‘Find answers to the challenges of digitisation’ Rector Nikolay Kropachev speaks about what will change in the University during 10 years ahead

St Petersburg University is preparing to celebrate its 300th anniversary on 8 February 2024. This year, St Petersburg University’s anniversary is full of anticipation for the grand anniversary. In honour of the solemn event, Rector of St Petersburg University Nikolay Kropachev has answered questions about: what path the Russian higher education has been following over a three-century history; what the most in demand professions in the near future are; and how St Petersburg University has managed to remain a flagship of science for nearly 300 years.

Midday canon shot to mark the St Petersburg University anniversary

The founder of the University Peter the Great was a man of ideas, a tireless leader, and a reformer. What tasks did he set for the University?

Apart from those qualities you have mentioned in relation to Peter the Great, I want to add an amazing gift of foresight. He was able to appreciate the role of science and education to develop Russia as a great state that he had wished. To this end, in 1724 he issued a decree to establish the Academy of Sciences and the University. It says that 'the University is a collection of learned people who teach high sciences to young people’. This is how St Petersburg University, no matter how it has been called in different years throughout its three-century history, has seen its state and public mission.

Some more history: in the 18th century in Russia, the word 'university’ was almost unknown. What did ordinary people of that time put into this concept? What was the idea of science and how was it transformed over time?

In Russia, the word 'university' came into use and into the minds slowly but surely. During the time of Peter the Great and even at the beginning of the 19th century, less than 2% of the population were literate. Based on the fact that instead of a cross they could write their surname, the idea of science was from Lomonosov’s idea ‘What can own Platons and quick-witted Newtons Russian land to give birth' to Famusov's idea ‘If evil is to be stopped, take away all the books and burn them’. Those who adhered to the latter opinion prevailed even among the nobility and aristocracy, i.e. the highest class in the society.

In the first years after the University had been founded, only a few young men studied at the University, who were keen on sciences. In the first quarter of the 19th century, there were six universities across Russia with less than 2,000 students.

Today, more than 25,000 students study at our University. There are 18 faculties and nine institutes, two colleges, and the Academic Gymnasium. The University offers academic programmes in almost all fields of knowledge. More than 80% of school graduates in 2020, according to surveys, were going to get a degree at the University. St Petersburg University traditionally attracts the best applicants. We confidently remain first in terms of number of applicants who have the highest average score of the Unified State Examination among all classical universities in Russia.

For several years in a row, St Petersburg University remains the most popular university in Russia among international applicants (according to the number of applications submitted by applicants using the electronic systems of Rossotrudnichestvo). Despite the difficulties associated with overcoming international borders, the total number of applications for admission to St Petersburg University from foreign citizens last year amounted to almost 21,000 per 1,000 government-funded places.

Today, there are many universities in our country. St Petersburg is even called the educational capital. There are more than 300,000 students. What makes the University unique?

Let's try to describe the distinctive nature of our University.

Education. The University offers more than 490 degree programmes, and over the past 12 years, almost 2,000 programmes have been developed, about half of which are implemented in the current academic year.

Research. More than 500 research teams, more than 20 laboratories led by leading scientists, more than 17,000 publications in scientific journals annually, with more than 4,300 in international journals in 2021 indexed by international scientometric databases Web of Science and Scopus. More than 2,300 of them are published in leading journals in the first and second quartiles, including 42 publications in Science and Nature Publishing Group.

St Petersburg University has the Research Park, which is a state-of-the-art research and development centre that includes 23 resource centres. It follows the principle of open access. Anyone, not necessarily the University staff and students, can use its resources and equipment, if they follow a number of general rules. They can perform their tasks simultaneously (or sequentially) using the equipment of several resource centres. Many resource centres conduct research of an interdisciplinary nature, i.e. at the intersection of sciences.

The area of ​​the premises of the Research Park is over 30,000 sq. m. More than 1,400 units of state-of-the-art equipment can be found here: scientific, educational, and auxiliary. Among them are more than 130 unique measuring systems, each costing more than 10 million roubles. The total amount of investment in the Research Park equipment by the end of 2021 amounted to 7.5 billion roubles.

The staff of the Research Park is a team of 12,000 employees, including approximately 4,700 Russian and foreign academic staff.

Openness. The University has been pursuing a policy of openness for more than a decade, which is finding an unprecedented response among University students and staff and members of the public. Any student or employee of St Petersburg University can read the minutes of the Rector's meetings, observe how competitions are held, participate in the acceptance of renovation works, and much more. The University is the first Russian university to introduce this practice.

