Aleksandr Shestakov: “We Plan to Become Champions in Digital Development”

Rector of South Ural State University Aleksandr Shestakov speaks about work and studies during the pandemic, why distance learning cannot yet replace full-time education and the professor's view, about the power of supercomputers, university science, about the sixth technological paradigm and the place of SUSU in the life of our region and among universities in the world.

"SUSU has learned to live in the state of emergency"

— In the recent months the university has been living and working in the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions associated with it. How has the coronavirus affected the educational process, the Admissions Campaign, and what has SUSU learned during its work under the pandemic conditions?

— SUSU has learned to live in the state of emergency. Although, of course, we have been through emergency situations at different times and in different guises before. For example, we built the upper floors and the spire of the main university building also in an emergency mode. Being partly in the emergency situation, we are now building our new dormitories in the north-west district of the city of Chelyabinsk. And these will be the best student dormitories in our country.

We always try to do everything well and thoroughly. And we tried to do everything well and thoroughly in the pandemic situation, too. When all this happened in mid-March, SUSU switched to the distance education mode in over just two days. This happened because we had been seriously engaged in distance education for ten years. The university has the Institute of Open and Distance Education, where we offer the so-called blended learning courses, where some of the educational courses are held on campus, and some are held remotely. But most importantly, one year ago, about 550 of our teachers were taught distance education technologies. In short, we were ready.

In general, distance education requires certain efforts from teachers and a new approach that are necessary in order to teach subjects correctly, so that you would be understood.

— Different teaching skills?

— Exactly. On the one hand, distance learning gives more opportunities: you can use various videos, graphics, and so on. On the other hand, you need to know how to use it all. And you need to check if the students understand you. So, we have created an internal university standard, that is regulations on how we should conduct distance learning.

— What is it about?

— Firstly, classes must be held in accordance with the training schedule. Secondly, the teacher needs to check the key points of the lecture, whether the students have understood the essence of the learning content correctly. Always, in any topic there are one, or two, or three key points that the student must understand. And we need feedback from students (the technology makes it possible today) and a little test-control at the end of the lecture.

— Have you personally tried to give lectures remotely?

— Yes, when I was an assistant professor. Again, SUSU has a vast, more-than-a-ten-year experience of working with distance education. The university has a research and production institute called the Educational Equipment and Technology Research and Production Institute, which develops distance exercise equipment, simulators and virtual laboratories for the implementation of the educational process, including in a distance format. Moreover, we manufacture and sell about 70% of all educational equipment in Russia. We sell it not only in Russia, but also in the CIS countries and even in Germany.

However, I am convinced that distance learning cannot be a full-fledged substitute for the full-time educational process. At least, now. In case of emergencies — yes, its application is possible and even necessary. But not forever.

— Why?

— There are two features that negatively affect the quality of education.

First, there is no direct face-to-face contact between the student and the teacher. As a teacher, I really miss this. Any teacher, especially a leading professor or associate professor, is a person who not only teaches students, but also brings them up as future specialists, and good people after all.

I remember my eminent teachers very well, though many years have passed. Communicating with the teacher during a lecture, during practical classes, the students understand what they are being taught much better, they see what the results can be. And then, after all, teachers do not just give lectures, they educate the future specialist, share moral principles and ethics with them. I don't think this can be replaced by distance education.

Second, we have not been able to fully transfer practical and laboratory work for students of engineering specialties to the distance mode. The things they need to feel with their hands. Of course, we tried to somehow replace that with practical calculations and something else. But that could not fully make up for the lack of classes in the laboratories.

But the attendance of students in a distance learning mode has grown!

— Are you serious?!

— Yes, of course! In the video conferencing mode, you can clearly see who is present and who is not — you cannot skip the class, you cannot shield yourself behind somebody else. Once again, we conducted classes strictly according to the schedule, which still exists. There is a stream of, let's say, 100 people, and all of them must register in the teacher's account, when he/she gives them a lecture.

And also the students began whining, because it has become harder to study now.

— Why?

— Because now you cannot shirk away, for example, from the practical classes. If in the usual mode it was possible to somehow sit in the back of the classroom while the honours students answer, now the teacher asks everyone questions, and everyone must (and even have to) answer — cheating online with a knowledgeable girl sitting next to you is somehow more difficult.

