In February 2019, St Petersburg University – the oldest university in Russia – celebrated its anniversary. It was founded 295 years ago. St Petersburg University is now a research and educational centre with a global impact, and one of the largest centres of national science and culture. 

kropachev rektor

There are more than 25,000 students from all over the world; Nobel prize and Fields Medal winners are teaching here; and there are more than 20 large laboratories and 26 resource centres. Educational standards of the University outrank the country’s standards. Graduates are in high demand in the job market among leading companies in various fields. The University owes its great success partly to its rector: Doctor of Law, Professor Nikolay Kropachev. In his interview to the “Delovaya Rossiya” magazine he spoke about some of the difficult tasks he had to resolve while working as a dean of the Faculty of Law and as rector. He also spoke about issues that are important for the University today. 

Professor Nikolay Kropachev, you have been working with the University all your life, and your working life has been a far cry from a quiet one. Not many University employees get fired for anti-corruption activity. Looking back how would you evaluate your work in the position of dean and rector: what were the key and the soundest decisions, and what were the most important achievements so far?

It is true that when I was a dean of the Law Faculty I would openly criticise business and economic operations of St Petersburg University in my speeches at the meetings of the Academic Council of the St Petersburg University Senate. I drew my colleagues’ attention to the violations of tax payments, lease relationships, and catering arrangements. I would raise questions concerning St Petersburg University admission campaign, and disposition of funds allocated to science.

The system of admission that existed then positively fuelled corruption and protectionism. The former rector asked for an investigation into the publication of “false information that discredited the reputation of the University”, which I was allegedly spreading in the media. As a result, I was fired. However, after a few faculty members filed a lawsuit in court seeking repeal of the illegal order, the rector withdrew the order.

When I was the dean, together with other University deans we would ask the administration: “if you do not help us, then at least do not interfere with our work”. The rector created a commission from the deans of different faculties. Its task was to scrutinise the crucial situation that had occurred due to the initiation of a criminal case against a number of University executives in 2006. In the findings, it was put bluntly: “It is necessary to take immediate measures to prevent any future embezzlement. As long as the conditions favourable to embezzlement are kept unchanged, then no personnel changes are capable of preventing the crime”.

During that time, lawyers and economists created the first fully computer equipped libraries in Russia. The Graduate School of Management team also received a record number of international professional accreditations for a range of educational programmes. However, at the same time: heads of the central rectorate service leased out University premises for 30-40 kopecks per square metre; several hundred thousand books were left to rot in the University basement half filled with water; and in the University buildings there were restaurants, saunas, a tombstone workshop, a food market, and private and foreign educational centres.

At that time many problems at the University could be solved through verbal agreement. Personal likes and dislikes were an informal driving force. When I took part in the race for the position of rector, I realised how important it was to establish fair and distinctive rules for the game. The rules would grant every dean an equal and proper right to organise educational process, scientific study, and economic activity. Later, my life experience made me change my viewpoint. I learned that many heads of departments were unable to shoulder the burden of managing and taking responsibility. Also, some of them refused to do it. When I became rector, I found out that one of the main obstacles to increasing the effectiveness of the University’s financial activity was narrow-mindedness and disunity of resources. An example of this is a laboratory or department having scientific equipment or a large library that were made inaccessible for the rest of the University staff.

I assume the main achievement of my work as a rector of the University is the development of a joint and open system for the University resources (personnel, financial, informational, etc.).

Without the system, we would not have lived through the cutbacks in state funding as well as the increased requirements for the effective use of budgetary means and public property. There was open public discussion of all the main rules of the University; and regularising of the organisation of the educational process, scientific work, human resource issues, and economic activity. As a result, we managed to create clear conditions for using the resources. They were equal both for the employees and students of all University departments. Without such a system the University cannot function as a single integral body, one big family.

Within ten years, many other problems were solved, and some might say they were more important. For example, distribution of information about University events to the students, or the problem of creating a corporate spirit within the walls of the University. We started engaging the student council and employees’ union as well as any concerned person into decision making processes. This included for example acceptance of work or services ordered by St Petersburg University. Also, there is now an open access to all the activity reports of the University: The University website has a page “A Fresh Start” to post interviews and other materials on the matter. As a result of these actions, the University has become many independent units, which are united and share between themselves the University resources. Yet, in terms of location the University is still disunited, being situated in almost 40 different buildings in various parts of the city. The University also owns property in other regions of Russia.

I see the further development of St Petersburg University in creating a united University campus. It will help the University to make a dash forward both in the spheres of research and education.

People often describe you as strict and demanding. Which managing strategies and tactics do you consider to be the most effective? What is your approach to hiring staff?

Hiring staff in St Petersburg University is based on transparency, open competition, and independent evaluation of qualifications. It is essential for each employee of the University to have good professional skills, sufficient work experience, as well as a high level of performance. Top Russian and foreign experts, whose achievements are sought after both in Russia and abroad, always have the priority. This is how we provide competitive and innovative educational content. Human resources play the most important role in training the future work force.

St Petersburg University imposes high demands not only upon the applicants for the job positions but also upon the work results of those who are already employed. Thanks to such an approach, the University employees: have a high research activity; are awarded multimillion scholarships and grants; publish their works in leading international magazines; use the latest technologies in classes; and give lectures in foreign languages. All of this raises the recognition and attractiveness of the University as well as the quality of our main product – graduates.

