Elena Odoevskaya was appointed Vice Rector of HSE University in October this year. Her responsibilities include the creation and implementation of HSE’s digital transformation strategy, managing the university’s partnerships with companies in the digital economy, and reinforcing HSE University’s positions on external expert platforms in the field. Ms. Odoevskaya spoke to HSE University Life in her first interview in the new position.
— You have a degree in public administration and a background in education administration. How did you end up in those fields?
— I come from a military family, but I chose my profession due to certain features of my personality. I love to have everything in order, everything sorted out, and public administration is an institution that sets out a framework for institutional behaviour. When I was applying to the State University of Management (SUM) in 2006, it was a very popular field with a high level of competition. I completed my studies successfully, had various internships at governmental bodies, and then started working at SUM’s Higher School of Business (HSB). I started with marketing, then worked in continuing education sales, and later, my key project was AMBA international accreditation procedures. As a result, we became the tenth Russian business school to receive this accreditation. Four years after I started working at SUM HSB, I was Deputy Director and started thinking about my further growth.
During my time at the business school, I gained a good understanding of how a university’s financial and economic operations work, and my next place of work was the Department of Finance at the Ministry of Education and Science. At the ministry, it was really important that I came ‘from below’, from a real business: I knew very well what increasing a teacher’s salary to 200% meant, I understood what a teacher/student ratio of 1:12 meant, I saw how universities really manage their target indicators. At the Ministry, I was involved in forming state commissions for universities and dealing with the economics of public services. We implemented a great project in continuing professional development for education employees related to methods of calculating the standards of public services. The project involved all levels of education: university staff, schools and kindergartens. Six months after I came to the ministry, I already had to speak to a huge audience of education employees (I remember it was at the Orlyonok children’s camp), to communicate in simple words what can be done with money as part of a public commission, where they are independent and where they are not. It was a good experience, a major introduction to the system that helped me to get to know its features. Then the administration of the ministry changed, and my director, Mikhail Alashkevich, invited me to go with him to HSE University.
When I was still working at SUM, HSE University was our benchmark: we sneaked peeks at HSE’s regulations, looked at how their continuing education programmes worked. I thought about how cool it would be to work at HSE University, how good its operations are, so I had no second thoughts.
Here, we started working in Lilia Ovcharova’s team at the Institute of Social Policy. We started working on Strategy-2030. I remember that year being work 24/7, nothing but work, but it was thrilling. The result was the report ’12 Solutions for New Education,’ and the economic aspects of the solutions suggested in this report were my doing. After we completed the work, the team I came with went elsewhere, and Yaroslav Kuzminov suggested that I stay at HSE University as his assistant in the economics of education. That’s how I stayed at HSE University in the field of education.
— Within a few years at HSE University, you’ve gone from assistant to the rector to vice rector. What is it like to become Vice Rector at 32?
— I’ve felt uncomfortable about my age only once in my life. I was working at the State University of Management and, aged 23, had to speak to the Academic Council—whose members have an average age far over 50. I remember how I felt: my face was red, my palms were sweating, and the only thing I could think was ‘What am I doing here? I’m just some girl to them.’ After getting through this experience, I’ve never thought about age again. At 30, when I was already working at HSE, I became a student of the master’s programme in Evidence-Based Educational Policy at the Institute of Education. I was the oldest student there, but it didn’t matter to me: I needed the knowledge to immerse myself in education expertise. Age is always an advantage. Youth is one kind of advantage, and maturity is another—that’s the only difference.
I was needed at HSE University, clearly, largely thanks to the quality of my work and my experience, which was quite varied. Public administration and work in educational business are parts of a serious puzzle. If you understand the economics of education, it is much easier to understand how to implement certain ideas and communicate them to the regulator. As rector’s assistant, I started working in Government Relations, representing HSE University at various ministries and bodies.
— In your new position, you will also be responsible for digital transformation. Does this mean that in addition to the existing ‘parts of the puzzle,’ you’ll also have to become an IT specialist?