— How did all this affect the summer exam session, the passing of finals, and the defence of theses?

— Both regular exams and defence of theses were also held remotely at approximately the same level and with the same quality. There were no major failures.

It is important that the information infrastructure of the university successfully withstood all this load and worked steadily. However, we are purchasing additional servers for the future to further increase the overall stability of the entire system.

"Online laboratories? Done!"

— In the recent years, almost all the leading universities in the world have posted at least some of their courses in a free public domain on the Internet. How much will the pandemic affect the educational process, how much will the competition between universities change and increase? After all, users can watch lectures at SUSU, or they can watch lectures on the same topic, for example, at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a leading US university, one of the world leaders, — EAS's note). The question is what people will choose?

— People will choose the best courses. The trend to publish courses and lectures in open access is not new and arose even before the pandemic. There are several platforms: in the USA, in China, in Russia, where a big number of courses, lectures, etc. are posted.

There is no regulatory framework so far in our country on how to credit the completion of these courses by students. But I think that this regulatory framework will be created, and this will happen very soon. First of all, in order to be able to accept and credit the completion of courses from leading Russian universities. But we are going back to the problem we just talked about. I visited the Russian platform, carefully went through the courses of our colleagues for students of technical specialties and saw that there were no laboratory classes there. And these are really necessary.

This problem is not only ours, I mean at SUSU or in Russia. Two years ago, I was visiting my colleagues from the University of Arizona, the United States, which is number one in innovative technologies. They have a large distance education centre for a wide variety of specialties. I asked them to show me courses for technical specialties, for instance, power engineering or electrical engineering. The same kind of thing we have: there is a course of lectures, but no laboratory classes.

— That is, it is a dead end?

— No, it is not. I see a great opportunity for the development of our university in all this.

— But how are you going to arrange the laboratory classes online?

— Modern technologies allow a lot and are developing faster and faster. For example, augmented reality technology. We already have a virtual laboratory for theoretical mechanics, chemistry and physics. We are already equipping the second special studio, and about ten courses, primarily for technical specialties, will be also made in the form of a virtual laboratory.

Of course, this is a very difficult and time-consuming work. But we have announced a competition within the university for those who will do these courses. You will see, these will be the best courses of this kind in Russia.

International Relations, Charms of Humanitarians, and Search for the Sarmatians

— How does this year's Admissions Campaign differ from the previous ones? Except for the pandemic, of course.

— Above all, it differs by the fact that students did not personally come to the university but sent in all the documents via the Internet.

— Is that easier?

— It has become less clear for us. In the previous years, we received 30 percent of documents via the Internet. But if, in the previous years, a student had to personally bring a certificate of secondary general education before enrolling, now s/he can simply send us an application via the Internet showing that s/he wants to study here. But where is the guarantee that s/he did not send other applications to other universities? As a result, we encounter some uncertainty that has never existed before.

— How is the enrolling strategy at SUSU changing? How does the ratio of state-funded places for certain specialities change? Which of these changes were forced to happen to comply with the environment, and which reflect “long”, strategic trends?

— First of all, the number of state-funded places has increased. In total, by 10%. There are more places both at the faculties of engineering and humanities. Overall, there are 1869 places in the Bachelor’s degree programmes, 268 in the Speciality’s degree programmes, and 733 in the Master’s degree programmes. Traditionally, most of the state-funded places have been allocated to technical, engineering fields and fields connected with informatics. Also this year, state-funded places have been allocated in such fields as Jurisprudence, Journalism, and Physical Education.

I believe, that the number of state-funded places will increase in the future. Not so long ago Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, said that more than 11 thousand additional state-funded places at universities would be created. We expect that some of the places will be granted to SUSU, primarily in such fields as International Relations.

— Can you describe this programme? Is it something similar to what MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) offers?

— No, we will not be training diplomats. It is a little bit different. Our region is primarily an industrial region, which is engaged in trading with many countries. Therefore, all these processes need to be supported at various levels: linguistic, economic, legal, and so on. We will be training specialists who will work in business and help it encompass more markets and countries.

