Guest Interview with Justine Abbott, Interim in the Education sector
Justine, can you tell us a bit about your background and work as an Interim?
I have worked in higher education management for over 20 years, in variety of roles, both central and faculty/college based. I have worked at a number of different universities, including Southampton, Bristol, Oxford, the OU and UCL. I was also a Panel Secretary for the RAE2008. I became an interim in 2012 as a lifestyle change.
You work across the Higher Education sector so how has it changed and evolved in recent years?
Universities have become much more like businesses over the past few years with much more focus on cost-effectiveness of activities. In addition, students are seen increasingly as customers, and now that fees have been introduced, the effect of league tables on recruitment and students’ perception is more marked.
How have these changes affected your own work?
There has been increased pressure to do more with less and to cut out activities seen as not ‘adding value’. It has meant that ideas are scrutinised more closely before being agreed, and business planning has become more important.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the HE sector now faces?
The main challenge for the sector is one of funding. As resources become ever tighter, it is increasingly important to be able to diversify funding sources. International activity and collaboration is also key, and HEIs are trying to build on and expand their overseas links as much as they can.
The use of interims can be sensitive - especially when so many HE professionals have been made redundant and cuts are now the norm. So, with that in mind, what are your main considerations when starting a new project?
It is key to understand what the client wants and needs from an assignment, and to quickly establish the necessary contacts within an institution to ensure I can deliver as required. Although the sector shares commonalities, each HEI also works within its own context so an early appreciation of local conditions is essential. I also aim to add value to the initial brief by identifying additions and improvements where I see these can be made.
Which of your skills are most in demand right now?
Team leadership and management. It is also helpful for clients that I have worked across the sector and can bring a neutral view to bear on organisational and service performance.
Where do you think demand is heading?
I think demand for interims is increasing as we offer HEIs a flexible way of keeping services going while appraising different options for longer-term arrangements.
The issue of tuition fees is once again in the news agenda with one university vice-chancellor claiming that tuition fees for British students could reach as much as £20,000. Could you see that happening and, if you can, what do you think the impact would be?
I can’t see £20k annual fees being politically acceptable in the near future, but over time we may get to this position. If this does happen, HEIs will need to articulate very clearly their USP and the value offered by a degree from their institution to potential students.
How do you think you add value?
By being flexible and able to undertake the job the client requires. In addition, my experience of the sector and neutrality as an interim means I can suggest and deliver improvements which themselves add further longer-term value for the institution.
Finally, do you have any nuggets of wisdom for anyone thinking of making the move into Interim working?
Keep an open mind and be prepared for anything – and enjoy each assignment as it comes!
To find out more about Justine or connect with her, visit her LinkedIn page.