—I started dealing with these issues in 2018, when I started working on the federal project ‘Staff for the Digital Economy.’ We prepared suggestions for the ‘Digital University’ project, and I have been immersed in this field since 2019; I communicate with all our partners both inside and outside HSE University. Of course, I don’t have a degree in IT, and I view that as something yet to be resolved. As soon as I have time, I will make sure to get one. But on the other hand, this may be an advantage, since the problem of communication between functional commissioners and the IT Office is a significant one. In many organizations, people are often not satisfied with digitalization, since they simply don’t understand what IT people say, and believe that ‘making a button’ is fast and easy. I am not a developer, but thanks to my extensive experience in that environment, I understand what IT people say to me and I am capable of translating it as a manager. The IT Office and the university at large are very helpful in providing immersion in these topics, since everyone is interested in making this process helpful, not a burden.
— The digital transformation project—one of your responsibilities in your new position—started four years ago. What has already been implemented and what tasks remain?
— Digital transformation has already changed and improved many processes at the university, but there is still a lot to be done. First of all, we are now creating an integral digital environment at the university. This is a stated goal of our development programme, including as part of ‘Priority 2030’ project: all four campuses should be united by one digital environment. Being able to set goals jointly is essential: together, we will decide what we need and what we will do.
Next year, we are going to launch a lot of projects, including Smart LMS—a new LMS system set to launch in January. At the moment, we are working with Sergey Roshchin’s team to do everything we can to create conditions that allow teachers to enter the new system in the most comfortable way. We are launching projects involving the back office that are completely invisible, but very important to staff. Everything at the university is built on that foundation of salaries, HR, accounting and finance. The project is supervised by Alexey Novoseltsev, with support from the IT Office.
In Q1 of next year, we will complete our work on HSE’s digital strategy, which will include extending the IT Office beyond HSE University to cover external projects. Today, the IT Office is focused on the university’s internal interests, but its expertise is valuable to federal ministries and the national educational system at large. It is important to participate in different projects, such as open source solutions and the Gostech platform, which will host the so-called ‘Apply to University Online’ super-service. These are flagship areas, and HSE University is unique thanks to its methodological expertise and understanding of how processes should work. Expertise in these areas is mostly concentrated at the Institute of Education and the Faculty of Computer Science, and we are thinking of a collaboration, a joint project that would maximize the usefulness of the services that we are creating here not only for HSE University, but for the education industry as a whole.
— HSE’s digital projects are partly implemented by students and former students. What are the advantages and drawbacks of this approach? Will it continue?
— Of course, there are more advantages than disadvantages. HSE University has the best students, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of this. Students are motivated, they know what students (our key target audience) need, and they are ready to create it. They have knowledge, and while they may not have a lot of experience, this is not a problem under good supervision. I believe that HSE’s mobile app, which was created by students, is one of the best on the market. Our task is to maximize our experience of student communications. We are thinking about several product lines for the next year that we could make with students; we are discussing the development of the ‘Digital Assistants’ project.
— Just recently, you were a master’s student at HSE University, in public administration. Will your student experience be useful to you as vice rector?
— Of course. I have seen HSE University from the inside, and I was active in providing feedback on my programme, both positive and negative. I believe that student assessment is one of the most important innovations at HSE. I also tested LMS as a student, saw its strengths and weaknesses. As a result, the system is changing, making way for a new one.
— What new areas of development are you thinking about for yourself? What is your New Year’s wish list?
— I have already tried out many fields and I won’t shy away from further change. As a kid, I wanted to become a dietitian, after all! But speaking seriously, education has become an integral part of my life, and it is very interesting for me to develop in this field. I believe that the level of challenge in this area is higher than in public administration or business, since education is always present in our lives. We are always learning something, and there is a strong feeling of creating something new without falling into a routine.
Speaking about my personal New Year’s wishes, it’s very simple: I haven’t been near the sea for a very long time. I like to be in control of everything, and I felt that the risks associated with a family trip to the sea during a pandemic were too high. In terms of professional activities, that’s also probably related to control. I have difficulty delegating, and I’m continuing to learn how to do it. This is the beginning of a new stage for me, which means getting out of my comfort zone. It is thrilling and exciting. I have never been afraid to take responsibility. As regards to delegating, it is important, and I’m going to keep learning.
Photos by Daniil Prokofiev