The Interview UK
University of Sheffield
Deputy Chief Operating Officer (Students)

Michelle Nolan

In an era marked by rapid changes in regulation and the commercialisation of education, the guiding focus of any university must be the success and well being of its students. Few understand this better than Michelle Nolan, Deputy Chief Operating Officer (Students) at the University of Sheffield. 

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Michelle to discuss topics including her career journey, strategies for creating a sense of inclusion and belonging, and the importance of clear, straightforward communication. 

Michelle's Journey

Luke: Can we begin with a quick introduction to yourself and your institution?

My role is across the full spectrum of professional services affecting students, from student support to careers and lifelong learning. I work closely with the Vice President of Education to realise our ambitions as set out in the Education pillar of the University's Vision. Sheffield is a Russell Group university in the North of England; it’s a large institution with around 30,000 students and an annual turnover of over £850 million. 

Luke: What inspired you to pursue a career in Higher Education? 

Over my career, I’ve worked in different areas of the Higher Education sector, including planning, registry, and faculty offices. But I moved into the student side of things almost by accident. Things have changed so much since I began my career – increased regulation, the marketisation of education, and the life experiences of students. I’m someone who likes to fix problems; a lot of the things we tend to get wrong in the sector are the basics, the hygiene factors that underpin a good student experience, and we need to work hard to address that. Many of us experienced a very different education to the one students have now – there were fewer students, no tuition fees, full maintenance grants and no social media. Now, we operate in a space where we need to think much harder about how to deliver results with finite resources. What all students have in common is that they are here to study, we need to build out from there putting students at the heart of how we design and deliver our education, services, systems and processes. 

Luke: How do you make sure colleagues stay open to new ideas and approaches?

With more than 8,000 staff, it’s certainly a challenge. We need to keep messaging straight and simple – our colleagues, especially in academic departments, have so many things coming at them, so we need to be clear if we want to cut through. We also need to provide the scaffolding needed to reduce the burden locally on academic teams and to ensure that all students have a fair and equitable experience. Too often we have 40 local models to do the same thing and these can be hard for students to navigate. My role is focused on students, but realistically, I won’t meet all of them; their relationships are with their peers, with their tutors, and with the students’ union. As leaders, we need to provide frameworks to make sure that effective support is delivered on the ground. There’s been so much change over the last few years, but the work will never be finished. There’s no way you can pre-empt every problem and every challenge, but if you have solid foundations, you can respond effectively.

Luke: Change doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes people can lose enthusiasm when they don’t see immediate results. How do you make sure people stay energised and motivated?

It’s useful to think about change as a constant. If you want to effect change you need to be transparent, but realistic; the scariest part of change is the unknown, so if you can manage expectations and be clear about where you are trying to get to and why, things will go more smoothly. Sometimes we have a tendency to hype things up, but we need to get better at delivering incremental improvement. People need to see the progress happening around them. We can’t try and solve everything at once: if you make your promises too broad, too unrealistic, too far into the future, you begin to create new problems. There’s a tendency of wanting to get “back to normal”, but in higher education things are always changing – you can only move forward. 

Luke: What are the most important things to keep in mind when creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for students from all backgrounds?

Above all, you need to know your students. Are they part-time, international, or from particular underrepresented groups? What is the physical or learning environment they occupy? How does this change by programme, cohort, etc? Once you understand that context, you can start to understand the challenges they face and begin to build support around that. It’s important to try and look through the eyes of students. For example, if your course has a high percentage of mature students, when you are planning your schedules you need to take into account that they might have work or caring responsibilities. That mindset helps you identify barriers to engagement and find ways to break them down. Finally, stay mindful of what students are telling you. Make sure their needs are reflected in the services you provide. 

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career? 

“Your ability to influence is directly related to people’s perception of your ability to help them achieve their goals.” It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about something if you can’t get people to see the value in what you’re doing. No matter what you’re trying to do, you need to think about your audience.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Luke James
Luke works hand-in-hand with leaders and changemakers in our professional services markets. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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