The Interview UK
Northumbria University
Academic Registrar and Director of SLAS

Maureen McLaughlin

Addressing how issues of diversity, access and belonging play out on the ground, while meeting the needs of centralised departments in an HE institution, can be the biggest challenge of all for an EDI practitioner.

Maureen McLaughlin, Academic Registrar and Director of SLAS, has been no stranger to the challenge of meeting the EDI needs of diverse stakeholders. GoodCourse’s Universities Lead Kitty Hadaway chatted to Maureen about the many hats she has worn in her EDI journey, her time spent in Europe and the Pacific Islands, and her work with the Quality Assurance Agency.

Maureen's Journey

Kitty: What led you down the path to becoming Academic Registrar and Director of SLAS at Northumbria?

I started working in Higher Education in 1990. Before that, I worked as a tax inspector for inland revenue, which wasn’t really for me. I started working at a Further Education college in Stockport while completing a PhD.

Meanwhile, I was looking for opportunities in larger institutions. Regulation at Further Education colleges at the time was incredibly rigorous, you were always subjected to some external guidelines. In the older ‘red brick’ universities, there was much more autonomy. I got to work closely with students, and that really lit the flame for me in terms of illustrating how important this work could and should be.

I then spent ten years at the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which gave me a great national overview of the sector. I’ve ended up at Northumbria, a really vibrant university in Newcastle. It feels special because I always looked to this university for inspiration in the earlier part of my career.

Kitty: You’ve worked at various institutions, how have your roles varied from uni to uni across your experience?

There’s always a period of adjustment in a new role. You tend to say, ‘this is what we did at my old workplace’, and sometimes that experience can translate well, but often it doesn’t. It showed me not to cling to the past too much, joining institutions with an open mind is essential.

I’ve worked in central administration which is quite separate from the student-facing departments, as well as in faculties, where you get more of a sense of how things are happening on the ground. Both give you an amazing sense of perspective and context.

The national review work I was doing gave me insight into how lots of universities and colleges worked in the UK and overseas. There are so many innovative ways to approach challenges, but you always have to be conscious of the context you’re working in.

Kitty: What brought you to work at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji?

It’s a fantastic place to work. It gave me a reboot. I saw an advert in the Times Higher Education Supplement – at the time, I lived in Manchester but worked in Liverpool, but I was tired of the commute. I fancied something new for me and my young family. After a telephone interview at midnight, I got the job. It was a great role in terms of learning what’s important when it comes to resources.

The university was fantastically well provided for in terms of technology – years ahead of what I was used to in the UK. The hub in Fiji is connected to dozens of different satellite islands, so having good links is critical to the success of the institution. Using teleconferencing also taught me about pausing and inviting people in that you couldn’t always see. Bear in mind this was the 90s, when this type of communication at work was very novel!

Kitty: What brought you to work at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji?

Materials being regularly updated to reflect current research and industry experience, and ensuring students are involved in that and can start to develop their own research skills, but also courses where there’s a lot of contact with employers, industry and professional bodies, that make sure those syllabuses are cutting edge.

There are so many innovative ways to approach challenges, but you always have to be conscious of the context you’re working in.

Also, ensuring exams and tests are assessments for learning, not assessments of learning. A range of assessment approaches – beyond traditional exams – means students can be stretched in a number of contexts. It doesn’t mean the exam system is dead, it’s all in the context of good practice and good teaching. Essentially, keeping courses alive and dynamic is the most important thing.

Kitty: Could you reflect on the most successful EDI strategies you’ve worked on in recent years and how you’ve engaged students in those?

I was hired at the QAA to think of ways to bring student reviewers into the national review system. I’d come from the University of West England where the student’s voice was heard effectively. I was looking to replicate what our Scottish and European counterparts had been doing for a number of years – training students to be reviewers in a national context.

There was scepticism about the value of a student reviewer. I Ied on training and developing them, but also advocating for their value. Sometimes, student reviewers were the most successful and well-prepared members of a review team! My replacement at the University of Warwick was one of our first cohort of student reviewers.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kitty: What career advice would you give to those working in the EDI sector?

Be prepared to move sideways and down in hierarchical terms to collect good experience. There’s an awful lot to learn laterally from peers at different levels to you, especially those who work for and report to you. Don’t assume the trajectory is upwards!

Kitty: Who do you most admire in the Higher Education space?

Derfel Owen, who is now a successful leader at UCL. He was an incredibly innovative and energetic person to work alongside. I admire him because he’s always taken risks, put himself in positions of discomfort professionally, and supported the development of others.

Kitty: Is there a book that you think everyone should read?

Anything the late Professor Sir David Watson ever wrote about the sector, he’s an admirable character in HE, who once led the MBA at the Institute of Education. His writing on the challenges of the sector is always worth a read. Michael Shattock has produced brilliant writing on good management within universities. A favourite from my days as a student is George Elliot’s Middlemarch – it’s long and complicated but you always find something new every time you revisit it.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kitty Hadaway
Universities Lead
Kitty is passionate about using technology to create safer and more inclusive campuses, and is an expert on student engagement and delivering training at scale. Get in touch at to learn more.

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