We have long and actively been collaborating with China in this field. SUSU programmes provide good knowledge of Chinese. We have established real partner relationships with 29 Chinese universities, where we send our students to, and from where students come to us. And the students, who completed their studies in this programme, are already successfully working, including in China.

— Over the recent years, it has seemed that SUSU has been returning to its roots and most of the state-funded places have been given to the faculties of engineering, which are the primary ones for the university…

— It is a part of the state policy: our country needs new technologies, new equipment, new products. The number of state-funded places for economics and jurisprudence is gradually decreasing, and is increasing for engineering and natural science and mathematics specialities. There is a solid trend towards informatization, information technology, digitalization of management. And, of course, there is an increase in state-funded places in relevant specialties.

As for the SUSU policy, we have always been and still remain a multi-disciplinary university. We continue to train specialists in the fields of engineering and humanities. And humanitarian specialities are just as important for us.

— Could you give any examples?

— We have invested quite profoundly in the laboratory facilities of the School of Economics and Management. Some laboratories have a queue of those willing to work there: for example, the Centre of Business Development Technologies, where the tools of implementing lean manufacturing are being studied! First of all, the queue includes specialists of enterprises, and not only from the Chelyabinsk Region, but from the Big Urals and Siberia.

Last year, two more laboratories were opened: Financial Technology Laboratory, which through the simulation and business games teaches students, for example, how to conduct financial analysis of an enterprise; and Virtual Bank Laboratory, which simulates the real working process of a bank in a real time mode. This is popular among students. In particular, we have long been collaborating with the Chelyabinsk branch of Sberbank on the further development of this field.

These projects and those that I have not mentioned allow me to assert with good reason that the quality of economic education at SUSU fully complies with all the best Moscow standards.

The same picture is with the work in other humanitarian fields. The university is seriously investing in their development. And, in my opinion, this balance of developing both engineering and humanitarian programmes at SUSU is very important.

— Why?

— You see, the thing is…A “cold-eye” technician will never think out of the box, will never have new, unexpected ideas and thoughts, if s/he “lives and breathes” only in her/his own environment and does not constantly communicate with humanitarians. Humanitarians give charm to the university. And they bring to the university their attitude towards people, their experience of working with people, and not with equipment. Moreover, they are engaged in very serious science! For example, our historians have published two papers in the Nature journal.

— On what topic?

— The fact is that the South Urals and the Chelyabinsk Region, in particular, is a wonderful place. This, for example, was a place of residence of the Sarmatians and other peoples, who then migrated towards the west and south-west. The Hungarians also consider our region as their historical ancestral homeland.

Migration flows and migrations of peoples have been taking place at all times, including in our region. But the South Ural region, as you know, during the Soviet era was closed for foreigners, including scientists, archaeologists. And those migration processes that had happened here many centuries ago, on the one hand, are not very well studied, and on the other hand, represent a serious scientific interest. Basically, this is what the SUSU historians are working on, and are working very successfully.

The Cooperation Operation

— Several years ago, there were quite serious discussions about the fact that Russian academic science, and especially industrial science, are in deep decline, so the university science can and must “raise” the fallen banner and, at least, in some way replace or support the colleagues. What has become reality, where is the Russian university science heading to, and what is the situation with science at SUSU like?

— The university science is trying to take up a decent place. And first of all, in the fields where our universities have serious experience and competences. Our country has always had good Mathematics and Physics proficiencies. Those institutes and universities that were able to maintain their potential, scientific schools and specialists look very good now, including at the world level.

As for the industrial science — yes, a different system is being built right now, and there are practically no industrial institutes. Regarding the fact that universities have replaced or substituted them: today I would not say that. But the universities tend to increasingly yield scientific results in those industries that are interesting or are key for the regions where they are located.

We are waiting for the launch of the program on creating an interregional REC — a research and education centre, in which the Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk and Kurgan regions will participate. The goal of the project is to combine the efforts of the universities of the three regions, and of our scientists both with each other and with enterprises in order to produce a world-class product. This is a very serious step by our country, which should bring the university science closer to the industrial science.

