The unique traditions of university city
2013-11-20 | Text: Interview with Yury Pokholkov | Photo ©: | 4823

 

Today we speak about Tomsk - city of students, engineers and scientists. Our interviewee – Yury Pokholkov  is the head of the Department of Management and Technology in Higher Professional Education of National Research Tomsk Polytechnic University (Institute until 1991), President of the Russia Engineering Education Association, in 1990-2008 – Rector of Tomsk Polytechnic University.

 

- Yury Petrovich, please advise why Tomsk has become exactly as it is now – a city with a very special mood and special people?

 

Tomsk has very strong traditions. They shape minds and affect the subconscious of people, attitudes, create a unique atmosphere. Tomsk is a city with a special microclimate of human relations. As I see it, we have upgraded the level of mutual respect, tolerance, benevolence and friendliness. To this I’d like to add the image of the city with its main decoration – wooden palaces. Our city is called smart. At least for the last 50 years we have intelligent and enlightened authorities – we are lucky. People who have lived in Tomsk for a little and then for some reason left it, are eager to go back, even in the dreams.

For example, TPU graduates come to the University every 5 years. They are still fond of the University, interested in its life and help it. I have seen it in any other high school. The management structure of the institution also differs from the others. Development strategy of the institution shall be approved by the Assembly, which consists of representatives of the Board of Trustees, Graduates Council and University senate. In several Russian cities, at many enterprises there are branches of TPU Graduates Council. Only Moscow branch amounts more than 600 TPU graduates. Mainly they are at good positions: ministers, their deputies, heads of companies, academics. Being Rector of TPU, every year I visited them and reported, what had been done during the previous period. 

Great significance has the fact that Tomsk is a Siberian city, and Siberia means severe conditions, where you are to survive. Me, for example, grew up on the small mine. They consider that if you are not able to make a fire in the damp weather, do not know how to hunt, fish, pick berries, mushrooms or do anything to survive under the difficult conditions in the taiga, then you are not a man, and you will be treated with neglect. This public opinion is characteristic for Siberia. Therefore Siberian people do not shrink from difficulties; they are obstinate and know how to get what they want. They are ready to lend their shoulder to each other, know how to work in a team. Here in Siberia they understand, that it is not possible to trample down each other and to climb along the heads - it will bring you to nothing. But together we shall win. In addition, the Siberians, in spite of being obstinate, are very reasonable and considerate people, and, before they do anything, they ten times think, if it is worth doing. One of my teachers used to say, «before punching the wall with your head, think what you gonna do in a neighboring cell”. So the Siberians will neither force an open door, nor punch a wall to get into the next room. But they do everything, however, altogether, quickly, durable and reliable, for life.

 

-Speaking about the traditions of engineering education – how were they formed in Tomsk?

 

Tomsk is an old university city, which developed parallel to the classical university and technical education.

At the end of the 19th century, when Tomsk State University opened, there was only one Faculty of medicine. Next Law Faculty opened and then others. In 1895 Trans-Siberian Railway was implemented, and development of mineral-raw-material base of Siberia has begun. It needed professional s in engineering sphere. But foundation of Tomsk Technological Institute was under discussion: it was cheaper to open an engineering faculty in the existing University and there prepare technical specialists. There were a lot of controversy and discussions, but then State Council made a decision to establish a separate higher technical educational institution. It considered that if we open an engineering faculty at the State University, it could both ruin classical education, but not get engineering.

Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev was actively involved in the creation of the institute. He recommended to appoint his student, now professor of Kharkov Technological Institute Yefim Lukyanovich Zubashev as a Director of the Institute. Perhaps, therefore, the first department of the new university was chemical department. It is worth mentioning another historical person, who has an important influence on the creation of the Institute and, in general, on the organization of engineering education in Siberia. It is - Sergei Yulievich Witte, that time he was Minister of Finance of Russia. Here is a record from his diary: “The fifth of March, 1896. Today I crossed out allocation for the battleship and sent it to the creation of Tomsk Technological Institute». Isn’t it a historic decision?! Perhaps he never suspected that this decision has laid the foundation for the development of a number of sectors of Russian industry in Siberia: metal mining, coal, chemical, metallurgy ... Thus it greatly ensured the victory of our people in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945