As long ago as 2015 (Order No 9066/1 'On the Implementation of Legislative Requirements for the Language of St Petersburg University’s By-Laws' dated 26 November 2015), St Petersburg University was the first in Russia to introduce a possibility to include a special clause in all orders, according to which anyone can improve the document. Being able to take part in various areas of the University life for academic staff and students leads to healthy competition and personal growth for the benefit of the entire University.

Cooperation. We have concluded agreements with more than 590 foreign companies and partner universities and signed more than 1,600 cooperation agreements and agreements on practical training of students with Russian and foreign partners. Representative offices of St Petersburg University are currently operating in the People's Republic of China, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Recently, we have opened a representative office in Germany at the Freie Universität Berlin. This year, we are going to open a branch of the University in Tashkent. A joint campus of St Petersburg University and Harbin Institute of Technology is being built in China.

St Petersburg University is unique in that it combines academic freedoms with the responsibility to the state and society, its high reputation in Russia and beyond, development of a corporate spirit and support for the University’s traditions, and unique opportunities for positive self-realisation in volunteering, creative, cultural, educational, leisure, entrepreneurial and other activities.

Could you kindly think of one or more of the most unusual, striking facts about the University: what once surprised you, what few people know about. What secrets does the University have?

The University is rich in history, there are many curiosities. For example, it occupies over 400 buildings. Teaching and research centres outside St Petersburg form a kind of 'University meridian' on the map of Russia from the Marine Biological Station in the north of Karelia through the centres 'Sablino' and 'Kuznechnoe' in the Leningrad Region and 'Forest on Vorskla' in the Belgorod Region to the 'Krymskaya' teaching and research centre in the Crimea.

Something striking. I have spoken more than once about my admiration for the large corridor of the main building. It makes an indelible impression on everyone who comes here. It is rows of bookcases with unique editions on one side, portraits of prominent University students and staff between huge windows on the other side, and a length of 275 metres. I will reveal to you a secret that few even among the University students and staff know. If in the early morning or late evening, when the large corridor is quiet and empty, you stand in the middle and clap your hands, the sound will fly away to the ends of the corridor and will echo back to the right and left in almost a second. It's amazing! You can try it.

You have repeatedly spoken about the decisions that the University took under the conditions of COVID restrictions to ensure effective academic and research work within St Petersburg University. What is the external contribution of the leading Russian university to overcoming the pandemic and its consequences?

The University does not stand aside from solving the real-world problems that have arisen due to the pandemic at the university, regional, national, or international levels. I will talk about the main areas of University activity.

First, in education. At the height of the pandemic, St Petersburg University was the first Russian university to make obtaining certificates for completing our online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic free of charge for students of all Russian educational institutions. In this regard, online courses from St Petersburg University facilitated the transition to distance learning at St Petersburg University and were also used by hundreds of Russian universities and more than 400,000 Russian students. Additionally, St Petersburg University offered open access to lectures and seminars by famous professors to everyone, contributing to the implementation of the state policy of the Russian Federation to ensure education throughout life.

Second, in research. The genome sequencing algorithm developed by St Petersburg University’s scientists ensures that we can assemble and decipher the genome of the Russian strain of the causative agent of the COVID pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, at an early stage. The first-ever Centre for the Study of Autoimmune Diseases and the Effects of the New Coronavirus Disease was opened at the Pirogov Clinic of High Medical Technologies at St Petersburg University.

Our scientists were engaged in an international study that focused on the positive effects of vaccination of the population. Its results and findings will lead to a reduction in the risks of death during surgical operations for tens of thousands of people. The mathematical model developed by researchers from the Intelligent Logistics Centre at St Petersburg University provides forecasts for the development of the pandemic, which most closely match the real numbers of the St Petersburg Emergency Response Centre. The effectiveness of this model was discussed just the other day by almost all news agencies in our country. (‘St Petersburg University scientists about the peak of the pandemic in Russia' – RBC, ‘St Petersburg University’s scientists develop a mathematical model for the spread of COVID-19’ – NTV.Ru, etc.).

A little bit about future. Scientists say that artificial intelligence will soon replace many professions. What professions will appear and how is the University preparing for this today?

Professions will change. I think that the changes will not be catastrophic, as science fiction writers and journalists sometimes predict. Today, the focus of psychology is human behaviour, and tomorrow, perhaps, the focus will shift to the behaviour of artificial intelligence. Robots will replace humans in the field of physical labour and repetitive actions. Many professions will be transformed under the influence of information technology. For example, today the traditional medical profession is a general practitioner, but tomorrow you will probably need an online therapist. Most engineers and software developers will move online. Yet there are areas that will never exist without the direct human involvement. Among them is teaching at universities. The pandemic has shown that moving online is possible, but both students and professors are catastrophically lacking direct, live communication.

