Investing in the Future of Higher Education

Richard Calvert, Chief Operating Officer at Sheffield Hallam University, shares what got him interested in the Ambitious Futures scheme.

As a newcomer to higher education a couple of years ago, one of my first ‘that’s how we do it here’ moments was when I asked about our talent strategy. Or rather it was: ‘Oh, that’s how we don’t do it.’

I should admit that I carry some baggage in this area. I started my career in the Civil Service, where the fast stream graduate recruitment scheme is still the route to the top for most senior staff, and where talent and succession planning has become an established part of the employment offer.

I’d be the first to say that the Civil Service approach is not without fault. But coming to a big university facing the same challenges that confront many of us, it felt pretty uncomfortable not to have a clearer strategy for how we attract, develop and retain professional service talent.

So where does Ambitious Futures fit in?

For those of you who don’t know about it, it’s a scheme set up under AHUA auspices to recruit and develop graduate-level talent on behalf of participating universities. Nearly 200 trainees have so far gone through the scheme, and at any one time there are up to 60 trainees following the programme. Participants spend time in two universities as part of the 18-month programme, with the majority moving into excellent permanent positions at the end of the scheme.

I liked the idea of signing up to Ambitious Futures for three reasons:

  • Firstly, it looked like an attractive route into the national graduate recruitment market. We could have created our own scheme, but I know from talking to successful Ambitious Futures candidates that a structured scheme giving wider sector experience has pulling power that we’d struggle to match as a single institution.
  • Secondly, I liked the fact that graduate trainees build experience in two different institutions. Many of our staff are only used to the Hallam way of doing things. That’s not a bad thing in lots of cases, but as we’re all challenged to find new and better ways of doing things, and experience beyond a single institution becomes increasingly valuable.
  • Thirdly, I saw it as a stimulus for change. In part, that was about bringing in some fresh ideas and energy – and our Ambitious Futures trainees have been great at doing that. But it was also about pushing us to be more systematic about the talent and development offer across all our professional services, and at all levels.

I also like the fact that in many ways it’s a top-up. We recruit graduates directly into Sheffield Hallam, and we’re increasingly investing in secondment, interchange and development programmes for existing staff. But Ambitious Futures brings us something different and complementary, without the cost of having to set up a scheme on our own, and we are increasingly mixing our Ambitious Futures and direct entrants into a combined talent pool.

So as a single employer, I’d love to see Ambitious Futures grow. But should we also care as a sector?

We’re an odd sector in many ways, with our different interest groups and our mix of competition and collaboration. But I’d argue that we do have a shared interest in bringing top quality talent into the sector, rather than just into our own institutions. Partly, that’s because it’s an investment in our collective talent pool for the future, which I think we can all benefit from. But for me it’s also about the sector recognising that it needs to step up its game in a world where the way we run ourselves hasn’t been universally admired over recent years.

So if you don’t know about Ambitious Futures and would like to, I’d encourage you to contact Christine Abbott, CEO of Ambitious Futures for a chat. And if you know about it but haven’t thought it was for you, maybe you’ll think it’s time for a second look.

These quotes from Ambitious Futures trainees sum it up well.

Lewis, now a Data Specialist at Sheffield Hallam University:

I was already working in higher education when I first came across Ambitious Futures. By diving in at the deep end, the scheme gave me the variety of experience and skills needed to be a competitive candidate for future roles.

Scott, now Business Planning and Operations Manager at The Open University:

Being able to work at two universities was a real advantage, as the intense five-month placements provided an insight into how two very different institutions function. I cannot emphasise enough how beneficial the group coaching and networking sessions were to my personal and professional development. I would not have secured my current role without the experience.

Elisa, now Project Officer at Universities Scotland:

I moved from Italy, my home country, to pursue higher education in the UK and after graduation, I decided to apply for the Ambitious Futures scheme so that I could strengthen my passion for the higher education sector. Thanks to Ambitious Futures, at the end of the year I secured exactly the type of role I had been hoping to get since starting the programme.