My name is Katrina Kelly. My role is currently being fully defined and titled, but I lead the civic engagement work at the University of Bath. I started the brand new role two months ago, although I’ve been at the University since 2011. The position focuses on giving greater visibility to the University’s existing civic engagement and growing our civic role. The University has made a commitment to establishing a Civic University Agreement.
This is something that’s happening in a lot of universities across the country since the University Partnerships Programme, the UPP Foundation, in spring 2019 released their paper titled ‘Truly Civic’, which outlined that universities have, over the last two or three decades, moved away from their local areas and been far more focused on international research and teaching and was calling on universities and on the government to recognise when universities engage more in the local area.
So, as part of this, many universities have committed to develop a strategy to better engage in their local areas and Bath is doing that at the moment.
I didn’t set out to work in higher education because both of my parents work in a university! My mother’s in a senior administrative role focused on major projects. My father is in a lab-based role in the field of biology and geography. I was always adamant that I wasn’t going to go into academia in any way whatsoever.
I did my Master’s degree in international public relations at Cardiff University and then went directly into a London-based food and drink PR agency, which I worked in for a year. I went from there to a Bristol office of a nationally-based PR agency where I focused on a breadth of accounts including research, energy generation, health and wellbeing, and then some that were direct campaigns for consumer brands.
I worked there for a good few years, went off travelling for a year, went back to the same job and decided that actually I wanted to do something that had more of a positive impact on people’s lives. A maternity cover position had come up at the University of Bath to work in the press office, representing the Faculty of Science. I’d always wanted to stay away from universities and not follow my parents’ footsteps, but the role itself sounded so fascinating, with the opportunity to learn about scientific research in a top-ten STEM university, that I just couldn’t resist. I went for it, got the job, did the maternity cover and then continued the role part-time because I had just started my own agency.
My agency focused on the digital sector as my husband and I had just started Bath Digital Festival, ten days of citywide digital events aimed at those working in the sector and members of the public who want to know more about the digital world. I had recognised a gap in the market wherein digital agencies in the city didn’t have anywhere to turn to for help with their communications.
I was spending three days a week working at the University, focused on engineering and science research, and two days a week working for exciting local digital companies, many going through their initial start-up phase, and helping them with their communications. It was fascinating to learn the management behind running a company as well as working directly with clients.
After a few years the University changed the structure of its marketing and brought its press, web and design and image teams together under a central marketing department with a new director. I was appointed to a full-time role as Head of Research Marketing, focusing specifically on promoting the University’s research globally. I came back into the University, carried on doing some freelance work on the side through my company, and was Head of Research Marketing for a number of years until I had my second child recently.
I took a year’s maternity leave during which I started to assess what I wanted to be doing with my time. After my first child I began working three days a week because that had provided a good life balance. Despite my university role being fascinating, I fancied a change as I wanted to do something more community-focused here in Bath, making use of the contacts that I’d developed and getting back into seeing the impact of my work on individuals.
Career development in higher education
As luck would have it, my line manager told me that our new Vice Chancellor wanted to implement a drive to enhance the University’s role in the local community, and asked if I would like to be involved in that. I said, yes, absolutely – that’s exactly what I want to be doing! The fact that it turned up at just the right time and landed in my lap was amazing. I began that role at the beginning of January, so I’ve only been doing it for two months so far, but I’m absolutely loving it.
What I value most about my current role is that I’m out meeting people face-to-face, understanding their needs, and understanding how the University can achieve its own objectives, whilst also having a really positive impact in the local community. I can use my previous research marketing knowledge and understanding of the University’s research to find areas where we can do collaborative research, or where our students can do placements or research projects, which will really support and help grow organisations within the city and our local area, whilst also allowing us to do really meaningful, impactful work. While my previous role allowed me to do that, this new role lets me see the immediate impact of it on individuals that live in the same community as me. That’s really rewarding.
Development opportunities in higher education
Because there is an inherent value placed on education, while working in a university you have constant opportunities to grow and develop your skills across all areas, including formal training and being able to get involved in lots of different projects. But, for me, the most valuable thing is access to cutting edge thought in so many different fields. Students are paying tuition fees to access some fantastic minds to learn from, and I’m being paid for that same privilege. That’s one of the most exciting things about working in such a strong research university.
Creativity in higher education
A university is an unusual organisation to work for because, unlike a corporate organisation, or even a charity, we have such a mixed audience and mixed objective. It’s not like we have one product we’re trying to sell to a specific audience or one particular challenge we’re trying to overcome.
We’re talking about research to funders, to research partners, to other institutions doing research around the world; we’re talking about recruitment of potential students, aspirations for your school kids, and so many different things to so many different audiences that if you’re working in any form of marketing or outreach role in the University, you have to be creative out of necessity because you haven’t got a straightforward objective. So, you’ve really got to think outside the box and do things differently to other organisations. In terms of experiences, for me it’s the breadth of experience that you can get that makes it a great environment to be in.
The whole time I’ve worked at the University I’ve been in the marketing department but I’ve been involved in all sorts of things, from course design to working with global corporations and helping researchers develop their relationships with them, through to taking researchers into TV studios to do interviews, through to getting involved with environmental initiatives and developing strategy. There’s such a broad range of experiences available and I think in a university there is the opportunity to get involved in all these different things.
Careers in higher education compared to commerce
Having worked in both higher education and commercial environments, I think the approach is very different. That was the biggest shock for me when coming to work in a university. Corporate environments, particularly marketing agencies, are very competitive, so you don’t collaborate with other marketing agencies – you compete with them, and knowledge is not shared in the way it is in a university.
I was really shocked when I first moved into a university marketing department and found that we went to networking events with other university marketing departments to share knowledge and best practice, because that seemed really counterintuitive when I’d come from such a competitive background. And yet for me it’s a really mature approach. It shows a growth mindset, that if we work together we can all do better. And I think for me it took some time to adapt but I do appreciate that really collaborative approach that you get in HE.
Facilities in higher education
One of the things I really love about being in a university is that there are lots of facilities and opportunities for staff. For example, there’s a wellbeing programme on campus which includes opportunities to do things like yoga or staff choir. We’ve also got phenomenal sports facilities. A lot of Olympians train here, so we have an amazing swimming pool and gyms. We’ve got new arts facilities that were developed in the last few years for staff and students perform in, and also things like social groups – knitting clubs, gardening clubs, things like that for staff. But, for me, one of the things I’ve recently found most rewarding has been being able to get involved with strategic roles that are outside my immediate job.
For example, as a university, we’ve got a climate crisis response group and I’ve been able to get involved, which gives me a sense of empowerment that I’m having a chance to do something to deal with a situation that we’re probably all quite concerned about, even though that’s not core to my role. So, that’s been something I think I probably wouldn’t have got the opportunity to do in a different organisation.
Tips and advice for a marketing career in higher education
I think that the job I’m currently doing around civic and community engagement is an area that is really going to grow. There’s an increased appetite nationally for universities to have a more local role and to work with their communities to help solve their challenges and drive them forward.
I think a lot of universities are going to start advertising these roles and there’s probably going to be opportunities there. For somebody thinking about going for that sort of role, I recommend you get out in your local community, join residents’ forums, and get involved with local networks, festivals and action groups. Think about what you’re passionate about and look for ways to get involved in that locally, and make and nurture connections, because I think the real key to this sort of role is to have those relationships and to know where to go to develop the relationships the University needs.
This interview was conducted before the Coronavirus Pandemic. Working arrangements on university campuses may have changed due to social distancing measures.