‘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’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - He­len O’Sul­li­van is pro vicechan­cel­lor for ed­u­ca­tion at Keele Univer­sity.

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

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