Former space institute picks star pupils

August 30, 1996

Perestroika and the end of the Cold w/ar brought little comfort to Russia's regional universities where a bias towards the military-industrial complex had always ensured comfortable sinecures for many scientists and technologists.

Six years ago as the Soviet Union slumped towards collapse and students deserted technical universities in provincial cities, faculty chiefs at the Kazan Aviation Institute - long considered a leading military engineering college - read the writing on the wall: in a big shake-up courses were updated and revised, and subjects, such as economy, finance, management, medical technology, public relations, media studies and food processing were added to thetraditional disciplines of laser technology, space and military optics and aviation construction.

But advertising it as the renamed Kazan Technical University two years ago proved ineffective. A more vigorous approach was needed and after a rethink the mali universitet, literally "small university" was set up, a faculty devoted to attracting pupils from Tatarstan schools to study in Kazan.

Deals were struck with schools in the capital and throughout this small autonomous Muslim state, a day's travel east of Moscow. The outreach programme takes university level tutoring to 500 teenagers in the final two years at 22 schools in Kazan, the nearby new town of Zelenodoisk and regional centres.

The programme, which covers a total of 150 hours in after school sessions over the academic year, allows students to gain a taste of university-level studying.

Vyacheslav Chernoglazov, dean of the faculty for pre-university preparation, said: "One of the best things about taking our staff and courses to these schools students is that we can have our pick of the brightest young people. For those who we recognise as the top of their class we can even dispense with the normal university entrance exams and simply invite them to join the faculty of their choice."

The mali universitet also means many schools can administer the university entrance exam locally - useful if the school is in a city like Naberezhnyye Chelny, where the ubiquitous Kamaz HGV trucks are built, some 170 miles from Kazan.

The programme, which has proved so successful that the university is once again oversubscribed and concentrates on science and technology subjects and regular "olympiads" - academic competitions, are held for the students. Funding for the project comes from the university budget, with a token payment of 30,000 roubles (Pounds 4) a month expected from participants.

Joining the programme does not guarantee a place at the university, but more than three quarters are successful each year, making up around half of the total annual intake of 900.

The university, which counts cosmonauts and famous aerospace engineers, such as Sergei Korolev, inventor of the Sputnik spacecraft, among its alumni and former staff, regards the programme as a solid investment for its future.

Damira Osadochaya, student career advisor with the faculty, said: "University deals are becoming more common throughout Russia. A few years ago we had to invite students to join us - engineering institutes were regarded as a poor second choice to studying accountancy or going into business. But now students see advertisements in newspapers offering good salaries for well trained specialists who speak English or other languages, so today they are knocking on our door to study here."

The university was closed to outsiders during Soviet times, but has adapted its military bias and is now regarded as a leader in satellite and space telecommunications, and delicate medical and optical equipment. University staff joke that the same expertise that enabled Soviet spy satellites to read the number plates of cars on the streets of London is now being put to more peaceful and commercial uses.

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