An Interview With Nicola Owen

As well as serving as an AUA Trustee, Nicola Owen is the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Secretary at Lancaster University. Together with the Director of Finance, she leads the Professional Services at Lancaster. As CAO, she is the Head of Administration and is responsible for a number of administrative Divisions. As Secretary she has responsibility for the operation of governance and support to Council as well as a number of other legal, governance and licensing roles. 

Nicola Owen

Chief Administrative Officer and Secretary
Lancaster University

AUA: Looking ahead to the coming few months, what are your comments on the key policy issues likely to face universities (and university administrators)?

Nicola: Just like every other sector it seems at the moment, our key policy issues are shrouded in uncertainty. We’re only really just getting used to the post HERA world; an increasingly competitive market operating at the bottom of a UK demographic dip; OfS regulation and the changes coming with the three ‘EFs’, but on the horizon are some potential tidal waves to come, all of which will potentially hit our finances hard. 

Who really knows what Augar augurs, but the pressure on the cost of fees is only downwards and evidencing value for money upwards.  The runes suggest potential reductions in fees, but also the potential for further disruption in the different routes to, and through HE. 

Pensions issues will finally come home to roost – whether USS or TPS – contributions will increase significantly. We may still find ourselves in more industrial action before we get to a resolution, but even then, there will be the financial challenge of how to pay for increases within a constrained – and potentially shrinking – pot of funding.

And finally – the B word. At the time of writing – who knows. Probably still at the time of publication – who knows!  But we are busy preparing for a variety of eventualities. Some of this preparation is practical, e.g advice to staff and students, procurement, travel etc. But it also is stretching our planning skills – to try and assess the impact; identify new approaches and options; and also to determine what investments we should and can make.

For universities, this will compound effects we are already seeing in the market between winners and losers and add even more focus on financial sustainability issues.  For university administrators, our ability to adapt, innovate and find more efficiencies and demonstrate value for money in our services will be tested even more than currently.  But we need to keep focused on our values and our institution’s vision and mission – rather than be buffeted by the storm.

AUA: As a Head of Administration, what qualities do you look for in members of your team?

Nicola: I can’t achieve anything much without others, so the efforts of members of my team – and I mean that in the widest sense – are critical.  Qualities I really admire and seek out are curiosity, imagination and positive energy.  Skills can be developed, but those qualities can make such a difference to the contribution of a team.

AUA: Universities get a certain amount of bad press in the media at the moment – what is positive about working in higher education?

Nicola: Good news doesn’t sell papers (or tv/social media advertising) and as a sector unfortunately we seem to have been very good at feeding negative stories in recent months. Reflecting on the AUA’s model of professional behaviours could have benefitted some university leaders for their bedtime reading. 

However, the same things get me motivated about HE as they did over 20 years ago when I obtained my first university administrative role.  The core purpose of transforming individual’s lives through education and research drives me.  

Coming across those impressive young (and older) students each day who are simply amazing in what they have achieved, often hurdling significant barriers, makes me proud. 

Being surrounded by brilliant minds who are pushing at the threshold of knowledge, and changing the world – sometimes inch by inch, sometimes in leaps and bounds – is thrilling to be part of. 

And being surrounded by a team of staff who are just as proud as I am of the institution they work for and bound by common purpose to make the experience of every member of our university community as good as it can be. That’s the real story not told about HE.

AUA: What do you see as the key benefits of AUA membership in your career?

Nicola: The benefits of being a member of AUA have changed and developed over different stages in my career. At the beginning, AUA helped me orientate, navigate and learn about the opportunities and breadth of our profession. As I developed, AUA provided the gateway to new networks, the opportunity to learn new skills and approaches, and test my professional skills at a national level.  As I became a senior manager, I drew on existing longstanding networks first established in my early career; got inspired by new staff coming in who challenge my perceptions and encourage me to learn new skills; and drew on more specialised networks.  At this stage in my career, the benefits of AUA membership have really become about facilitating the progression and development of others. I have advocated the benefits of AUA with staff at Lancaster; encouraged the development of new networks; been able to support others through mentoring and finally, as a Board member, sought to contribute expertise to the development of the future of the AUA.  It’s probably this stage of my career where AUA has inspired me most – seeing the new generation of professional university administrators biting at my ankles and admiring their confidence and optimism!

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