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Maria Yudkevich

Vice Rector, Director of the Institute for Institutional Research, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economic Sciences’ Department of Applied Economics, Head of the International Research Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms, and member of the HSE Academic Council. Maria Yudkevich has also been published in Voprosy Obrazovaniya (Educational Studies), Voprosy Ekonomiki (Issues in Economics), Research in Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, European Educational Research Journal, and the International Journal of Educational Development.

Maria Yudkevich
'A person’s importance is determined not by their position, but by the results of their work'


The Path Towards Academia

There was never a moment in my life when I decisively concluded that I’d devote my life to academia. There were, however, two incidents that made me think about this, both of which have to do with my lifelong desire to work with books. The first occurred when I was in sixth grade or so – I suddenly realised that I wanted to become a librarian. You are surrounded by a lot of books, you can read often, and the people around you are also readers. As it later became clear, I didn’t stray too far from my dream.

The second occurred when I was getting my master’s. I decided to gain practical experience in publishing. A very prestigious company offered me an internship focusing on printing academic literature. I worked there with one of my classmates. Though it was interesting working there, on the second day I decided not to go back; I can’t work anywhere where every day people tell me what to do and where I constantly feel like a cog in some large machine, carrying out monotonous work that has nothing to do with intellectual skills. This kind of work doesn’t let you discover anything new. I left publishing having decided to find something where I would be able to constantly improve and read a lot, similar to a master’s programme. This is how I came to academia, and it has become a place of internal freedom for me – a place where I can choose an area of research and the methods for achieving a set goal, and a place where I can build my own team.

Academics at HSE

After five years at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, I was still uninterested in discovering something new. Looking back on this, I can now definitively say that the problems we were solving at Moscow State did not look like the academic work encountered in HSE’s post-graduate school, which I enrolled in after getting my master’s. When you know that there is definitely a solution to the task set before you – an answer that is clear to the teachers – then it is not nearly as interesting as it would be if no one knew the answer. When the goal is unclear, but you’re moving towards it thanks to some belief in success, then the world starts to seem different. This is just like in Veniamin Kaverin’s novel The Two Captains, where the main character lived hoping to find some missing expedition – to prove to himself and his loved ones the validity of the theory in which he believed. I think that an academic needs just as much bravery as Ivan Tatarinov or Sani Grigoriev. If the academic reaches a dead end, he or she should always muster the courage to admit that they have to turn around and start all over.

When the goal is unclear, but you’re moving towards it thanks to some belief in success, then the world starts to seem different

Then it was 1996. After getting my diploma from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, I initially couldn’t decide what to do or where to go next. This brought me to an HSE open house that took place right at Moscow State University. Among the speakers was Kirill Sorvin, who talked about how HSE was going to train experts in socioeconomics and about how the school was very interested in mathematicians who were capable of constructing models of socioeconomic relations. I thought his speech was just fascinating. I passed the exams and got into the master’s programme. The first year I studied with Ovsey Shkaratan, who put together a group of sociologists within the master’s programme of the economics faculty. Later, this group grew into a master’s programme within the sociology faculty. After finishing my first year, I understood I was more interested in economics, which is why I switched to the economics track before starting my second year. I spent the first half of the year at the University of Paris, studying institutional economics, which is what I ended up focusing on professionally as a result.

On Interning in Paris

Before going to France, I met with Yaroslav Kuzminov. He invited me to his office to discuss my upcoming trip because I was an unusual case; the internship focused on economics, but I had initially majored in sociology and had just switched over to economics. Rector Kuzminov told me that because my academic interests lay at the interface of economics and sociology, I needed to focus on institutional economics. I said I thought this was a wonderful idea, but I didn’t know what institutional economics was. I remember Mr Kuzminov had in his office a large table piled high with books, readers, Xeroxes of publications in different languages… He pulled several books and publications from the stacks and told me, ‘this is easy to fix. Read everything written here.’ He also suggested that when I get to France I find a suitable academic supervisor or consultant with whom I can establish a fruitful working relationship. I got lucky as far as consultants are concerned and got to work with Olivier Favro, Laurent Thévenot, and Claude Ménard. All three are leading experts in institutionalism.