Proposed name of the Institute was Tomsk Technological Institute for Practical Engineers. It was supposed to open two departments: chemical and mechanical. But in the final it was a little different. E.L. Zubashev, before arriving in Tomsk, undertook a long journey to Siberia. He returned from the trip with a firm belief that Tomsk Technological Institute should be the type of Polytechnic Higher Education Institution. In his report addressed to Tzar, he suggested that it should be named as «Tomsk Technological Institute of Emperor Nikolay and in addition to chemical and mechanical departments open mining and construction departments. That time, in the first years of Tomsk Technological Institute, they laid the foundation of the main traditions of Tomsk Polytechnic University and of higher technical education in general.

The first tradition is the unity of scientific and educational processes. Each teacher should have research, each researcher was to work with students and teach them knowledge. The second tradition is thorough practical training of engineers. A huge number of subjects, real projects, invitation of highly skilled professionals from economy and industry sectors for teaching. The third tradition is a high level of standards. Therefore, there was a very high expulsion percentage at the University. I don't know exactly the rate now, but at the time I worked as a Rector, only 60%of all the students could gain the diploma. The rest were dropout. It was believed that any graduate of Tomsk Polytechnic University was worthy of a graduate with honors from any other University.

Finally, the fourth tradition is novatorstvo, as it was called in the Soviet era or as it is called now «innovation in education». It means to be all the time in the experiment, in search. We work as a kind of laboratory for all the high school. Then it is natural that the first Research Institute at a University was opened in 1923 at TPI.

When they started development of coal, metallurgical, chemical and nuclear industries in Siberia and Asian part of Russia, the important process was usually headed by graduates of TTI-TPI. We had design-engineering departments that designed the steelworks and coal mines; organized the first Supreme engineering courses for training of Directors of mines, where they got a college degree within 2-3 years.

When I was working as a Vice-Rector on scientific work and at the same time was a Head of Electrical Insulating and Cable Technology Department of TPI, some representatives of the Ministry of the electronic industry of the USSR came to us to recruit a group of our cable maker graduates for the construction of a new cable factory in Uzbekistan. I asked why they needed the whole group if they could find right people from various universities, they answered that there are twelve similar Departments in the Soviet Union, but they have confidence only in the graduates of Tomsk Polytechnic University, that they will be able to build and run the plant, and nobody will escape. Our graduates have always been committed to a specific task, and this differs them from graduates of other universities. Such kind of code of corporate culture. 

 

– When we spoke to citizens of Tomsk, there was a feeling that they have greatly developed engineering thinking, but the business is rather weak...

 

Yes, but in Russia it is widespread. I often set an example: the English made a flea and a Russian Lefty could shoe it, and we are proud of it. But as you know then the flea was not able to jump and didn’t “come into the market”. So we can say that it was just an «image» project – the Russian economy was not affected, although we feel pride for our Left-handed craftsman. And it happens in many cases: rather than take part in the competition, we are often put the finishing touches, but then we do not take benefits from it. This is the Russian mentality, and it could not be altered in the course of one generation. This is a larger system than just the corporate culture.

 

-Did you try to work on this problem at the Polytechnic Institute?

 

 Sure! Time after time we attempt to hone our students’ business skills, but till now we are not successful. Firstly, because our teacher due to a number of understandable reasons is usually far from business environment and business processes, as he is not a business man. But how can he teach what he doesn't know himself!? Secondly, the conditions in the country and in the Tomsk Region exactly, slightly contribute to the formation of the market.

To succeed in this direction, several years ago we established an Institute for engineering entrepreneurship at TPU. It was my idea as Rector. I believe that we should create enterprise engineering at two levels – as a business and as entrepreneurship in engineering. A person with engineering training should know the business environment and be able to properly present a product, enter into a contract for the lease, make orders, and explore the market and so on. Entrepreneurship in engineering means that the engineer has to deal with any development critically, creatively.  He should immediately figure out where it needs to be improved so that in future it shall be better. For example, to shave now we use a razor with 5 blades, vibrator and a battery. But when I was a student, we used «safe» blades «Neva» that are inserted into a special machine. When shaving you could cut yourself several times.  But some person (of course with engineering thinking) got an idea to change the design, choose the required materials, increase the number of blades and make it vibrate so that shaving became softer. And all this is a result of entrepreneurship in engineering. No one ordered a razor with 5 blades and vibration, but the market took it with a bang.

