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Regular version of the site

‘Your Student Days Are the Best Time of Your Life’

Dmitry Zemtsov on student organizations, the university’s third mission, and Salvador Allende

© Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Dmitry Zemtsov was appointed HSE University Vice Rector in 2021. He is responsible for the university’s third mission, student self-governance, and the introduction of project-based learning. HSE Life spoke with Dmitry Zemtsov about his plans to develop these areas.

— You worked in the Russian Far East for the last five years. How did you end up there?

— To be honest, I never planned it. In 2005, I graduated from Moscow State University, then I went on to work as a lecturer and get involved in the development of educational technologies. We had a small team of innovative teachers. We developed educational games on various topics—from economics and venture entrepreneurship to political processes. They considered the lecture-seminar model outdated and thought that sociology and humanities needed to be experienced.

I once spent almost a month modelling political and economic processes with international students in Chile during the presidency of Salvador Allende. We looked at everything from agrarian reform to the creation of Project Cybersyn. That's how I ended up in the Rector's office of Moscow University and Nikita Anisimov's team. First, I headed the committee on modern teaching methods, then the Centre for Interactive Educational Technologies. This was in 2009–2011, when similar centres were created in RANEPA, MGIMO. They cooperated with each other, met in Krasnogorsk for a few days and conducted brainstorming sessions.

Then, Nikita Anisimov invited me to Moscow Polytechnic University, which was being created at that time. In 2014, it was still the University of Mechanical Engineering. Several other engineering universities joined it, and this whole conglomerate was looking for its niche in the ecosystem of Russian engineering education.

The main building of Bauman Moscow State Technical University, one of the strongest Russian polytechnic universities, was located at the next metro station, and we needed to position our university differently. We found the answer in project activity: we told ourselves and applicants that students of our polytechnic university get into engineering teams from the first week of training. They leave school and can get involved in projects such as creating and developing an electric bike for a pilot from their own team to race. And if they win the university round, they will get top-quality hardware to prepare for other races in Barcelona and tickets to watch them. We created theoretical blocks of educational programmes around such complex engineering projects—you don’t just study descriptive geometry, but prepare drawings of your bike. You need to learn CAD, engineering graphics, and geometry right away.

We breathed new life into the university on this project drive. In 2014, 850 people participated in project activities. This rose to 2,000 people in 2015, and grew to cover the entire university in 2016. We created a fablab in the main building on Elektrozavodskaya Ulitsa and design workshops in other buildings. By the way, that was when I learnt about HSE University. We had a dispute about the building on Staraya Basmannaya. At first, we worked there together, but HSE University got it in the end.

By the time Moscow Polytechnic University had established its new model of operations, our team received an invitation to the Far East. It was the summer of 2016. I had never been so far from Moscow before.

— What did you learn from you experience of working in the Far East?

— First of all, I understood that the country is big and life is diverse. Russia is full of different, strong and beautiful people who live their lives in different ways. And I also learnt to have a careful attitude towards people who are ready to put their heart into their work.

In Moscow, this is more difficult to understand—you can find leaders and teams for interesting projects quickly. I spent six months looking for a supervisor for a degree programme on space technologies at FEFU. In Moscow, I met with Stas Karpenko (general designer of the first Russian private satellite) several times and persuaded him to come work in Vladivostok. And I succeeded: Stas worked there for three years, founded the Project Activity Centre, and trained graduates who went on to form the core of the university’s aerospace activities. FEFU is currently preparing to launch its own microsatellite, and the university has its own team of developers working on control systems for CubeSat satellites—a startup that is already seeing interest from investors.

And this isn’t even the most difficult task in terms of personnel. For example, we were looking for a leader for the newly created Institute of Mathematics and Computer Technology for four years. We first discussed it with the rector back in 2016, then met with Dmitry Alekseev (head and co-founder of DNS, FEFU graduate and IT and robotics enthusiast) for the first time on Russky Island. We decided that we needed to create a separate IT faculty, something which the university lacked. And only in 2021 did the right leader come along: the head of a local IT company who agreed to swap his career for academia and fully engage in it.

— How have your first few months been? What are your first impressions of HSE University? What makes it different from other universities?

— I would put the question differently: what does HSE University have in common with the best universities? The answer is academic culture, research spirit, educational and academic thoroughness. There’s a reason why HSE University is the best university in Russia by many indicators, including international rankings.

In fact, I have been interacting with various HSE University departments for a long time: both through the National Technology Initiative and the Digital Economy working group, I was responsible for FEFU's interaction with the Global Universities Association.

In addition, I am also a student at HSE University. I didn’t defend my PhD thesis in time due to my involvement in educational and administrative work. But working at a university and not doing science seems weird to me. So, last spring, as soon as I got the opportunity (I won a ‘Leaders of Russia’ grant for education), I enrolled in the ‘Research in Education’ individual degree programme of the HSE Institute of Education. At the time, I still had no idea that I would end up working here. Now, I’m involved in a doctoral seminar, I recently presented my research topic, and at the end of last year, the first article on the topic of my future PhD thesis (based on the Far East) was published in the Education Bulletin.

If we talk about my area of responsibility as vice rector, then, of course, I’m most impressed by student self-governance. Firstly, there are student council committees, which are very active, efficient, well aware of the real needs of students and able to translate them into the language of specific proposals for the administration. For example, we quickly found solutions to student issues at the Anti-Covid Task Force meeting together: on the recommendation of the student council committees, we developed rules allowing extracurricular activities at HSE University in Moscow, and eased self-isolation restrictions for vaccinated students.

Secondly, there is a lively process for electing delegates to the student council. I studied the whole procedure for organizing elections, starting from the establishment of the electoral committee. I watched candidates' debates with great interest, and was impressed by the level of discussion, especially in the debates on grade inflation and the role of the ombudsman.