I think I was able to establish a balanced relationship towards institutional theory. I made it a rule for myself to become familiarized with the approaches of different schools in parallel

My interaction with Olivier Favrol looked like this: instead of lectures, we would meet one-on-one every week. He would feed me at the faculty cafeteria at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, and I would incoherently tell him about everything I’d managed to read. After lunch, we would go to his office, where he would give me a new pile of books and articles. This lasted for six months. During this time, I read classic works on contract theory and American new institutionalism, as well as tons of work by French institutionalists. Overall, I think I was able to establish a balanced relationship towards institutional theory. I made it a rule for myself to become familiarized with the approaches of different schools in parallel. This is how I got started in institutional economics. I first wrote my thesis on it and then my PhD dissertation. One just grew into the other.

On Entering Academia

My dissertation was devoted to ‘trusted goods.’ I’ll explain using simple examples. Let’s say that you are deciding on which dress to buy. You go to the store, try on different options, pick the one you like, and buy it. This is an ‘information good’ – you first gathered information about it and then made a decision. Now let’s assume that you want to buy cat food. Unlike the dress, no matter which cat food you chose, you are unable to check its quality until your cat, or you yourself, try it. That is, you first buy the good and then you assess your decision; in other words, it’s an experiment. The quality of an ‘experimental good’ is always determined after purchasing. But now imagine that you’ve fallen ill and go to the doctor. The doctor does something and you get better. Did quality heal you or did something else? You are unable to understand this instantaneously. This is a ‘trusted good’ – you have no choice but to trust the supplier.

In my dissertation, I studied how trusted goods models are built in markets with a very high level of uncertainty

Take education for example – this is a trusted good. When we select a university, no matter how much information we have about it we are still unable to know whether the quality of education there will satisfy us or, more importantly, whether the skills we gain there will help us in life. We are only able to assess this after graduating from the university and when we are grey-haired and giving interviews about what influenced our life and how.

In my dissertation, I studied how trusted goods models are built in markets with a very high level of uncertainty. Why is this important? If the market is stable, the seller will not be able to sell a large quantity of a low-quality good. Everyone will discover that it’s a fraud, and demand for the good will fall. In an unstable market where sellers change regularly, the problem of quality is even more important, and it is resolved with the help of informational intermediaries. A good example is the Israeli medical market, which has heaps of such intermediaries. When you are outside of this market, you are unable to independently find a high-quality service. There is also an intermediary on the American education market – a professional advisor who develops an individualized strategy for the applicant applying to university. My dissertation doesn’t include too many examples from education, but after later studying the Russian education market, I understood how closely my research was connected with what I began studying as a result.

On How Institutional Economics Helps Study Universities

I now study the economics of universities. My administrative position, the position of an insider, gives me a broad empirical base for understanding the processes within the system of higher education. Additionally, in my work I try not to split my colleagues up into ‘Russian’ and ‘international.’ I believe that this is the wrong way to look at the issue.

A person’s importance is determined not by their position, but by the results of their work

The economics of education is a field for which it is critical to compare several different systems. There is currently a fairly high number of models for the organisation of universities, academic contracts, student admissions, and hiring. In order to understand why your model is better, you have to see someone else’s experience, and for this you need to visit different universities – universities on a different street, in a different city, in a different country… Only then do you understand, for example, the relationship between permanent employment contracts with a managerial focus or how student admissions rules determine the logic behind how courses are built. Institutional economics helps me see this interdependency.

On the Institute for Institutional Research

Our institute grew out of the circle of people who attended Yaroslav Kuzminov’s seminar where student research projects were discussed. At a certain point, the idea arose of institutionalising this practice. More simply, this concerned setting up a laboratory and, first, inviting young researchers to join whose interests were close to our own and, second, bringing together experts from different educational programmes. We also wanted to bring everyone not to a department with a new vertical of managers and subordinates, but to a democratic platform where everyone has the opportunity to exchange ideas without worrying about status, position, or length of service. A person’s importance is determined not by their position, but by the results of their work. This is why my colleagues and I thought that a laboratory was the best idea. This was the first research laboratory at HSE – the International Research Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms. In 2010, the lab was transformed into the Institute for Institutional Research.

Our team doesn’t have people with narrow backgrounds, which I particularly like

My colleagues and I were able to create an environment in which there is no strict delineation between work and personal relations. The institute currently has a lot of areas where informal communication works best. For example, our summer school on institutional analysis is an important academic event and an opportunity to talk more closely with everyone.

Our institute has several different areas of focus, such as higher education economics, government procurement analysis, and banking research. Though these are different topics, they are connected by common methods of institutional analysis. Our team doesn’t have people with narrow backgrounds, which I particularly like. We have economists, sociologists, managers, public administration experts, and more. We are constantly learning from one another, and we all bring to our research something new from related disciplines. We don’t have any sort of documented development strategy. Our long-term goals include being a recognised player on the international market. In education economics, for example, we want to be considered qualified among our western colleagues.

