‘Being a PVC is undeniably hard work. I have always gone full tilt at every role I have had, but the sheer intensity of senior management did come as a surprise’
As a proud Liberal Democrat who was once described by a former boss as a “lefty liberal”, it was painful to find myself on the wrong side of a “bosses versus workers” conflict earlier this year. I had only been a pro vice-chancellor for education for a few short months when the strike over proposed cuts to academics’ pension benefits began, and I hadn’t quite finished thinking through the transition of identity from academic practitioner to leader – despite a previous stint as an associate PVC for online learning.
As many commentators have noted, the industrial action was about more than pensions, and I understand the angst there is in the UK sector about the marketised environment the government has introduced. I feel the weight of responsibility senior managers have to navigate this new regulatory environment and evolving set of expectations, while upholding higher education’s core values. But it is a challenge that I am looking forward to meeting.
There has been a welcome proliferation of associate PVC positions across the UK sector. For me, carrying out the role at the University of Liverpool was a bit like being an apprentice PVC. Working alongside – and learning from – the deputy vice-chancellor and PVC for education, I had lots of opportunities to lead things at a senior level, while also having time to work out some of the practical ways to keep up with scholarship and teaching in a fulltime management role. My main tactic in that regard has been to reflect and write on the strategic issues that I am leading on. So, at Liverpool, it was models of online learning. At Keele, my current institution, it is social learning. I have continued to supervise projects at undergraduate and master’s level and have found it to be a brilliant way to stay in touch with students while continuing to collect data for research projects.
Apart from the industrial action, my first six months as PVC have been relentlessly positive. I put this down to two factors. The first is that the executive team at Keele is supportive and collegiate; it is very important to me to work with people whose values I share, so I thought long and hard about the type of institution I wanted to move to, having been very happy at Liverpool.
The second factor is having the agency to set out a vision and then to go about achieving it. One of my first jobs, for instance, was to set up the Keele Institute for Innovation and Teaching Excellence. We have built an exceptional team and are developing a network of distributed leadership for education across the university. Sharing, debating and communicating how we want to reimagine the broad-based, interdisciplinary vision of Keele’s founder, Lord Lindsay, for the 2020s has been especially exciting and rewarding.
But being a PVC is undeniably hard work. I have always gone full tilt at every role I have had, but the sheer intensity of senior management did come as a surprise. Losing concentration isn’t an option as you constantly juggle all the demands on your time – most notably, chairing constant meetings – which often run into the evening. This leaves precious few opportunities to reply to emails or even eat, and has made me review how I manage both my time and my energy levels (rethinking what I eat and drink, and how much sleep and exercise I get).
Management colleagues tell me that it gets easier after you’ve done everything once. I hope so. But, either way, I have no regrets about taking on the role. I am writing this at the end of a week of graduation ceremonies. This is a special time of the year in any university, but it has been especially meaningful for me this year. Giving out teaching excellence awards to some outstanding colleagues, in particular, cemented my feelings of belonging to my university community, and enhanced my pride in having a role in leading it.
I feel the weight of responsibility in navigating this new regulatory environment, while upholding higher education’s core values