After nearly 15 years in Higher Education, all spent at the same institution, I’ve grown used to the surprise of colleagues who more frequently move between jobs and sectors. Of course the job here has changed constantly during that time, and the Personnel Director role I took up in 2003 quickly became HR Director, and (four Vice-Chancellors and five office moves later) since January this year I combine that role with University Secretary.
As University Secretary, I cover the Secretariat functions supporting the Board, HR, Legal, Communications, and Equality and Diversity. As HR Director I keep responsibility for our HR Strategy but have delegated HR department management to our new Director of HR Services.
One of the main reasons I have stayed so long here is that there simply isn’t a typical day. Of course much of my time is spent in meetings or at formal events – even more now as University Secretary – but the variety and the type of challenges in and out of meetings are far greater than anything I encountered in my earlier career in the engineering sector.
Most people with an HR background will say they find people fascinating (though curiously, some clearly don’t) but the people you encounter day to day in a university are what make it stimulating, challenging and never, ever, boring. I’ll never be able to forget the professor who ended a discussion on workload management by asking if he was not working when in his bath on a Sunday thinking about Rembrandt.
As an institution with a lot of property in the centre of London, one of our major challenges is making our estate modern, efficient, and cost effective for the constituent colleges of the University of London federation and for the students and visitors who use our facilities and halls of residence. We face all the difficulties of attracting students and staff to London, and these will only get worse.
In addition we have over 50,000 students around the world doing our distance learning degrees, and maintaining market share for such a varied and far flung student body by providing new offerings and an attractive and slick online presence will be a continuing challenge.
Eight months into the new combined role, I am able to see the work of the Board and the various Committees much more closely. The University of London in Senate House is a hard thing to explain at the best of times, described by some as “Byzantine”; some of the descriptions of the complex balance between us and our member institutions verge on theology (my appointment pack in 2003 contained the words “the University has two manifestations”). But I’ve always felt privileged to work here.
And the downsides? Commuting in each day to an increasingly crowded city becomes less appealing by the year. Remote working brings some relief, but a couple of years more will see me in retirement territory.
Not sure I’ll be thinking about Rembrandt then.