Helen Cooke, Senior Manager, Curriculum Innovation at The Open University

Helen's career story

How long have you worked in HE and what was your first position?

I started working in higher education just over 13 years ago, initially starting in a more academic research role at a different institution. In 2007, I joined The Open University Business School on a management trainee scheme and at that point was encouraged to join the AUA. Although I had enjoyed working in research, I didn’t want to specialise in my chosen field but enjoyed working in a university environment so the management trainee scheme was an ideal opportunity for me to transition into higher education management. The scheme included working in a range of different teams within the Business School, as well as having a strong focus on personal development, of which my AUA membership was an important aspect.

What advice do you have for prospective AUA members?

My key piece of advice is to take advantage of the opportunities available! In the 10 years that I have been an AUA member, I have attended and presented at a number of training courses and conferences (both national and regional) and, for three years, I shared the AUA Advocate role for The Open University with other colleagues. In 2010, I was awarded a two week AUA Travel Award to visit a number of universities in Australia on the recruitment and development of junior managers in higher education , which was a fantastic experience. Although people told me how “lucky” I was to have this opportunity (which I don’t deny), it only came about because I sought out the opportunity myself and put in the work required. So my advice is to just go for it – and if you don’t ask, you’ll never know!

What do you value most about working in HE?

The variety. Although there are elements of my day job that would be considered to be more ‘routine’, my current role involves working across all other parts of the university and this provides me with the opportunity to work on a range of different activities and with colleagues at all levels across the institution (as well as across the sector). However, my favourite work-related activity is getting to watch graduates cross the stage at degree ceremonies, and I try to do this at least once a year. This activity never fails to remind me of all the things that I value about working in higher education (and particularly at The Open University), by witnessing the perseverance, determination and diversity of students from a wide range of backgrounds who have succeeded in pursuit of their study goals, often against all odds.

What does professionalism mean to you?

For me, professionalism is a combination of integrity, respect for others and external awareness. I believe the first two are linked, as integrity relates to not only believing in the quality and honesty of your own work, but also respecting the ethics and morals of others. In the higher education sector, this not only applies to work colleagues but also other institutions and most importantly, our students. I also believe that being aware of the threats and opportunities in the wider external environment is an important aspect of professionalism, in order to adapt and respond to changes that any role in the sector demands. Although it can be difficult to balance this horizon scanning with the “day job”, it is particularly relevant at a time when the UK higher education sector is facing a number of influential challenges and we cannot just bury our heads in the sand.

What would you most like to tell yourself at age 13?

Funnily enough, I recently wrote a personal blog post in the form of a letter to my 13 year old self, which I highly recommend as a reflective exercise! However, career-wise, I would probably tell my 13 year old self to think more creatively about the career options available and to consider combining different interests. For example, my current work on The Open University’s BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree has opened my eyes to the almost infinite opportunities presented by multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary study, which I was never aware of at school. I would also tell myself to trust the career path that develops. At 13, I could never have predicted that I would end up in my current job, but it is a role that I enjoy and suits me well, despite it never being on my radar throughout my school education. I would also remind myself that it’s never too late to learn, or to change direction. I am fortunate enough to see the evidence of this every day through my work with Open University students, who are often balancing their studies with far greater challenges than I could ever imagine!

AUA career stories