On Mentoring

I’ll say something seditious. I am less and less interested in working with students formally, managing their courses or research projects. When I try to submerse a student in our institute’s atmosphere, I am trying to force him or her to get a sense of our academic work. If my attempts are met positively, then I enjoy continuing working, but this seldom occurs. A lot of students are in it for the grades, which is why I find working with them boring. At any step of the way, I always try to ultimately discover something new. With people who try just for the grades, I am unable to do this.

I understand why a lot of students leave HSE and go study abroad. I think this is a normal and logical form of self-development

It’s not just that economists go into business instead of academia because they can earn tons more money. It’s also that bright people who want to continue growing professional often link their growth not to the university, but to the outside market. When joining a large corporation, young people quickly determine their landmarks in life and find idols to whom they want to be similar. We have to more frequently ask ourselves whether Russian universities have experts who can serve as role models for students – not only talented researchers, but also successful people who have achieved a lot in life and who can be considered real winners.

Another problem is that a lot of the people who want to try their hand at academia prefer western universities to HSE. Our post-graduate school, for example, is not a top-ten global school. That’s life. So I understand why a lot of students leave HSE and go study abroad. I think this is a normal and logical form of self-development. It’s good that they have those kinds of opportunities.

On Administrative Work

I wrote my thesis and dissertation under Yaroslav Kuzminov’s supervision. The university was small at the time, and anyone who showed interest in university life was given the opportunity to try their hand in one field or another. We often met with the rector and talked about research. Each one of our conversations would turn into a discussion about what HSE was missing. It was impossible to replenish the missing elements without administrative work.

I initially worked as the academic development director. I got the rare opportunity to take on projects for which colleagues didn’t have enough time or strength. I was able to stop and focus on a candidate pool project, for example. By that time, it had already existed for a year and had resulted in extra money for the people management viewed as the future nucleus of the university. My colleagues and I were able to completely change the candidate pool programme by giving it some contemporary characteristics. I thoroughly enjoyed this work, if for no other reason than I was able to meet tons of interesting people along the way.

I respect people who defend their right to critique while also distancing themselves from participating in any transformations by staying inside their comfortable academic environment, but I myself wouldn’t be able to work that way

If I weigh the pros and cons, the administrative workload is not a burden for me; if it were, I simply wouldn’t do it. I think that if you see that something isn’t working correctly, you have to try to change it; otherwise you don’t have the right to criticise. I respect people who defend their right to critique while also distancing themselves from participating in any transformations by staying inside their comfortable academic environment, but I myself wouldn’t be able to work that way. I now have the opportunity to change something. Sure, I pay for this right with my time, but I haven’t yet started to regret this.

HSE has a long way to go before becoming a real research university. A lot has to change on this journey, including our academic environment. We don’t yet have what Henry Rosovsky calls ‘shared governance,’ which is the direct participation of professors in a university’s management and in all of its internal reforms. This is the direction in which we need to head. I think we still all have to realise that HSE is our home and that we are responsible for its structure and development. There is still work to be done in this area.

Though HSE is one large body today, I hope we have not lost our ability to assess ourselves extrinsically, for this skill will always stop us from falling into the abyss

There is one more problem. I am sure there are tons of people who want to change something, but how do you find them? Things used to be easier with active individuals. The university was small, and it wasn’t difficult to notice the young enthusiasts. We’ve grown now, and it’s hard to scope out talent. I see it as my duty to make sure that the younger generations who come to the university are also given the opportunity to grow.

HSE grows more rapidly each year. Do I see any risks in this expansion? Of course I do. We always think about how we need to maintain quality. But firstly, HSE was initially thought up as a university with narrow opportunities for expansion, and the people who helped us grow did not work under our order, but came here themselves with their own ideas on how they would like to create something new at the university. Take the physics faculty, for example. We spent a lot of time thinking about it, but we were only able to open it when a team of researchers came to HSE with their own initiatives and with a specific view of the future university. Second of all, though HSE is one large body today, I hope we have not lost our ability to assess ourselves extrinsically, for this skill will always stop us from falling into the abyss.

Research at HSE: For School and for Life

If you look forward to seeing HSE’s development through the eyes of its first ever professors, and finding out how it turned into a leading Russian university from a modest institution, we would be glad to share this information on this website. Read, watch and have fun!

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