Vladimir Vasilyev: "It's MOre than a University. It's love."

The Head of the Council of St. Petersburg Rectors, Vladimir Vasilyev was re-elected as rector of ITMO University. Today, on the 1st April, we can congratulate Vladimir Nikolaevich not only on this achievement but also on his birthday! On this day, which is also April Fool’s Day, we are publishing an interview with the Rector about the serious and the important, about the past and the future of the university, the role of the university in the modern world and about what drives the development of one of the leaders of Project 5-100.

 

Mr. Vasilyev, you have been the rector at ITMO University for more than twenty years. Has the University changed over the years? What are the key factors, in your opinion, that have most of all influenced its transformation?

Like most schools, our University over the past twenty years has gone through several periods of development. I think the one that was most difficult was the period during the mid to late nineties, not only for Russian universities, but also for all universities of the former Soviet Union. From an education system that was based on state planning, we moved into a completely new and incomprehensible for us market conditions. For the period from 1995 to 1997 and part of 1998, we had minimal funding, and from then the wave of privatisation hit. More often than not, this money wasn’t set aside for improving the quality of education and management, but to purchase additional land in a nice part of town since in Saint Petersburg and in other cities university campuses were in the centre of the city and were a lure for the business community. Therefore, before 2000 we were not thinking about the development of higher education, but about survival, trying to save what we have.

Since the late nineties, we understood that this was a short term strategy and for the first time we had a new direction – development. The idea of focusing on certain key areas was still not around, but we had made it through the difficult times and were moving forward. The university as an organisation needed an extra push, some kind of event, so the turning point between the first and second periods was the turn of the millenium, which coincided with the 100 year anniversary of ITMO university.  We started to actively hold conferences and meetings with graduates, and this intensive work continued for two years, until the third period of development started when along with strengthening the educational process, we started to promote science. At this time the main trend in tertiary education was working with full-fee paying students – they made up about 70% of the students. We discussed this question with the Academic Council and came to the conclusion that chasing “sponsors” wasn’t the right thing to do and that the university is not the same as technical and vocational schools, because the university is engaged in research. 

It’s funny to talk about it now but back then we weren’t in the top ten universities even in St. Petersburg, because of the low volume of scientific publications, but after focusing our efforts in 2009, we received the title of “National Research University”.  

In 2005, we started to make the first attempts to create an infrastructure for commercialization, and in 2010-11 – we made similar attempts to become involved in international activities, which now, as we can see, have yielded significant results. At the turn of the new year in 2016, all of these efforts came together, like puzzle pieces. A synergetic effect came about where education and scientific research were developing at the same time as new directions were arising connected with foresight, entrepreneurship, and social development. I can’t say that this system is totally ready and flawless, but the overall picture looks great since teachers, researchers, students and graduate students are working together. The presentation at Project 5-100 gave ITMO University an extra impulse, this program helped us to have a more clear list of what we need to do in the next seven years and get to the level of a truly excellent educational institution in the international arena. 

Is Project 5-100 more about competition or, rather, about working together to improve the quality and effectiveness of the entire education system?
It's about the education system and the system in general, so that all its elements will seamlessly blend together. It’s not worth thinking that all tertiary institutions are similar to each other – every university has its mission, its strategic goals, its business culture, so we have to acknowledge and understand this.  Any changes or advancements require well thought out preparation and collaboration with the entire team. So Project 5-100 – is absolutely in the right direction, even though people criticize it sometimes. The reason for criticism is understandable: the number of participants in Project 5-100 is a small percentage of the total number of Russian universities and so naturally other colleagues are not delighted by this. However, these universities, they set the standard, they influence the development of the educational system, not only in Russia but in the whole world. 

How does International collaboration help to improve Russian Education? 

When we talk about international collaboration this doesn’t just mean interactions in scientific research, although we see that a team is forming which works in different countries and has excellent results. The experience of foreign colleagues helps improve the educational process, you can see how these colleagues are building the education system, what demands they place on graduates, which competencies they expect from professionals. Even though cultures are different between countries, the main characteristics of youth in different countries are similar and efforts which are needed for working with youth, even if they aren’t the same, they have more or less the same core. 

Furthermore, international collaboration is also important for the improvement of management systems of educational institutions, it’s necessary to adopt, localize and apply best practices to our environment. Exchange programs for students, teachers and research staff is important for improving the quality of the system as a whole, and so increasing mobility which has been improving in the last few years thanks to Project 5-100, has had an extremely positive effect on the quality of the education at ITMO University. 

Currently, there is a lot of talk about University 3.0 and even 4.0, about the role of universities in the development of various aspects of our lives. Describe how you understand the role of the university in the development of the country? What functions of this social institution would you start with?

