My experience of working as an HE consultant

Development Monthly | #17 March 2023 | My experience of working as an HE consultant

Joanne Tallentire (she/her)

Leas Consultant,
AUA Consulting

The theme of the AUA Annual Conference taking place at the University of Warwick on 2-4 July 2023 is Becoming a Higher Education Professional: Continual Reinvention in a Transforming Sector. I started my first job in HE in 1990 and my professional journey has certainly involved moments of reinvention in the context of significant and continual sector-wide transformation. One of these came two decades into my career when I moved sideways from a senior role in Registry to head up Admissions in a Marketing and Communications division. That decision opened up a fascinating new career path for me and broadened my professional experience significantly. Twelve years on from that decision, I took a career break to study full-time (MA Policy Studies in Education, UCL, 2021/22) and I am now establishing myself as an HE consultant and interim.

Recently, I had the pleasure of working as a consultant for AUA Consulting with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama on a review of their student admissions processes. The scope of the consultancy included reviews of systems and processes, applicant and staff experience, resourcing, organisational structure and governance. Through a combination of desk-based research and intensive stakeholder engagement tailored to the needs of a small, specialist institution,  I was able to add value to transformation work already initiated by Central through providing:

  • Analysis that identified significant process changes that would free up resources in one area and re-balance the overall delivery of the service.
  • Recommendations for a number of processes that could be optimised to improve service delivery.
  • Advice on wider issues around the institutional governance of admissions and its leadership and management.

What did I learn from this experience of consulting?

One of the joys of working as a consultant in HE is the opportunity to meet colleagues across a diverse sector who share a common desire for improvement, for delivering a good service to students and staff, and for playing their part in the success of their institution. One of the challenges is to step into an unknown context, to establish rapport with a wide range of stakeholders and to acquire a mass of information rapidly to be able to form a clear view of the relevant issues. I was able to bring my knowledge and experience of managing HE admissions to bear on this review, but the success of any consultancy depends as much on the use of soft skills as it does on professional experience. Effective communication skills are key – the ability to listen and respond to a range of stakeholders with different perspectives and expectations, to record information accurately and write concisely.  Flexibility and adaptability are essential, as is an openness to change, for example, to adapt the planned structure of the review in response to information gathered from stakeholders. And, finally, the ability to manage yourself, to remain impartial and objective, to maintain confidentiality, and to respond effectively to the range of emotions that an external consultant may generate among stakeholders, are critical to producing an honest and balanced analysis in the report and recommendations.

Colleagues will be familiar with the AUA’s model of professional behaviours, several of which I have found myself describing here. Developing these has been crucial to my ability to develop myself as an HE professional and has enabled me to reinvent myself as opportunities have arisen.

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