 

– You have repeatedly stressed the special corporate culture of Polytechnic University, which is common with its graduates. Do you purposely create it?

 

Corporate culture, either you want it or not, may be found in any team. It is born precisely at a time when the team is created. But its development depends on the kind of people in the team, and its management.

At TPU we specially researched the corporate culture of our team, we have highly qualified professionals in this field, particularly Victor Aleksandrovich Pushnykh, the author of many famous publications on problems of corporate culture formation. From the variety of corporate culture types we studied four types of it: culture of hierarchy, family, competitive environment and creativity. We held a special survey and found out the domination of cultures in our team (of teachers and scientific employees).

Despite the fact that being the Rector, I considered myself a democrat, I saw the dominance of hierarchical culture – a culture of command, in which obedience is  increasingly encouraged rather than achieving creative results. Culture of the family was also significant. It means that there are «moms and dads» who can gently reprimand or praise, but they will bring you «meals on a silver platter». It means that at the University they are waiting when father Rector brings resources to start doing something. As for the culture of competition and creativity - they were present in a reduced form.

Corporate culture exists regardless of whether we form it or not. When we realize that we live in a competitive environment, in the context of a market economy, and our graduates are entering this market to find a niche by any allowed ways, then we shall prepare them to this life. But we can't teach them the subject which we ourselves do not know. And if the corporate culture is more biased toward the culture of hierarchy and culture of family, such specialists won’t be active players in the market, because they do not know how to operate in the competitive environment. They are not trained to make researches so that their inventions should become the basis for business.

To change the corporate culture and direct its vector towards culture of competition and creativity, it is necessary to consider what activities should be undertaken at the University. For example, if we talk about the culture of competition, everything has to be penetrated with the competition. It is important to convey that all the life is a contest, competition, and only victory can propel you in development. Or, let's say, if we believe that the culture of creativity should take precedence over hierarchical culture, it means that for breaking an order you shouldn’t be punished extremely  strict, but you should be highly encouraged, if you invent something new in every field – engineering, organizational, cultural, etc.

We ought to understand that engineering in Russia is suffering not only from the level of engineering education, but also from its arrangement, its focus on a specific goal.We are focused on training engineers, capable to work in a good company, with perfect supply and efficient management. Great deals of the graduates, for example, from our university, are well aware of the subject of their work, profession-oriented disciplines and their professional competence is at a very high level. But we are not able yet to train an engineer for a market economy to work in a competitive environment, with a number of qualities to succeed in the free market. The mentioned qualities (besides professional competence) include the ability to think independently and systematically, solve real problems, win the competition, the ability to engineering creativity, high technological culture, engineering ethics and responsibility, team work, and others.A lot of changes shall be implanted in high school, so that graduates possess these qualities. 

 

– When you were the Rector, TPU started cooperation with Heriot-Watt University. Please tell us about this project.

 

At that time, the beginning of the noughties of the century, an oil company «Yukos»   sent its best young staff to study at Heriot-Watt University. This is one of the world best universities, famous for its efficient training of masters in the field of oil field development. The course of master's program training lasted a year and cost the company about £ 36 thousand per person.  After a while it became clear that some of the trained personnel stay there, not even finishing the master course. During their studies some foreign companies watch the students and then offer an invitation to work for big money.

When the problem became acute, the oil company executives turned to the oil business staff training universities with the idea to “transplant” the English Masters program on Russian soil. I know that the oil company together with transnational company Schlumberger has made the proposal to Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas and Ufa State Petroleum Technological University but the Universities’ position was that they didn’t need any English program here, but for this price they themselves could train the company specialists. I think, the same story happened in Tyumen. But when they came to us, I said, «Let’s do it».  In 2001 we launched this project.

