Universities are vast organisations with a lot of moving parts. Many aspects focus on what students learn through their education and help them to make graduation — which is of the utmost importance. However, the value of having a Chief Operating Officer (COO) that views the university as an organisation, and students as customers with needs that the university must respond to, is also paramount.
I’m the Chief Operating Officer at Anglia Ruskin University. I would characterise my role in two ways. First of all, I lead five services; I’m responsible for HR, estates and facilities, strategic planning, data and performance, marketing and IT services. But cutting it a second way, I’m the senior professional services person here at ARU, and I get involved in a lot of corporate leadership activities working across the University.
Anglia Ruskin University is one of the largest universities in the country, which surprises some people. We have three main campuses in the eastern region as well as a partnership campus in London, with 30-35,000 students in total. What makes us unique is that we are one of the largest degree apprenticeship providers in the country and the largest provider of healthcare training degrees, with a strong focus on widening participation.
I am in the third third of my career. My first third was spent working in the civil service in Whitehall, which I really enjoyed. I was involved in many fascinating national and international issues. But the more senior I became, the more removed I was from the day-to-day business and impact. So, I made a move into local government and spent four years working in social services, which was a huge eye-opener. After my time there, I became a director of resources responsible for a wide range of services. This was in north London — it gave me incredible insight into life in a big city. At the end of that third, the opportunity to work in HE came up. It was something I’d always been interested in, so I decided to go for it and have been here for four and a half years now.
A university is, in many ways, just a large complex organisation. The issues that we’re grappling with are very similar to those in local government and the civil service. The difference is that some of those issues resonate more strongly here than elsewhere. For example, the HE sector is more heavily unionised than the local government.
In terms of culture, the culture in HE is very different. There is a lot of knowledge in the institution, issues are much more carefully considered, and we spend a lot of time gaining buy-in and consensus as we move forward with decisions and initiatives. In terms of learning from our customers — we’re dealing with many of the same issues that I had seen in local government, just from a different perspective.
The other thing for me is viewing students as customers. We are there to educate them, but we have got to be responsive to their needs as well. Many students find the cost of living particularly tough at the moment, so we must do everything that we can to make their studies as straightforward as possible. This could be providing a healthy meal for one pound a day or ensuring their timetables allow them to work part-time jobs.
We have spent a lot of time developing our well-being and counselling services, and that conversation started well before the pandemic. We have been developing facilities through the work the team has been doing, such as helping students who suffer from domestic violence — which is similar to the work that I did in local councils.
Before the pandemic, we already had a flexible offer. We did a lot of degree apprenticeships and had many part-time students. We have a relatively low level of accommodation for our student population, so many of our students commute daily from home.
During the pandemic, we made the transition to working off-campus really quickly. We did it within the space of about a week, which was a remarkable achievement in a short period of time. By listening to student feedback, we have developed a virtual learning experience, and new assessment methods as the pandemic progressed and now, as we continue to unlock and decompress from it.
Operationally, moving on from the pandemic has gone smoothly. We have much more campus-based teaching and allow staff to work flexibly. The bigger challenge is the ongoing impact of the pandemic on our students — they did not experience the benefits of in-person learning before coming to university. We have worked hard to put extra support in place for them.
Coming into HE, I think this is an area that the sector really needs to focus on. It has to be much more diverse and inclusive, embracing different ideas and perspectives. We do blind recruitment for hiring staff — how about doing the same for academic citations and academic progression? This seems to be the next logical step. If people are going to progress as academics, then we as a sector must do everything we can to remove unconscious biases.
If people are going to progress as academics, then we as a sector must do everything we can to remove unconscious biases.
The biggest thing I have done here is the SRO for the launch of ARU Peterborough. We have a great team building those networks locally moving forward, but all initial work and planning fell to me, the Vice-Chancellor and the many colleagues supporting us. The goal was to use the new university as a key vehicle for improving access to Higher Education (in a traditionally cold spot for HE) and, in so doing, help to unlock the enormous potential of the region and its people.
I also think ambassadorship and mentoring are really important. It is crucial to find the time to support each other and to bring on more junior staff as quickly as possible, to listen to those fresh perspectives, give people opportunities and build the strongest possible teams for our institutions.
Keep things as relaxed as possible, focus on open questions rather than closed ones and draw in examples from outside where there’s learning and growth. Be patient; get the balance right between pushing people and letting them make their own journey in their own time. It is okay to admit mistakes and learn from them. Academia is very good at learning and evaluating. Try to avoid blame — instead, focus on how people can work better together in the future.