air and groundwater pollution). These are the aspects that ASOI is staking on today.

We have set ourselves the task of licensing and organising educational activities from September 2022 in two new bachelor's degree programmes: 09.03.04 "Software Engineering" and 38.03.05 "Business Informatics".

I will go into more detail on the environmental area. Tatarstan's problems in this area are typical for industrially developed regions connected with oil extraction and refining and petrochemical products worldwide. Along with the traditional challenges, the issue of reducing the carbon footprint is particularly acute and is one of the priority tasks for the oil & gas industry. To solve a set of problems associated with the main environmental threats - pollution and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, it is planned to establish an Environmental Centre based on the university.

A distinctive feature of today's nature conservation field is widespread international collaborations. A high percentage of scientific publications on environmental issues come from international research teams. It is primarily due to the global importance of these problems and also because they are in line with the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.

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International cooperation is mainly through the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). The number of such collaborations in our country is minimal. However, none of the existing centres of collective use in the country established at the leading universities, institutes of the RAS (there are only 15) and departmental institutes have a full or even a sufficiently broad set of competencies and the necessary specialised modern equipment.

In this regard, the established Ecological Centre will be able to claim the role of the leading national centre of competencies in the field of Ecology in the short term. Partnerships are being fostered with the Arbuzov Institute of Organic and Physical Chemistry, the University of California at Los Angeles, the State University of New York, the University of Helsinki, the Chinese Academy of Sciences Fudan University (Shanghai) and Griffith University (Australia).

The Ecological Center's pilot project will be to establish a laboratory for monitoring and forecasting the environmental situation, which in the future will be transformed into a centre for collective use in the Russian Federation.

In 2021, the institution you head was named among the top five universities in Tatarstan in the Three Missions of Universities ranking. Which ranking criteria did ASOI do best in, and what contributed to this?

First of all, it should be noted that it is a very pleasing and meaningful result for us. After all, the methodology of this ranking has undergone a large-scale public discussion. We use only objective criteria based on official data, such as public reports of universities and information from reputable international providers, to compile it.

We have not made a deliberate effort to position ourselves in this ranking. Instead, it is the result of a correct strategic choice of priorities in the development of the Institute. The most important thing that has improved so far is the university's "digital" activity and its information openness to society: social networks and the Institute's admissions work. This year we applied digital marketing tools when working with Russian and foreign applicants, which gave results - application competition was up to 5 people per place during the admission campaign. The share of international students enrolled in the first year exceeded 17%.

ASOI is active in social media, building a presence on Instagram (agni_asoi) and TikTok(agni_asoi). The number of followers has multiplied. We have recruited our energetic and creative student activists to produce news promptly.

The Institute has risen in search engines. For example, in a Yandex search for the query "ASOI", we are now in a "legitimate" 1 place, while just a year ago, we were only 5-7 on the list.

Much is being done and has been already done in educational reorganisation – this is working for the future.

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For the Russian higher education system today, the trend of developing additional education programmes is relevant; what is the policy of ASOI in this direction?

Implementing the updated ASOI strategic development programme focuses on integrating science, research, and high-quality education for the oil and gas industry. The program is divided into 12 strategic initiatives grouped into five areas: research and innovation activities, educational activities, positioning and internationalisation of the university, educational activities, modern ecosystem.

The development of the system of further vocational education (FVE) is highlighted as a particular activity within the strategic initiative to reorganise the educational process and update educational programmes (under the direction of Educational activities).

We have substantially revised the role of FVE in the education of our Bachelors and Masters students. We are developing a cycle of FVE programmes aimed primarily at them. These programmes will enable students to broaden their competencies significantly before they graduate and become more competitive in today's fast-changing labour market. Along with the university diploma, they will get one or even two professional retraining diplomas.

In addition, to improve the convenience and quality of work with engaged teachers and enterprise employees, we are introducing a modular training format, actively developing distance learning technologies, and making greater use of electronic means for more effective implementation of FVE programmes. We are also developing oil and gas-focused FVE programmes conducted entirely in English.

As a result, we plan to triple more than our revenues from FVE programmes over the next four years.

How do you assess the possibilities of online education technologies about the process of training specialists for the oil and gas industry? What are the specifics, and what can be built into the educational process after the complete abolition of epidemic restrictions?

The situation in 2020 has shown that it is possible to teach online without losing quality. But, with the extreme timing of the introduction of online technology into education that we experienced last year, it certainly took overtime. First and foremost, on the part of the rank-and-file teachers.

Teaching staff need to be specially trained in using online technologies in the teaching process. Appropriate professional development and training programmes are required. It is a different way of teaching; it needs other methods of keeping the audience's attention. They offer enormous opportunities.

I do not see any fundamental difference in using online technologies for training specialists in the oil and gas industry or engineering staff in any other sphere of activity. The quality of training should be equally high, as engineers in the production process always have a high responsibility, especially for their technological safety.

In the updated development strategy of ASOI, we have set a course for the gradual conversion of classroom training to a distance-learning format. The existing FSES [federal state educational standards] aims to master the knowledge and acquire skills and abilities according to the chosen academic programme. The current digital tools of online education already allow for a high level of knowledge transfer and mastering.

More effective distance learning tools appear today, and I am referring primarily to VR/AR technologies [augmented reality]. We are studying this issue and planning pilot projects, but we are not in a hurry yet. The planned gradual transfer of lecture classes to a distance-learning format and the inclusion of high-quality online courses from our partner universities in the networking framework is the subject of our work for the future.

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However, already having our electronic information and educational environment in which all teaching materials are available, and all our students and teachers are connected, we are prepared for any development in the event of a worsening of the sanitary and epidemiological situation.

What plans does ASOI associate with participation in the Nedra Consortium?

The universities implementing training areas within the enlarged group of specialities 21.00.00 Applied geology, mining, oil and gas engineering and geodesy have accumulated significant experience in training highly qualified personnel. For a long time, we have been closely cooperating in various directions. These include the competition for graduate qualification papers, the Olympics of Mineral Resources Universities, and participation in various scientific events.

ASOI hopes that shortly, as part of the Nedra consortium, it will be possible to consolidate the experience, intellectual and material resources to improve the educational process, expand the publication activity, and improve teachers' competence. Finally, it will be possible to implement student mobility programmes to obtain professional competencies at partner universities' sites and training facilities.

In addition, the Institute places high hopes on the International Centre of Competences in Mining Education under the auspices of UNESCO, established based on St. Petersburg Mining University, in the organisation of educational and scientific cooperation with foreign partners.