The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the landscape of Higher Education (HE), forcing institutions worldwide to adapt and innovate in unprecedented ways. In her roles as University Secretary and the Chief Operating Officer of the University of Aberdeen, Tracey Slaven has been at the forefront of this innovation, providing stable leadership in a time of uncertainty.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Tracey to discuss her journey in HE, the challenges of maintaining a sense of belonging among students and staff, and the lessons learned during the pandemic.
I’m the Chief Operating Officer and the University Secretary at the University of Aberdeen in Northeast Scotland. We like to describe ourselves as a “dual-intensive” institution with an equal commitment to excellence in education and research. It’s an exciting location: we’re outside the central belt, but Aberdeen is the third-largest city in Scotland, and there’s a lot happening here with both sea and mountains on our doorsteps.
I moved here from Edinburgh: I was responsible for implementing the lockdown at that University before planning for opening up at Aberdeen. But I started my career as a Government economist, working for the Government Economic Service in Scotland, and then Highlands and Islands Enterprise before moving into the private sector, working in governance, corporate planning, and mergers. Which was fantastic experience for working on the merger of the Countryside Agency and English Nature, creating what is now Natural England. Returning to Scotland, I worked on third sector policy, before becoming Chief Executive of the Student Awards Agency and then Deputy Director for Higher Education within Scottish Government. From there, I took a position as Deputy Secretary at Edinburgh University before transitioning to Aberdeen in 2021. It’s been a zig-zag instead of a straight line, but it’s given me experience across operations, policy, and governance — in the HE sector, those areas often overlap.
As University Secretary, I’m responsible for governance: working with the University Council to make sure they have the right information, making sure authority is delegated in the right places, and ensuring we are in compliance with legislation. I act as a pivot between the Chair and the Principal, linking together corporate and non-corporate governance. Then, as COO, I’m responsible for all professional services across the university, ensuring they are efficient, effective, and supportive of our overall academic vision.
The most important thing here at Aberdeen was the level of engagement across the institution. When I arrived, there was already an established Campus Planning Group led by Karl Leydecker, our Senior Vice Principal, and Debbie Dyker, our Director of People. It was a cross-section of our university, comprised of representatives from our schools, trade unions, and professional services. We met every week and even more frequently during the pandemic's peak. It was a great privilege to come into a university that communicated so successfully: so when it came to opening up, we had a solid plan in place. Having academics and professional services in the same space allowed us to learn from each other. It wasn’t without its challenges, but I think we got the big decisions right.
It was a challenge to maintain that belonging throughout the pandemic. So we put an emphasis on internal communication, for students as well as staff. Overall, I think it was more difficult for students than staff — some had their whole university experience defined by Covid. As a medium-sized institution, our schools can work more closely with students; some of the larger universities find that a lot more challenging. We’ve also reintroduced a program called Live on the Lawn: when the weather improves, we hold an all-staff barbecue on our playing fields, with a wide range of activities to bring everyone together. We also hold another event for students to unwind before their assessments. Recently, we’ve been running a series of online open sessions which allow the whole staff community to engage with senior management. Along with the Principal, I’ve been going to all of our schools and directorates to hold question-and-answer sessions. We’ve had to address some challenging questions: for example, how can we attract more Scottish students whilst still expanding internationally? Going out and interacting face-to-face makes a huge difference.
It was developed before I arrived, but Aberdeen 2040 will guide our institution for the next two decades. Earlier this year, we had the results of a survey which showed that over 90% of our staff support the plan. There’s a sense that we aren’t moving as fast as planned — a lot of that is down to the pandemic — so it needs to feel like change is coming from within instead of being imposed from the top if we want to improve our progress.
It’s important to listen before anything else. Start by asking questions instead of looking for answers. Be honest, and communicate openly: if you want everyone to pull in the same direction, you need to be clear about what you are trying to accomplish.
If you have an idea, just share it. The only wasted ideas are the ones that are never spoken. So speak up, and make yourself heard.