Modernising engineering education and improving the training of technical specialists were the main subjects on the agenda.
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Opening remarks at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Science and Education
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, colleagues and friends.
Today, we will discuss concrete steps to modernise Russia’s system of engineering education. Lately, wherever I go, this issue always comes up in one form or another. It is a crucial matter for our country, our economy and our industry.
The countries that become global leaders today are those that can create breakthrough technology and use it to develop their own powerful production base. The quality of engineering specialists increasingly plays a key part in Russia’s competitiveness and, especially important, is the foundation for our technological and economic independence.
Russia has long been famed for its engineers. This profession was always greatly respected in pre-revolutionary Russia and during the Soviet period too. True, we all remember the time when there were a lot of jokes about engineers’ salaries and their quality of live, and yet even so, our society always gave this profession a lot of importance and respect.
“The countries that become global leaders today are those that can create breakthrough technology and use it to develop their own powerful production base. The quality of engineering specialists increasingly plays a key part in Russia’s competitiveness.”
We have taken a number of steps over recent years to bolster our country’s engineering education. We have established the national research universities that focus on training modern technical specialists. Since 2006, we have invested more than 54 billion rubles [$1.5 billion] in targeted programmes to develop the resource bases of engineering departments at universities. We have succeeded in raising the level of training, including in such critically important sectors as aviation, nuclear energy, the automotive industry, the metals sector, and energy machine-building.
It is good to see that the prestige of engineering as a profession is growing and an engineering career is looking increasingly attractive in terms of status and material benefits. Russia is carrying out major industrial projects that offer engineers opportunities for genuinely interesting work and ambitious plans.
It follows logically that we should see more and more students showing interest in mathematics, physics and chemistry at school. The rectors of our big universities say too that they have noted an increase in the prestige of engineering and a rise in the number of students seeking to enrol in engineering courses. Is this the case at Moscow State University?
Rector of LOMONOSOV MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY VIKTOR SADOVNICHY: Mr President, natural sciences are quite popular at the moment and the growth trend is in their favour – we are seeing increasing numbers of students hoping to get into these courses.
Vladimir Putin: You said there was a time when there was hardly any competition to enrol in engineering courses because everyone wanted to become lawyers, economists and managers.
Viktor Sadovnichy: That’s right, Mr President. The situation is changing, most definitely for the better.
Vladimir Putin: This is a positive trend, a good thing to see. If we want these young people to find their place in life and make their way in their careers, achieve success and realise their dreams for the good of our country, we need to take real steps forward to improve the quality of technical education we provide.
There is also objective demand for change in the system of training engineering personnel. Not only technology is changing, but so is our whole way of life. Our ideas of what the engineering profession is about are changing too, and we are placing higher demands on engineers today.
“We cannot allow the shortage of qualified personnel to put a brake on economic growth. Insufficiently qualified graduates from our universities are a problem in the same way.”
Today’s engineer is a high-level professional who not only ensures the functioning of highly complex equipment and builds modern machines and technology, but also essentially shapes our environment and activity. It is not by chance that such fields as genetic and social engineering have emerged. I ask you to discuss all of these different aspects and areas today, so as to analyse the pluses and minuses of the current system for training engineers.
We need to examine what we can do to make sure that this training system is fully up to today’s demands and the needs of our economy and society, and can help to resolve the general tasks we face today in the economy: raising competitiveness, technological modernisation of our industry, and achieving a real rise in labour productivity.
I believe that our technical education system should focus on training engineers who have the skills and qualifications our companies need. Businesses need not only the chief designers and researchers who come up with new technological solutions, but also the line engineers, the people on whom the entire profession rests. Their skills, competence and knowledge are often crucial for an effective and reliable production process, introducing new technology and ensuring a high-quality final product. It is these specialists who are in such short supply in our economy today. Businesses are literally fighting for competent professionals.
It is good to have demand and competition of course, but we cannot allow the shortage of qualified personnel we are seeing at our leading companies today to put a brake on economic growth. Insufficiently qualified graduates from our universities are a problem in the same way. For your reference – many of you probably already know this, but I will repeat it nonetheless – a 2013 survey of employers showed that they gave engineering graduates a score of 3.7 in a five-point scale. Employers think that around 40 percent of newly graduated engineers need further training.
There are several particularly important points I want to mention today. First of all, we need to identify which kind of specialists our various industrial sectors and regions need over the coming five to ten-year period, and ideally in the longer term too, over the next 20 years. We know of course that life is changing fast and technology keeps rushing ahead, and so it is probably hard to forecast for 20 years down the line, but the farther ahead we try to look now, the better it is. This is serious and painstaking work. We need to take a broader view and examine the fields that will shape future technology or are already doing so now.
We know that this includes fields such as robotics, production of new materials, biotechnology, preventive and personalised medicine, engineering and design. We also need to form a clear idea of the sectors that will become growth engines for developing entire territories such as Siberia, the Far East and the Arctic.
We should estimate our needs for engineering specialists in the medium and long term, looking at needs by sector, region, and big employer. I ask the Government and the regions, employers’ associations and state-owned companies to draft proposals on mechanisms for coming up with such estimates.
“Teachers must have up to date knowledge and understand the full technological process, not as it was 10 or 20 years ago, but the way work is organised at the cutting edge businesses that are technological leaders in their fields.”