As for us, SUSU is developing a number of interesting partner projects with scientific organizations, including institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Today, almost all major scientific advances in the world occur on a cross-disciplinary plane. The combination of competencies in different fields gives a powerful synergistic effect in terms of obtaining results. The university has its own examples of this.

— Like what?

— We are successfully collaborating with Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works (MMK). Soon, we will organize a design bureau at SUSU, which will be creating the digital industry in those fields that the plant needs. For example, in the rolling industry.

— Don't they have universities in Magnitogorsk?

— That is not the point. We have different, but complementary competencies and experience. Magnitogorsk Technical University has very good competencies in the field of melting technologies, and SUSU — in the field of digitalization (though we are also competent in metallurgy, to put it mildly). By combining our efforts, it is possible to obtain a qualitatively new result compared to the current one.

We have received a proposal for collaboration from the Institute of Metallurgy of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences regarding high-entropy alloys (complex alloys with improved physical properties, including mechanical ones, - EAN note). Our colleagues have a deep understanding of the subject in terms of creating such alloys, and physicochemical properties of materials. SUSU has the necessary competencies in the field of digitalization, artificial intelligence, supercomputer calculations and data processing.

This cooperation, I’d like to stress it once again, yields perfect results. The Program of Academic Excellence (a new stage in the development of Project 5-100, which ends this year - EAN note) involves the establishment of collaboration among universities, scientific organizations and enterprises.

We, on our part, are open for a dialogue. And we have some experience of joint work, including the work with international colleagues. For example, our long-term fruitful collaboration with Emerson, one of the major technology and engineering companies in the world, which is building the second stage of its production in Chelyabinsk and, in fact, has brought advanced technologies, solutions and developments to the South Ural region. And I am sure that this happened also thanks to collaboration with SUSU.

In short, we find it easier to work with foreigners for now. But this is only the beginning of our path...There are many extremely promising topics and opportunities that can be implemented within our region...

— Are there any specific projects?

— Unfortunately, there are few. We need to learn how to work together aiming for a joint-work result. Including the universities in Chelyabinsk do, too.

— You are saying the right things. But for many years there has been persistent talk in Chelyabinsk that the main goal of SUSU is to absorb all the other significant universities in the city. And this, let’s face it, scared and still scares away many potential partners from the possible collaboration.

— But, what would we need that for? It is simply not profitable for SUSU. First, we essentially lose cooperation, and approximately the same number of significant publications of scientific works (and these are created by few specialists) will have to be divided among a much larger number of academic staff. That will automatically lower the corresponding ranking indicators of the university. Second, in case of absorbing or merging, a completely uncontrollable gigantic machine would be created, which would be simply impossible to manage.

So, we have no ambitions to “swallow” our colleagues. And there will not be any. Moreover, it is simply more profitable to cooperate. For all the involved parties.

Infrastructure Issues

— Science, especially applied and experimental science, is very expensive...

— That is true. And we did a right thing when we put the entire billion roubles that had been allocated to us when we entered the program of National Research Universities to expand and renovate our scientific and technological base, and our infrastructure, such as laboratories, material resources, instruments, and equipment...

The Tornado supercomputer, which was created in 2013, is still considered to be one of the most powerful in our country. Its computing power is steadily loaded at 100%, and there is a line of people who want to use its capabilities.

We are planning to renovate the university's supercomputer capacities, which should increase the Tornado's performance by several times. There is also an option to build a second supercomputer. We will see…

— Wasn't there a temptation to start mining cryptocurrencies with such capacities?

— No, not really, The university has more serious, perspective, interesting and profitable tasks.

— What is SUSU’s scientific budget right now?

— About a billion rubles a year.

— Is that enough?

— Not enough, of course. It would be nice to double it.

— Is there a plan how to do it?

— There is.

— In addition to the scientific base, SUSU began to build a new complex of dormitories. Why is it located on the outskirts of the north-west district of Chelyabinsk, in the vicinity of “Topolinaya Alleya” area?

— I’d like to once again stress that these will be the best student dormitories in Russia. And they will solve the accommodation problems.

