From education to employment

Russian Universities Reinvent Themselves to Educate Engineers of the Future

As many as 124,972 publicly funded places will be made available to students at the engineering and technology departments of Russian universities in the 2019/2020 academic year, according to the numbers published by the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

While there is still a strong market for run-of-the-mill operating engineers that are involved in the regular technological process, demand is growing for ‘engineering superheroes’ capable of identifying problems, developing and implementing solutions, taking their products all the way to market and having them recycled, if needed.

Engineers in Russia have been traditionally trained as narrow specialists for employment in slowly evolving, stable industries. According to Olga Osipenko, head of the Department for the Development of Magistracy and Additional Vocational Education at Siberian Federal University (SibFU), universities kept churning out mechanical, or metallurgical, or power engineers until quite recently when it became clear that employees who possessed such narrow expertise had little chance of success in the job marketplace. They lacked several crucial competencies and the knowledge and skills needed to implement their ideas and bring them to market.

Those in the field agree that conventional engineering education has ceased to be a viable option, largely owing to the rapid pace of S&T development that sees technology change on average once every three years. Experts at Sociocenter, a Moscow-based institution for sociological research, explain that what with the time it takes a college to design an engineering program, the four years of studying for a bachelors’ degree and another two for a master’s, seven to eight years go by before an engineer is job-ready – only to find that the technology they have mastered has gone out of date and dropped off the market.

The world’s economy gets a new driver every decade, adds Sergey Vaulin, Director of the Institute of Engineering and Technology at South Ural State University (SUSU). These days, the driver is IT which is invading all industries and calling for their complete overhaul.

Besides, experts point out that all breakthrough technologies are multidisciplinary and as such can hardly be devised by engineers with expertise in a single field. In addition to staff trained to solve specialized tasks, present-day industry needs versatile, all-round engineers of high caliber who can think systemically, take a holistic view and design solutions that they would be able to nurture from idea to production, says Alexander Atrashchenko, an assistant to vice-rector for research at ITMO University.

It is therefore essential for colleges to start setting their graduates up with the knowledge and skills that would meet the real needs of modern business and industry. A promising approach involves a constant monitoring and case study analysis of industry developments, keeping abreast of industry transformation and speedily updating educational programs to produce marketable employees, says Sergey Kupreev, deputy director for research at RUDN University’s Academy of Engineering.

Russia has two national projects in place that seek, among other things, to ensure that such employees do come to market. The National Project for Science provides for upgrading vocational training and launching adaptive, practice-oriented, flexible educational programs. The National Project for Science aims, in particular, to promote cooperation between scientific institutions, improve academia-industry collaboration, facilitate the development of R&D infrastructure, establish world-class science and education clusters and expand the network of National Technological Initiative competency centers.

Engineering education must be reformed, and a model to train ‘engineers of the future’ designed and implemented, if Russia is to carry out its Strategy for S&T Development and National Technological Initiative. Both rely for their execution on breakthrough, multidisciplinary solutions, to be developed by a new generation of engineers taking forward this country’s S&T agenda in a technology-based economy.

Some leading universities are already adopting a new engineering education model which features two years of basic engineering and vocational training, a strong focus on building STEM competencies, interdisciplinarity and heavy involvement of industry partners in teaching.

Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), for instance, has been phasing it in since 2018. Within three years, it will start turning out at least 1,500 next-generation engineers annually. Other providers of higher learning may follow suit.

Indeed, some of Russia’s top universities that take part in government-funded Project 5-100, which seeks to make them more competitive globally, have tested and are introducing some elements of the new model, mainly those related to developing research and digital design skills as well as an ability to work in multidisciplinary teams and a culturally diverse environment.

Tomsk State University (TSU) is one institution to have embraced cutting-edge educational techniques. Professor Stanislav Shidlovsky says that TSU will soon be setting up a learning factory for students to get hands-on experience operating the equipment and technology, and following the standards, that are required to advance real-world projects of the university’s business partners.

An important area of university-business cooperation is project-based learning. At National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), this is the mainstay of engineering education. According to Evgenii Krouk, academic supervisor and acting director of HSE’s Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics, the university’s distinctive approach consists in not merely having students do project work but tailoring their education to their projects’ needs.

SUSU students collaborate on real-world projects at major industrial enterprises, thereby acquiring extra knowledge and skills and gaining practical experience. In the end, as Sergey Vaulin points out, the university produces superior-quality graduates while companies get job-ready employees and even whole teams. Importantly, project-based learning is multidisciplinary.

There has been a new departure in master’s programs, too. They no longer merely pick up where the bachelor’s degrees leave off but are self-contained courses of study. Pursued in conjunction with academic and industrial partners, they allow students to acquire competencies which they cannot obtain in the classroom. These interdisciplinary programs will be re-designed and re-launched as technologies move through their lifecycles or as the market situation changes.

At SibFU, Master of Engineering programs are being overhauled. To date, changes have been made to pilot areas, with the introduction of new subjects such as Systemic Engineering Thinking, Technological Entrepreneurship and Project Management, and an English-language course. Also, as Olga Osipenko explains, engineering students now do all their field practice at the facilities of the university’s foreign partners, where they can get a feel for a different engineering culture. This experience has worked out well, as it has helped graduates to set up their own businesses or land jobs with international companies which are so happy with their new employees that they “keep clamoring for more”.

As engineering becomes ever more sophisticated, practitioners have increasingly to deal with social, economic and, especially, environmental issues. This requires a new engineering mindset, and universities are responding to this need by expanding their curricula to include such disciplines as Engineering Psychology, Engineering Economics, Applied Environmental Science, Design, Sociology of Technology and others.

If Russia were to ignore trends in cutting-edge production technologies and fail to build an engineer training system that would draw on them to provide graduates with competencies to match the best in the industrial world, it might doom itself to inferior competitiveness both in high-tech fields and in education, sums up Elena Razinkina, vice-rector for academic affairs at St Petersburg Polytechnic University. Now, if ever, is the time for Russian universities to concentrate on training a globally competitive, elite ‘corps of engineers’ armed with world-class expertise.

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