We must also update development programmes for state-owned companies and regions, and identify their personnel needs, above all for engineering personnel. These estimates should become references to be used already today throughout the technical education system. This includes the number of budget-funded students and additional professional education for engineers who are already working. I will say more on this subject later.
Demand for future skills must be taken into account too, in developing new professional standards and making an inventory of existing ones. The National Skills and Qualifications Council, which includes representatives from Russia’s main business associations, is involved in this work. Let me say again how important it is to update professional standards and use them as the base for modernising education standards in this field.
Colleagues, we have said before that we must bring professional education much closer to real workplace needs. This plays a decisive part in training engineers. We have major industrial centres in the Urals and Siberia, and we have big plans for developing industry in the Far East.
However, most of the leading universities are in the European part of Russia, primarily in Moscow and St Petersburg. This creates a situation where specialists in the metals sector and some other fields, needed in other regions, the regions with the development prospects, are all in one place thousands of kilometres away, and the personnel are in other regions altogether. Obviously, in such a situation, it is hard to talk about training specialists for specific companies’ and plants’ needs or getting the required workplace experience.
The budget is spending huge sums of money and the universities are working away, but the students often already know that they will not pursue an engineering career, will not travel to another city or region to work, and want to stay in the city where they are studying. In other words, technical universities are turning out future office workers, bank employees, personnel for other sectors, which is all well and good, but there are other universities and training avenues producing these specialists. The problem is without question complex in nature and a sensitive issue for the students themselves and for universities. This is something we must think about, an issue we must resolve.
When young people enrol at a technical university, they should see their chosen course of study as leading to their future profession, and they should have all the right conditions for getting a quality education and finding work afterwards. Clearly, we cannot take hasty, drastic steps on issues such as reorganising universities, but must look for flexible and effective approaches and solutions.
Students could get their basic engineering training at technical universities in the big cities, for example, and we could increase the number of educational programmes that combine study with workplace experience at companies in the regions where engineers are needed. Let’s discuss all the possible options here. I would like to hear your views on this matter.
“We need to more actively invite leading scientists and practitioners from abroad to teach at our technical departments.”
The next question is who will teach our future engineers? Teachers must have up to date knowledge and understand the full technological process, not as it was 10 or 20 years ago, but the way work is organised at the cutting edge businesses that are technological leaders in their fields.
There are several things I think important in this respect. First, we must change the actual structure of the educational process in technical universities and put the emphasis more on practical knowledge, not to the detriment of theory and lectures, but still, there should be more hands-on practice and more opportunities for students’ and teachers’ scientific research.
Second. We need to more actively invite leading scientists and practitioners from abroad to teach at our technical departments. In this regard, I will note the results demonstrated by the so-called mega-grant programme. Our students, young lecturers and graduate students now have the opportunity to learn directly from the stars in global science, including our compatriots who have worked or continue to work at foreign universities and research centres.
I myself have met many times at various platforms with people who have moved to Russia and are teaching here, with faculty members who are already working with our college and graduate students. The results are good: the mega-grant model has already yielded 160 scientific laboratories, and significant scientific results have been reached.
Meanwhile, we should create opportunities for domestic academic mobility, so that lecturers from Moscow, St Petersburg and other major Russian cities can teach students at regional universities and, in turn, receive practical experience themselves, learning about the work of the largest companies, doing investigative work on in-demand industry topics.
Third. Future engineers should not be taught only by researchers; they must get practical experience as well. We must remove barriers that do not allow universities to attract experts working at specific companies. Naturally, there should be a corresponding methodology and approaches – you can’t just invite any expert into a university, but we need to develop criteria for the right people and invite them to teach.
I feel that the Education and Science Ministry should remove excessive requirements for universities in this area. For example, it should simplify mechanisms for faculty members to hold more than one position – but only those who are working specifically on research or at a production facility. Incidentally, what I am telling you now is all the result of my conversations with people on location – both at large companies and universities.
“Future engineers should not be taught only by researchers; they must get practical experience as well. We must remove barriers that do not allow universities to attract experts working at specific companies.”
There is another important topic. We need not only engineers, but also leaders from large groups who are capable of implementing major projects. In this regard, I feel it is imperative to create conditions for the development of project-oriented education for engineers. Educational standards should be adapted to these objectives, using the best practices from Soviet engineering education, leading foreign practices and our own experience in Russia.
At the same time, we should encourage students to carry out their first projects. These may be students from various departments and educational institutions who are prepared to work as part of a team and resolve design challenges and implement their ideas. We will develop a system of competitions to support student groups.
These mechanisms are currently becoming an effective way to train personnel and provide vocational guidance, building cooperation between universities and employers, putting together powerful teams and identifying the best, most talented and promising students. It is important for the competitive challenges not to be abstract, but rather, to involve the creation of a product for specific companies.
Just recently, I visited a company in one of the regions. The company’s managers stated directly: “We need certain types of equipment used at the company; we are prepared to finance it and provide the money. We will buy it. And we would very much like for our university (the large university nearby) to be capable of doing this.” You see, there are real domestic sources of funding.
Instructions have been given to organise an annual national competition for college and graduate students with engineering majors. I hope that these instructions are being carried out and we will soon see the results. It is imperative to think about other means of support for student projects and competitions. Let’s all discuss this.