— You recently spoke about students’ psychological well-being. Tell us more about that.

— I think it is very important that student interests are represented in a dialogue with the administration. For example, during the first week of my work, colleagues from the student council asked me about the psychological well-being of students. I should say that there are few places where this issue is as relevant as at HSE University. Nevertheless, together with the student working group, the School of Psychology, and the Centre for Psychological Counselling, we discussed the issue and prepared the first draft of the psychological well-being policy.

I believe that this issue should be solved in a complex way—both at the information level and at the level of providing specialist help, destigmatization, etc. On the one hand, your student days are the best time of your life, a time when you can do anything and try out numerous new roles and experience different situations. On the other hand, it is a very difficult time in terms of psychological and physical workload. Students should receive psychological help and receive it on time, not months after problems arise. The HSE Rector has already supported this decision: the budget of the Psychological Counselling Centre for 2022 has been increased by one and a half times.

But in general, international practice shows that such tasks should be part of university-wide policy. Our joint project for this document takes into account the tasks of current monitoring, psychological education, destigmatization of psychological assistance, peer-to-peer formats, and a number of other solutions. We plan to conduct a survey of students on this topic by the Centre of Institutional Research. We are thinking about organising regular simple and short pulse surveys.

— Tell us about some other examples of student self-governance.

— I really liked working with the dormitory committee. We have a dozen dormitories at HSE University in Moscow alone—the conditions in them differ, and we regularly receive requests to improve the quality of accommodation. At my request, my colleagues from the committee conducted surveys in dormitories and compiled a very convenient table of problem areas (such as ‘windows’, ‘beds’, ‘internet’ and so on) for each dormitory. At the same time, the HSE Rector supported Vladimir Samoylenko’s proposal to allocate 40 million rubles to improve the quality of accommodation in dormitories in 2022. With these two tools—the table and the money—we have prepared an order to create a project committee to determine priority areas for improvement in the quality of life in dormitories. The committee includes 12 members, half of whom are students recommended by the student council. It is a completely transparent institution. The first meeting of the committee has already taken place. The students have been discussing proposals, and we plan to make the main decisions on improving the quality of life by mid-February.

— You were responsible for the third mission of the university at FEFU, and now you’re responsible for the same thing at HSE University. How relevant is your previous experience here?

— The question about the third mission can be rephrased as follows: should the university be a citadel of knowledge, an ivory tower, or should it take responsibility for progressive changes in the world around it? For the last five years, I worked at a university where there was a default answer to this question: FEFU was created as an institute for the development of the Russian Far East. For five years, we have been building a metropolitan university that will represent Russia in the Asia-Pacific region—the geopolitical region where the main scientific and technical breakthroughs are taking place, where there are very strong competitors. The academic community is still debating whether the university has a third mission, how to implement it, measure it, and manage it, while in the Far East, it felt absolutely natural. There, the university simply can’t help being a driver of macroregional development—not only Primorsky Krai, but also all the Far Eastern regions, because FEFU combines competencies that simply don’t exist anywhere else.

If FEFU is an institute for the development of a macroregion, HSE University was created as an institute for the development of the country. In this sense, the mission to be a driver of social progress is in fact not its third one, but its first. I was very impressed with the HSE University development programme until 2020, where this mission was highlighted, and I used it as an example when preparing the FEFU development programme.

One of the most powerful tools for the implementation of this mission, apart from research and expert groups, is the student community. The ‘Rediscovering Russia’ programme has been launched and we need to expand it. After all, HSE University has announced a new project direction: can they be related to the third mission? I think they can be linked directly. For example, a recent exhibition in Sochi showcased an ice-class electric bike from Moscow Polytechnic University. It took part in races on the ice of Lake Baikal, and it looked very impressive. Should HSE University projects look the same? I would expect something else: ‘We have been restoring the ecology of Lake Baikal for five years. We’ve created a mathematical model, established cooperation with business partners, government and NGOs, our student organisations launched crowd mechanics to support this project, and every summer we go there with research expeditions and internships. Here are our timelines—there’s still a lot of work to do, but there are results and we are confident that the project will develop.’ Long-term, large-scale projects involving student organizations can make a serious contribution to the implementation of the university’s social mission, as well as to social progress and the country’s development.

— You mention student organisations in connection with the third mission. You have already held several meetings with them. Why is there such a focus on them?

— I believe that participating in self-governance student communities is one of the most valuable aspects of student life. After all, this is where students get their first experience of personal decision-making, subjective action, building a team and maintaining relationships in it. Where else can you experience this so quickly and completely?

I try to support such associations in every workplace. At the Polytechnic Institute, these were mainly engineering teams who wanted to do something beyond their project activity. FEFU has various activities, such as IT startups, an e-sports team, and a historical dance studio. HSE University has about two hundred student organisations in the official register, and who knows how many more that haven’t been registered yet. And many students are bound to have dreams they would like to implement. This is exactly what my team can help with. Recently, for example, a basketball club made a proposal to hold a match in the atrium on Pokrovka—there is international practice of playing basketball in historical buildings. We have already planned this game.

A few years ago, business consultants used to read Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale to analyse the client’s journey according to his model. If we rely on this analogy, then the role of the vice rector's team for student life is that of the ‘magic helper’. Subjectivity and initiative belong to the protagonist—the leader of the student organization. Our task is to give them whatever magic they need. In my job description, this is called ‘student initiative support’.

— And finally, what are you plans and focuses for 2022?

— My main priority is to create a single environment for student life across all university campuses. I believe that students of all departments at all university campuses should have equal access to tools for supporting student initiatives and to the dialogue opportunities of student self-government.

Photos by Daniil Prokofyev

February 07, 2022