European universities, which arose mainly in the early middle ages, had a clear objective, before the 19th century they were focused on creating specific opportunities to raise social status of the people and acted as the custodians of knowledge. Later, they had another mission to conduct scientific research and so universities started to focus on two areas: generating new knowledge and teaching students techniques for acquiring this knowledge. At the end of the last century it became clear that universities don’t have to be removed from the process of development of a city and country in which they belong, or the industries for whom they are training staff. Therefore the society and the government began to expect a more serious impact on the economy’s development, the creation of new technologies, commercialisation of the results of intellectual activities, while also being completely independent not just doing run of the mill work. Such universities received the name “entrepreneurial” or “University 3.0”, something which is only just starting in Russia. I am very pleased to say that the understanding of this mission existed in our university already for ten years, and so the ITMO university team is invited to participate in discussions about many complex questions about the development of the country as a whole. 

One of the objectives of University 4.0 – is the construction and development of the region in which it is located. From this logically follows a new feature – social responsibility to the community, the residents of the region or metropolis, and, of course, new questions arise: what is social responsibility? How does the technology developed at the university affect society etc? For many universities, the development of entrepreneurship is a new and strange direction, but this doesn’t mean that education or the generation of scientific knowledge is any less important. What I’m talking about is conveying the entrepreneurial spirit, creating and implementing new products and services, which will affect people’s lives. We can hide no longer – universities have to open themselves up to the economy, to employers, and to the local community and thanks to that become more sustainable in their development. 

You are already familiar with several generations of students. How do current students differ from their predecessors? Does ITMO University have any issues with this generation gap?

It is clear that every generation of students differs from the previous one. While the 70s/80s generation only received information through television, telephone and face-to-face, today’s students have much more technology at their disposal. They can get information from almost anywhere, and their main concern learning how to filter out “garbage”. But I don’t think there is any possibility for a generation gap problem if people understand that they are equal and that core human values are the same and independent of national cultures or religions. We are all united by Love with a capital "L"

I would have say that every successive generation is slightly better than the previous one, otherwise there would not be any progress. And I mean not only in the development of technology, but in culture, the relationships between people: since the Second World War, the world has lived without any serious global shocks, although before that they happened regularly. Somehow we came to the conclusion that we should be more careful with human life, to mother earth.

When you were a student, how did you feel about the higher education system?

We had a clear understanding that nobody could help us better than ourselves. If we needed something to be done we needed to do it ourselves without asking for any help. All in all teachers always were our highest and absolute authority. My school and university teachers were all World War II veterans. They didn't like to talk about it but we could see that they had brave souls and nothing left to fear. Russians launched the first satellite and the nuclear project, sent the first man into space despite the fact that the country was literally destroyed after the War. I think that our current teachers don't have this victorious feeling inside, this feeling of freedom. What we need is to find such character traits both in teachers and students. They need to learn not to give up if something isn't going well, which happens quite often.

Staff at technical universities like to predict future scientific breakthroughs and inventions. However, not everyone is ready to predict the future of the University itself. What do you think, what kind of changes are most necessary?

I think that we suffer from a lack of understanding and implementation of continuing education. After graduating from your bachelor's degree your educational opportunities are not over. You can continue with professional development or professional training. Unfortunately, it is still hard for us to accept the fact that we should be learning for our whole life. The age of 16 to 23 is the time of identity formation, and it is a perfect time to bring up the idea of continuing education to students. It is very important not to repeat the same things all the time during classes, but to create new methods of stimulating students to continue developing their skills and knowledge. The range of such methods is really small for now.

Mr. Vasilyev, this is your fifth term as a university’s rector. That means that you will be in charge of Project 5-100 for the next four years. What changes are you planning to implement by 2020? 

We will implement changes according to the University’s roadmap. This plan is not fixed, of course, it may be adjusted and corrected, but we are sure that we have chosen the right track.  We want to raise a new generation that will be able to manage universities, but first we need to find those people, educate them and make sure that they are ready for the transformation our country will be going through in 2020. Improvement of quality can not be assessed based on words or reports of plans but on project results.   

Do you have any ideas about a possible successor? What qualities should such a person have? 

I’d say that this would be a team, and not an individual successor. This team should continue developing as it is now but also take things to another level. The main idea the rector and his colleagues should bear in mind is not loving being a part of the university but loving the university being a part of them. I am sure that my successors will be exactly like that – there are plenty of them working at ITMO University now. This job requires a lot of effort and emotional engagement, it will steal the time one could have spent with his or her family, but this is the only way of managing several thousands of employees. Love is the center and everything else will fall into place around it.

 

I cannot help but ask – when are you planning the next bike ride with the rector? Spring is here.

I think we’ll be able to do that in the middle or in the end of May – I need to check my business trip schedule. I hope there will be a warm evening when we’ll be able to ride our bikes together on Yelagin island!

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