When we established the joint Center, Brian Smart, Director of the Oil and Gas Technology Institute of Heriot-Watt University was very doubtful that we would be able to prepare everything properly and timely start studies according to the requirements. They wanted even the walls in the Center to be the same colour and exactly the same uniform, as at Heriot-Watt. Back in April we had just brick walls under construction, but on the first of October we started classes there. He also feared that English teachers wouldn’t’ desire to go to Tomsk. But a year later he confessed that he had upset relations with his friends as many of them wanted to go to Moscow, and had to choose among them. That's because in the walls of the Center we have collected the best graduates of the best universities of Russia. Ivan Koshovkin, who was at that time the Head of the Centre, former head of the largest Design Institute in the oil industry, managed to arrange the project as the start for a system of innovative education programs of TPU. The result of the programmes implementation was the training of elite professionals and teams of professionals of the world level for priority areas of engineering and technology. Among them are master's degree programs in the field of Cybernetics, material engineering, pipeline transportation of oil and gas, hydrogen energy, non-destructive testing and others. Many programmes are implemented with the participation of our foreign partners, such as the University of Berlin and the University of Munich. TPU graduates under these programs often get two diplomas: the TPU diploma and the diploma of the partner University. The partnership, together with the opportunities of industrial companies, provides a considerable improvement in the quality of training, enriches content and educational technology.

Since then more than 10 years passed. Within the mentioned period only Heriot-Watt Centre has trained more than 700 graduates with two diplomas and retrained about 4000-5000 postgraduates. The Centre annually carries out scientific research for 9-10 million rubles. This is a unique project for Russia. When professors of Geological Exploration University tell me that they are not professional petroleum technicians because they do not have specialized education in oil sphere, I always answer: «Please sell me one of your specialist at least for 5 thousand dollars”. And employers pay to Tomsk Polytechnic University at least 28 thousand dollars per one student per year. Why do they pay so much for «non-specialists» rather than for «specialists»? The secret is just in competences. The employer pays for what is referred to as exclusive competences.

 

 -Well, finishing our conversation, what direction in your opinion the technical education should move on?

 

The answer to this question is up to Russia National doctrine of engineering education, the development and acceptance of which is now of high need and importance. In my view, the model of engineering education doctrine should consist of two parts. The first part is the formation of technically educated nation. We should not trace after Bachelors in engineering and technology if they started working within their specialty. They are to graduate from high school, enter the labour market and find their place there. It’s their choice if they want to be workers or engineers, technicians (if employed). In the end, they might not work within their specialty at all. But it is crucially important that the nation shall be full of people with technical education. If a trained technician comes to his workplace, the intellectual potential of this place is increasing. It means that this workplace would be receptive to new technologies.

People with first level of higher education (Bachelor's degree) become more adapted to life. They are able to find better jobs elsewhere, even create new jobs. These people have been able to work, to be so highly skilled workers to build educational programs of Bachelor preparation to learning they had a chance to get two or three working profession (have appropriate level). Today many modern enterprises employ only university graduates for highly skilled workers job. In the future this tendency will just be enhanced. Here in Tomsk, for example, there are already several innovative enterprises, which do not employ personnel without higher education for highly skilled workers on modern equipment – it has a lot of devices that require a high level of training.

So the second part of this model is the advanced engineering education, and a lot of trained bachelors make a generous layer, which is on the one part, the source for the formation of an engineering elite, on the other part , the community, providing a higher level of the technological culture and innovation susceptibility. This part of the model involves training specialists (engineers, masters) with innovative, proactive thinking providing scientific and technological progress and the victory of Russian developments in world markets. This approach, as it seems to me, makes me hope that Russia could take a worthy place in the international division of labour.

So today, when people talk about the need to reduce the number of people with higher education, I am very afraid that this path is not the right direction ...  Just imagine that most of the people are highly skilled workers, but new technologies will require higher level of education. What’s then? Perhaps there is such a critical proportion of bachelors, trained in areas of engineering and technology, which is essential to ensure the competitiveness of the Russian economy. It is supposed that this proportion should be large enough. It significantly reduces the innovation resistance of society and will increase its technological culture and technological sensibility. Otherwise, if the vast majority of people in society have their education in areas other than engineering and technology, being unable to use modern technologies, then Russia could become a country which would not be able to develop any new engineering solution, but also would be unable to perceive new engineering and technology. In other case we will have to deal with the problem due to educated migrants. I really hope that it will never happen. 

 

 

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