Ambitious Futures: Developing University Leaders

The role of university registrar or administrator might not be very well known or understood by graduates as they consider their future careers, so how do we identify and develop registrars, COOs and HE leaders of the future? Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham, talks about the importance of the Ambitious Futures programme.

Ambitious Futures, as many will be aware, is the Graduate Programme for University Leadership which grew under the auspices of AHUA and is now developing further from its base at the University of Nottingham.

Many other sectors have this kind of development programme to grow future leaders and higher education has long needed a route to help develop the individuals who aspire to be the Registrars of tomorrow.

The Higher Education sector in the UK employs over 400,000 staff of whom 205,000 work in non-academic roles and professional services (HESA 2014/15 data).

Whilst the career route is well defined and understood for academic staff (albeit an extremely tough profession to enter), entry to HE administration is less well defined. There is a national pay spine but grades for administrative staff vary across the sector. The entry level for graduates is generally understood but until recently no common graduate scheme existed, unlike in the NHS which has had a well-developed national scheme for prospective NHS managers operating successfully for many years. A small number of institutions operated local graduate trainee programmes down the years but they have not really taken off in any significant way. All of this pointed to the need for Ambitious Futures.

Excellent universities need outstanding managers who have broad experience and are able to take an institutional view where necessary. Mobility and dynamism of staff is key to achieving this and is in interest of both professional staff and their institutions. Ambitious Futures offers the prospect of achieving this in a widespread and sustainable way which can only be beneficial for universities in the UK.

Mobility within and between institutions in order to develop and grow talent has always been challenge in our sector. In the absence of any national graduate entry programme and the challenges with managed rotation one alternative approach is to introduce a variety of work opportunities at the beginning of administrators’ careers. As well as providing a clear opportunity for entry to a career in higher education administration this was part of the motivation for developing Ambitious Futures.

Ambitious Futures gives trainees a wide range of experiences early, sets them up well, gives them a rounded view of university operations both from departmental and central perspectives. It also makes them extremely employable and the vast majority of the graduates of Ambitious Futures have gone onto subsequent employment within their host University or at other HE institutions.

The UK higher education sector really does need such a scheme and this programme is already developing a cadre of senior managers for the future who have not only undertaken a variety of roles in their home institution but have also had a range of experiences in another university too.

Ambitious Futures  takes the development of high quality future leaders for higher education very seriously. The programme invests in participants’ career development, offers exposure to a range of interesting business areas and work cultures, and provides the foundation for future leadership roles in universities.

Graduates are employed by a host university (this may be the university from which they’ve graduated) and take part in a 15-month programme split into three placements. The first and last of these are based at the host university, while the middle placement is at a different partner institution.

The type of work trainees are involved in is often project-based and wide-ranging, offering many diverse and challenging opportunities. The aim is for trainees to complete a variety of different projects in a fairly short space of time, and in many cases they are able to see the results of their work being implemented across the university.

It’s an outstanding scheme and I’m really proud that the University of Nottingham has been central to the development of it and now acts as host for the Ambitious Futures team. The sector really does need to train and develop many more professional service leaders and this programme will be a major contributor to that as it continues to grow. Our sector also needs and will benefit from greater diversity in its leadership and this too is something we are keen for Ambitious Futures to nurture and support.

Ambitious Futures is still supported by AHUA, and the Board which oversees it, and which I chair, includes a number of AHUA members. For further information about Ambitious Futures please do contact the Chief Executive, Christine Abbot, email:

Details of the programme can be found on the website and follow on Twitter too: @AmbitiousF