As the University Secretary and Director of Human Resources, I oversee our legal and governance functions and lead the University’s people agenda through our Human Resources service. I have a role as Clerk to the Board of Governors, which ensures that the Governors are provided with the support they need to fulfil their responsibilities.
My professional background is Human Resources and prior to joining the University, I’d worked in a couple of different public and private sector organisations. Just before joining, I worked for a blue-chip mobile phone company, T-Mobile. They were very different from the HE sector, but I was quite keen to broaden my HR experience so I thought joining a university would give me a wider knowledge of the different people agendas in different sectors.
Reflecting on my recent career, I’ve been fortunate enough to advance my career within the University and to change the scope of my role, which has broadened my experience. I haven’t needed to leave the University to change roles, and that’s been a fantastic opportunity for me. The sector provides such diversity in terms of roles and opportunities that you can move and develop your own skills within. You can also take advantage of the extensive staff development opportunities, both internal and external.
A supportive sector
The sector has a strong mentoring network of like-minded professional staff who will support you, and this extends to other universities across the sector. There are networks and groups that are set up to provide support for each other. I’ve certainly been able to take advantage of receiving mentoring through my external networks and having the opportunity to work with people from different backgrounds, who have different experiences and learning from them. The sector as a whole is very good at supporting colleagues from all disciplines, whether they are academic or professional services, and providing a range of development, coaching and mentoring. I don’t think you have to look very hard to find opportunities.
Being a relatively large organisation, we have a huge advantage in that we can offer diverse facilities and support to all staff. We offer everything from an onsite gym through to subsidised healthcare provision. We have a very supportive working environment with flexible working opportunities for staff, and a comprehensive health and wellbeing offer, including things like staff counselling all the way through to a registered nurse on site. You are very much part of a community that is there to support all parts of your life. Having worked at Sunderland for almost 20 years, there have been times where I’ve needed to access occupational health and enhanced maternity leave provisions. A wide range of support is something I think people are increasingly expecting from their employers and universities are well-positioned to provide this. We spent a lot of time ensuring staff can work the hours that accommodate their needs, whilst also maintaining the business needs as well. For example, we’ve got very supportive home working policies, we don’t advocate a long-hours culture, and we probably have every type of working pattern that you could imagine, from job share through to part-time. I, myself, have worked part-time and full-time in a range of different roles.
A particular highlight for me was when I joined the University’s Executive team and was supported to undertake a national leadership development programme, which is the top management programme for the sector. I expanded my network as a result of that programme and had the opportunity to visit a number of universities in Sydney, Australia. It was absolutely fascinating in terms of understanding the differences between the UK HE sector and the Australian HE sector, what lessons we could learn from them and what lessons they could learn from us. I’m a strong advocate for continuous learning and development and have applied that principle to my own development throughout my career.
Another big highlight of the year is our graduation ceremonies and we encourage our staff to go along and experience these. I’m in a very honoured position; I get the opportunity to be part of the graduation ceremonies and sit on the stage alongside my colleagues, our Board of Governors and our Chancellor. I was also proud to represent the University at our partner graduations in Vietnam last year, where I met many of our overseas students and their families.
One of the reasons I’ve stayed in this sector for such a long time is because the purpose of our University really resonates with me. Our purpose is to be a life-changing University and I strongly believe that we are here to transform people’s lives for the better. We take young people and offer them the types of opportunities and experiences that really will make a difference to their future careers, and it is hugely rewarding to be part of an organisation that does that. I have the opportunity to make a difference and to be part of something which has a much bigger purpose. Every decision you make and everything you do on a day-to-day basis is to support those experiences for our students. You can come to work and feel proud that you’re making a difference.
Tips for those considering a career in HE
My advice to people considering a HE career would be to get an understanding of the HE environment because it does have its own culture and complexities and therefore the people agenda can be both challenging and rewarding. Consider the key people issues and try to gain some experience if you haven’t worked in HR within HE. HR functions are usually delivering across a range of activities and there may be opportunities to take on projects. Get your foot in the door to familiarise yourself with culture and environment and see if it’s right for you. Although highly rewarding, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with some of the challenges of working within the sector, for example, it’s regulated and unionised, you’re dealing with a diverse range of staff with a complexity of issues and we’ve got many agendas that we need to fulfil.
It’s all about the support and experience of working with good colleagues, taking advantage of mentors, building relationships through networking, being open to broadening your experience by taking on new and unfamiliar projects. I took responsibility for my own development and now I’m in a position where I can mentor people both within and outside of the University. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating and rewarding career.
This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Working arrangements on university campuses may have changed due to social distancing measures.