Here at GoodCourse, we’re fortunate enough to speak with some of the most influential and inspiring change-makers in the Higher Education sector every day.
With us, they share their professional journeys, the key triumphs and challenges of their work, and everything they’re doing on and off campus to make every student’s university experience the best it can be.
It probably comes as no surprise that our interviewees have plenty of wisdom to share. We’ve rounded up our top ten pieces of advice from our Interview series, where we speak to some of the most impressive change-makers in the higher education sector, below. Enjoy!
Collaboration - inside and outside of your institution - is a great opportunity to learn new skills, enhance initiatives and build diverse networks. Sharon Handley, Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) of Culture and Community at Manchester Metropolitan University was keen to emphasise how important collaboration with her local community was to the success of her language-sharing programme, Mother to Other Tongue.
“Connecting is also important. We don’t achieve as much on our own as when we work in partnership. Build networks and work within them, because networks can amplify everything you do”.
A strong set of principles can not only guide decision-making, but also sets apart a good leader from a brilliant one. Moreover, the most impactful work is done by those that have an unrelenting belief in their vision and values. The advice of Caroline McDonald, Director of Access and Engagement at Birkbeck reflects this:
“Organisational mission and vision is everything – so find a job at an institution that aligns with your personal morals and aims, and stay committed to the power of education. I put so much of myself into what I do, and that’s why I enjoy it so much.”
Higher education professionals with a relentless drive for personal development can achieve remarkable things in their professional environments. For Andrew Ireland, PVC for Students and Teaching at the University of Central Lancashire, working in higher education wasn’t his original plan. He started his career in TV production, but took a chance on an opportunity to bring his vocational passion to the classroom:
“Look for opportunities and hold onto them – and always challenge yourself to keep growing. If you’re lacking opportunities, remember that you can make your own!”
Psychologists the world over have stressed the importance of role models for a child’s development – but it’s important to remember that there are lifelong benefits to having a ‘future you’ to look up to. Melanie-Marie Haywood, Director of Education Development at Birmingham City University, explained how as a Woman of Colour, having somebody to emulate has been essential to her professional development:
“Find someone you want to emulate – someone who looks like you or that you relate to on a personal level, especially if you’re a Person of Colour. People you admire who are in later stages of their career will always be willing to give you their time, because they’ve been in your shoes before and know how it feels.”
Owning one's career advancement sometimes means moving sideways, rather than upwards, to acquire new skills and experience. Jill Stevenson’s remit is impressive – holding down both the title of Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the University of Stirling, and Director of Student Services and Chair of AMOSSHE. The amazing work Jill has accomplished is in no small part due to her dedication to career advancement, as well as her willingness to try new things:
“Be honest about the gaps in your experience and knowledge, and try to address these gaps and develop your own pathway and skills as best you can. Continue to be curious and read a lot, as it’s a fast-moving and complex area. It can be overwhelming to keep up with debates, but if you want to pursue an EDI career you have to remain open-minded and curious.”
Savvy leaders know that thoughtful planning is foundational to progress. Not only does this allow for the development for strategies that accurately reflect the issues at hand - it also helps everybody in a team execute positive change quickly and effectively. Sam Grogan, PVC for Student Experience at Salford University, recommends setting aside time to reflect and revise established goals as they develop:
“It’s easy to overestimate how much you can do in a month or a year, and underestimate how much you can do in a decade – so try to think in the long term and set time aside for reflection. This is a difficult balancing act and I’m not sure I have ever managed this with total success!”
A confident mindset allows a lot of opportunity to experiment, grow and develop as a higher education leader. Short and simple, Jo Midgley, PVC at the University of the West of England proposes a just-say-yes approach:
“Embrace every opportunity that comes your way, because you never know where they might lead.”
It's essential to approach work in the higher education sector with a true belief in the benefits that are being brought to the lives of students through your work. Head of EDI at the University of Southampton, Camilla Gibson, reminds us that successful initiatives are best implemented by inspired and driven higher education practitioners:
“It’s important to work out what motivates you and how to find meaning and purpose in your work. Being able to bring lived experience with you is fantastic, but it’s also important to know when to bring that in and when a different approach is going to be better.”
The first step on the path towards positive change is acknowledging and confronting the issues at hand. Professor Udy Archibong, PVC for EDI at the University of Bradford recognises that a problem can’t be solved unless it is clearly defined. Ensuring everybody in your organisation has a deep understanding of the challenges faced by marginalised students and staff is crucial to change-making:
“Until there is an organisational diagnosis of a structural problem, it’s often too difficult for people to understand how to tackle it. The role of an EDI professional is often to work closely with leading figures in different institutions, and show them how there is a problem, and that they can begin to dismantle structural inequality and optimise inclusion.”
Most of us have experienced marginalisation, isolation or lack of confidence in personal and professional contexts. Striking a more personal note, Katherine Linehan, PVC for EDI at the University of Nottingham, drew our attention to the value of discussing the nuances of one's own protected characteristics:
“Don’t be frightened to be open about who you are and your own lived experience. Be proud of your protected characteristics and feel confident to discuss them – if not for yourself, then for others, so that they know it’s okay for them to be their authentic self.”
There we have it - a wealth of thoughtful, inspiring and astute advice from some of the most impressive change-makers in the higher education sector.