Musings and observations on a career in HE

Development Monthly | #9 May 2022 | Musings and observations on a career in HE

Suzanne Crane

HE Collaborative Partnership Manager | AUA Network Coordinator – HE in FE network

New College Durham

Other than a couple of years working in retail whilst doing my degree, majority of my working life has been dedicated to Higher Education. This article will give you an outline of my background and personal interactions with education, as well as my observations, musings and thoughts on what I have learned over the years that I have worked and studied in HE, and also where I believe the sector needs to move towards.

Having grown up in a region with a wealth of further and higher education institutions (five Universities and 32 colleges as listed in the Association of Colleges directory), it perhaps was inevitable that at some point in my career I would end up working for at least one of them in some capacity. This was only strengthened by my personal experiences of education: I attended a faith primary school, followed by a local comprehensive, before relocating to Cambridgeshire where I attended sixth form college, and then returned to the North East to undertake my first degree at a red brick university. My father had worked within education at an FE College as I grew up and school holidays would often find me perched at the end of his desk. I have always been passionate about access to education for everyone, something that definitely came from my father’s passion and influence.  

Despite this clear lean towards education, teaching was never my vocation but I did make a conscious decision to work within education, and I took my first role in Higher Education in 2006 through a temping agency who supplied a large proportion of entry level administrators into a local, large post-92 University. I stayed for 14 years, working in various roles related to programme administration, student support, Transnational and Collaborative Education partnerships (TNE), Quality Assurance and Enhancement and Research. I joined the AUA whilst there, attending and presenting at the annual conferences and making connections through networking.

Having worked across several roles and departments, both within schools, faculties and centralised departments, I have witnessed and been part of significant synergies within a HEI, but also internal and external tensions.  What should take priority, Learning and Teaching or Research? How can we ensure we maintain our quality but remain agile and respond to the ever-changing market? Should we focus on undergraduate home students, or diversify with increased international students, apprenticeships, TNE, business development? How do we ensure value to the students but remain competitive within a volatile and fast paced market? From conversations I have had over the years with colleagues working in other HEIs this is most likely a familiar story for most.

Large organisations have the opportunity to try to balance a lot of those aspects to see what works for them within their own context, and the institution I worked for made great strides in incorporating all of those varying aspects of what a modern University can be. What I found more difficult to align with my idealistic view of the world, and values around collaboration and access for all, was local and internal competition, the silo working within a system that outwardly does not want this to be the case but is structured in such a way that it is inevitable.

The conflicting messages being received from government and the OfS currently is perhaps a good example of how this is still being perpetuated. The revised priorities released recently to institutions asking them to refocus their Access and Participation Plans to raise aspirations of underrepresented groups to engage in higher education, and develop different pathways through the system, call for collaboration between all aspects of the tertiary sector. At the same time the government is looking at introducing further competition through Minimum Entry Requirements, number caps and the potential splitting out of technical and academic qualifications, which is likely to exacerbate existing, or create new, tier systems of higher education.

My experiences have given me an outward perspective on what can be achieved. I have worked with small local education provision in countries recovering from decades of internal conflict, as well as those institutions providing a quality UK education for those who cannot travel to the UK. Nationally, I have also been involved with private providers and FE Colleges providing vocational and technical qualifications, utilising the skills, expertise and dedicated resources of these institutions but providing the degree awarding powers. I can also attest to what can be achieved through multi-disciplinary working and research, within an organisation but also across countries and continents.

I have witnessed first hand the will that exists within the workforce, both professional support services and academics, to work in this cross discipline and cross industry way to make an impact to students at all levels of their educational journey. However, when the systems and structures create barriers to innovation the powers of agility afforded to large organisations, where smaller projects and ideas can be given an opportunity to fail and act as a learning mechanism, is of little value.

The events that transpired in 2020 made me re-evaluate my career trajectory and I joined an HE team within a local FE College close to where I grew up. I did not appreciate at the time the very different environment to that of a large HEI that I was entering. As such, I applied for the role of HE in FE Network Co-ordinator after a year in post in the hope of expanding my network and knowledge within this particular area of HE, and this is where you find me.

Personally, my move to an FE College was in part to get back to those core values that have stayed with me from being a teenager: making a difference, working in collaboration, working more closely in the widening participation arena and the local community. Some of the tensions mentioned above are still there, but there are also others: the balance between HE and FE provision and what takes priority; traditional teaching contracts but with the need to introduce scholarly activity, research and establish an HE culture; staying local and relevant for the context in which it sits, but also being outward facing, current and relevant to the wider context. FE Colleges delivering HE are, in most cases, subject to the same regulatory pressures as HEIs but within a different vehicle, and with the added regulatory system for post-16 education. There appears to be less autonomy for academic staff, but there is clear passion amongst educators and professional service staff alike.

Having studied within a red brick traditionally research focused institution, and then worked within a post-92 university and now an FE College delivering HE, I can see the synergies that exist across the sector. There are valuable opportunities to collaborate that will add impact for the students and local communities, and these can be achieved through those multidisciplinary projects and ideas mentioned previously. FE Colleges and private providers may be better placed to respond to the advances in Higher Technical Qualifications, modularisation and short courses that the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will enable, but surely these need to work alongside traditional undergraduate and postgraduate offerings from universities, as well as employers and government? Is now the time to really break down those silo walls and look at creating regional educational hubs, to create the pathways through Higher Education for students from all backgrounds, working together to offer opportunities and raise aspirations?

The AUA is perfectly positioned to facilitate these discussions and develop connections through regional and themed networks. From my experience, members want to enhance the higher education landscape for students, for collective learning and for national and global advancement. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’, and I think that now more than ever the world needs that change.

Suzanne Crane is an AUA Network Coordinator for the ‘HE in FE’ network. Themed networks, such as ‘HE in FE’, focus on a specific area of interest and give members the opportunity to discuss these areas of higher and further education with like-minded colleagues and those with sector knowledge.

Network Coordinators are vital as they are the links between members, Advocates and the national organisation, ambassadors of AUA and the channels by which AUA can listen to the views of its members and the sector on higher education policy, professional development issues and the services we provide.

You can find out more about our themed networks, including HE in FE, here.

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