What are we doing at the University to meet the IT changes? An important component of the University Strategic Plan until 2030 is the digital transformation of the University. It will affect all spheres of our activity. In terms of organisational and managerial work, it is mostly about the development of digital infrastructure and digital services at St Petersburg University, organisational and technological transformation of business processes. In research, we have already implemented at the site of the Research Park (the first in Russia!) an end-to-end unified digital system for managing research projects ‘Research Information Management System’ (RIMS). In education, on the one hand, the digitalisation of the educational process, and, on the other hand (and this is the most important), shifting education towards training students for the digital economy.

The Oscar in the world of science is the Nobel Prize. How rich is the University in Nobel Prize winners?

Great scientists, who have been associated with St Petersburg University, have received Nobel Prizes in different years. Their names are well known: biologists Ivan Pavlov and Ilya Mechnikov; physicists Nikolay Semenov, Lev Landau, and Alexander Prokhorov; economists Leonid Kantorovich and Wassily Leontief. The Nobel Prize winner in literature Joseph Brodsky took part in one of the University’s scientific expeditions. The Nobel Prize winners have always visited the University to work or give guest lectures. Among them are a creator of the DNA model James Dewey Watson, an economist John Forbes Nash Jr, a writer and public figure Orhan Pamuk, and many others.

Grigori Perelman, an outstanding mathematician of our time who has proved the Poincaré conjecture, graduated from the University. Stanislav Smirnov, the winner of the Fields Prize, which is an analogue of the Nobel Prize in the field of mathematics, is closely associated with the University. He also graduated from the University. Today, he is a head of the laboratory that is named after another outstanding mathematician from our University, Pafnuty Chebyshev.

More than 50 full members and corresponding members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Education work at the University. Professor Nikolay Kuznetsov is among six Russian scientists included in the world list of the Highly Cited Researchers in 2021. He is the head of the Department of Applied Cybernetics, head of a research school that has received the Leading Scientific School (the Centre of Excellence) of the Russian Federation. Among them is also Gennady Leonov, who was an outstanding mathematician, a founder of the Department of Applied Cybernetics at St Petersburg University. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2018.

States and large corporations are developing strategies for 30 years ahead. How the world of St Petersburg University will change by 2050?

In my opinion, '30 years ahead' is a topic for science fiction. State strategic documents, which also determine the goals and objectives of the University, operate with more realistic deadlines: the Strategy for Science and Technology Development of the Russian Federation until 2035, the Forecast of the Socio-Economic Development of the Russian Federation for the period up to 2036. The Strategic Plan of our University is designed for the period up to 2030. Let us adhere to this period.

What is the main thing that will happen during this time? In your question, there is a very effective phrase, i.e. 'the world of the University'. The world of St Petersburg University will expand over the years, primarily territorially. Last year, the architectural and planning concept of the 'Area of St Petersburg University Development' was prepared. For a detailed study of the infrastructure, the specialists of the architectural bureau 'Studio 44' analysed more than a thousand proposals from the University students and staff, with most of them taken into account. Today, the location of the main buildings has been determined: educational and laboratory buildings with a vivarium and a cryogenic centre; sports complexes; the University clinic; a public centre; the Academic Gymnasium with a hall of residence; the Library; a congress centre; and other buildings.

Near the University campus, there will be an innovative science and technology centre of St Petersburg University 'The Neva Delta'. It is set to ensure that the University's research developments are put into real production. After we have implemented this model, which will bridge science, education and innovation, a new high standard will be created for Russian – and not only Russian – universities.

What won't happen? In the media today, much is said that total digitalisation will kill the classical model of a university. No way. Let's look back. How many upheavals there have been in Europe over the past five centuries: the great geographical discoveries, plague epidemics, rivalry of religions, changes in socio-economic structures, and local and world wars. Among the 58 oldest universities founded before the 15th century, most of them still exist independently or as part of younger universities, with 12 in the world’s top 200 and seven in the world’s top 100 universities.

In 2024, St Petersburg University will mark a grand event, i.e. its 300th anniversary. Over the three centuries of its history, the University and Russia have experienced many upheavals, and each of them affected the development of society, science and education. Yet every time the University students and staff have preserved honour and dignity in how they have responded to challenges, acquired new qualities and maintained the forefront position in Russia. I am sure that this historical experience will help us find answers to the challenges of digitalisation. In 10 years, we can verify it.