St Petersburg University is an indisputable authority in the Russian and international educational market. What are the University’s plans for the future? It is clear that maintaining the current level is not an easy task itself, but what do you have in prospect? Interaction with foreign universities and involvement of the University with the international educational and research paradigm seems to be an issue of special interest. 

Today one of the priority development areas for education and science in Russia is collaborating with talented and promising scientists and scholars from abroad.  For example, within the last few years more than 400 researchers came to work with the University. Many of them are not foreigners, but they are Russians who returned back to Russia from the USA, Portugal, France, Spain, Germany and other countries. 

In May 2017, the priority project “Russian education Export” was launched. A whole range of ministries has taken part in the execution of the project. St Petersburg University is included in the consortium of the leading exporting universities. More than 5,000 foreign students from 80 countries study at St Petersburg University on an annual basis. According to Rossotrudnichestvo, St Petersburg University became the most popular Russian university with foreign students in 2018. So, what is it that attracts foreign students? It is: the quality of education; the possibility to study in English and to take part in student exchange programmes; communication with students from all over the world; and the possibility to study the Russian language and culture. But what impedes their coming here? One of the obstacles is the remoteness of the dormitories from academic buildings. 

The overarching goal of promoting Russian education abroad is certain to turn out to be difficult. In the international market there have been the same leaders in the field of education export for a long time. New countries are also constantly coming on board. South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Ireland and Denmark have launched major national projects promoting local education. By the way, around 30% of the world’s educational budget accounts for just three countries: the USA, Great Britain and Australia. Russia’s share in the total budget is less than 1%.

However, we can take pride in the field of international research cooperation. Today St Petersburg University implements more than 30 major research projects with research and educational organisations from: Germany, the USA, China, Norway, Switzerland, India, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Austria, and Finland. Our partners include the largest foreign science foundations and associations such as: DFG; international network UArctic; and the German academic exchange service (DAAD). 

In St Petersburg University we have created 20 mega laboratories headed by internationally acclaimed academics. Among them are the greatest researchers from the largest foreign scientific and educational centres, for example: one of the leading specialists in the field of pharmacology Arto Urtti is the head of the St Petersburg University Laboratory of Biohybrid Technologies; an outstanding Indian mathematician Dipendra Prasad is the head of the Laboratory of Modern Algebra and Applications (Dipendra Prasad as head of the mega grant at SPbU);  and a key American bioinformatician Stephen O’Brian is the director of the Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics . The research of autoimmune diseases is headed by a distinguished Israeli scholar – Yehuda Shoenfeld, who created the Laboratory of the Mosaic of Autoimmunity.

These days thousands of new professions appear all over the world in every field from IT to PR. How does academic education adjust to this fast-paced context, what methods does it use to help its graduates remain sought-after in the new conditions? How do the educational programmes and teaching methods change?

When choosing their future career, high school graduates have no idea how quickly the modern labour market is evolving. The list of jobs in demand and requirements are constantly changing. Often the applicants do not realise that the professions popular today may become irrelevant tomorrow.

Successful recruitment and professional development of its graduates are the main sign of the quality of the University’s education. All the University programmes are implemented with consideration for: professional standards; the rapidly changing needs of the labour market; and employers demanding requirements for the graduate’s level of expertise. The requirements of employers and needs of the labour market are our main guideline in creating a new educational programme.

The University has a unique opportunity to use its own independent educational standards. It was therefore able to add to the number of professional subjects in order to bring the qualifications of graduates more in line with the requirements of employers. It is worth mentioning that all the University educational programmes are created on the basis of the idea of being interdisciplinary. And it is this approach that enables the creation of modern sought-after and often unique programmes of different educational levels.

We strive to engage in the educational process genuinely professional employers who are able to articulate what exact competencies a university graduate should have. Businessmen and authorities participate in recruitment of teaching staff, work out the contents of some certain subjects, and choose teaching methods. They are included into academic and methodology, research and personnel boards, as well as into councils for educational programmes. More than 1,000 professionals from different fields are engaged in this work today. We do see the effectiveness of such an approach. For example, employers who worked in the State Examination Commission gave us the outside expert evaluation of the quality of the expertise of the graduates. This enabled the graduates to show the highest level of their expertise to the employers.

Education as a core value has always been and will always be in high demand in society. However, online education has become very popular lately. How does St Petersburg University react to this new trend?

Development of an available online education is gradually becoming the reality of modern Russian society. Tens of thousands of people look for online courses. This type of education is capable of giving open access to lectures and seminars of the best scholars and teachers for every student from all over the world. 

St Petersburg University has accumulated a great experience. It uses it not only for its own

development, but also to serve the interests of Russian education. The University is currently working on publishing online pre-recorded lectures as well as on creating new online products aimed not only at students. University courses on different subjects are available on the national internet platform and on the international platform While doing a course it is possible to contact its authors to ask questions, and on completion you can get a St Petersburg University certificate.

The quality of our product was highly evaluated by one of the largest foreign online courses aggregators Class Central. It included the St Petersburg University course “Competitive Programmer’s Core Skills” in the top ten list of the world’s most popular online courses.

Furthermore, several online courses became prize winners of the 4th international competition EdCrunch Award 2018. These included: “English: Preparation for the Candidate’s Examination”; “Introduction to Bioinformatics: Metagenomics; and “Islam: History, Culture and Practice”. They were considered some of the best online programmes in Russia and the CIS. 

It is worth mentioning that starting from this academic year a number of subjects will be implemented in online format only. Whereas some online courses will be available for the students as optional. Also, we accept online courses of other educational organisations which are included in the list of 300 best educational organisations according to international ratings.