Why are they located there? It is simple: at that time, under the governorship of Mikhail Yurevich, we were simply not allowed to fulfil the plans on the development of the campus and the university as a whole, that we had and which were tied to the territory next to the monument to Igor Kurchatov. To be honest, I still cannot understand why they “turned us down” like that. So that someone would build some strange and not very popular shopping complex there? As a result, the great project that would have only decorated this space was rejected, and the look of the end of the main street of Chelyabinsk was ruined.

The land plot in the northwest was offered to the university as a replacement. We were told: “If you want to take it, than do it; if you don’t, then…”. So, we took it.

But we also have another interesting project. We are going to build an artificial intelligence centre in the L-town district, which is being constructed near the exit from Chelyabinsk in the direction heading towards Kremenkul. There is already a conceptual design.

The centre will look fantastic, the most serious scientific and educational problems will be solved there, and there will be more space, making the classrooms of the main university buildings less crowded. We will transfer there specialized structures relevant to information technologies, digitalization, and so on, there.

“The University Has to Be Needed…”

— Competitiveness has long become global, and higher education is no exception to that. Rankings have become one of the indicators of the state and the level of development of universities. Last month, SUSU once again got listed in the Top 1000 best universities in the world according to the World University Rankings, which is published by the British rating agency Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). The university has a permanent high standing in various Russian rankings. Do these rankings instil trust in you, and what place, in your opinion, does South Ural State University occupy among Russian universities and in the world?

— I can assess our places in the rankings as I like, but any assessment should be based on certain results.

First, SUSU is one of the 29 Russian national research universities.

Second, SUSU is among 21 universities, that participate in Project 5-100 (a government initiative aimed at adapting Russian universities to world standards and including them in the international educational environment. Launched in 2012, - EAN note).

Third, SUSU is one of the major universities in our country in terms of the number of students.

As for the rankings, they probably do not fully reflect all the aspects of the life and level of universities. But they represent one of the few criteria on the basis of which people make their choice: where to go to study, which university to graduate from so it will be easier to get a job afterwards, which university graduates are better to offer a job to, is it worth working at a particular university, what are the conditions for the work of academic staff, the development of scientists, and so on.

So, the rankings and the place of the university in them really matter.

Over the last years, SUSU has entered a number of Russian and international rankings. In particular, two of the three globally recognized world university rankings, in addition to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings you mentioned. We also entered the international rating of the Three University Missions being compiled in our country, and we are listed in about 20 smaller rankings, which assess and are assessed in different ways.

Our aim is to move up in these rankings. But this is not just a goal in and of itself. Growth should be based on the natural, progressive development of the university, improving its level and quality. In all aspects. We are interested in our graduates to be successful. In all aspects of their lives. It's not only about the material side of the matter, social status or career advancement, but also about being in demand, about the opportunities for professional, personal self-fulfilment and human happiness. 

— What place, in your opinion, will SUSU take among the universities of Russia and the world in the near future?

— The issue is much broader than just the standing in certain rankings.

Any university does not exist by itself. It has to be needed. In case of SUSU, it is primarily needed by the Chelyabinsk Region, and our residents. Moreover, the university can and should become an important factor, a driver of the advanced development of the South Ural region. The authorities have to understand that the long-term development of the territory is impossible without science, experience, competencies, education, primarily in the field of the so-called sixth technological paradigm (it includes various nanotechnologies and materials science, nanosystems engineering, nanobiotechnology, information technology, cognitive sciences, socio-humanitarian technologies , convergence of nano-, bio-, info- and cognitive technologies, - EAN note).

Ferrous metallurgy, even the most modern one, cannot be high-in-demand forever. At least, in its current form. And on the one hand, this is a huge threat, but on the other, a just as huge opportunity. And SUSU already has some groundwork here.

As for the place of our university... Our Supervisory Council has identified three main directions of development. The first is digital industry. The second is materials science. The third is ecology, to which we have begun to pay very serious attention.

In Russia, we want to become champions in the field of digital development among higher educational institutions and regions. We also want to become prize-winners in materials science and ecology. On the global scale, we want to become so famous, recognizable and respected that no one would be surprised and ask what kind of university we are, and where Chelyabinsk is situated...

Dmitriy Morgules, Photo by: Danil Rakhimov
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