Meet our Members: Helen Galbraith

Helen Galbraith is Academic Registrar and Secretary at Keele University. Here she shares her experiences in higher education and highlights those that inspire her: the staff and students of Keele University.

What is your higher education history?

I’ve spent my whole career in higher education. I studied undergraduate music at the University of Bristol, in part funded by working as bar manager, ball manager and tutor at my hall of residence. The hall warden happened to be the Director of Research & Enterprise Development at the University, which helped me to secure a temporary job working on the 2001 RAE submission. Everything spiralled from there, and by 2016 via a succession of research, education and governance roles I was still at Bristol as Director of Strategic Planning and Projects. In between, I also did a stint at HEFCE as an RAE Panel Secretary, and a part-time PhD in Russian music and poetry (over nine years!). I relocated to Staffordshire in 2016 to begin my current role at Keele University.

What does your current role and remit encompass?

My dual roles are wide-ranging. As Academic Registrar I’m responsible for the ‘traditional’ registry functions – admissions, timetabling, quality assurance, planning, student records and exams, student conduct – as well as student welfare and support services. As Secretary I oversee academic, legal and corporate governance, including immigration compliance.

What does a typical day look like for you in your role?

A lot of meetings – no surprises there. I try to divide my time so that I’m not always in committees or having 1-to-1s in my office, but also out and about meeting student representatives, academic colleagues and professional staff from across the University. I drink a lot of coffee and I always keep chocolate hobnobs in my office for visitors! I am useless at taking a lunch break, but I do try and find half an hour for a power walk around the campus – Keele has over 600 acres of grounds and the campus is just stunning.

What do you find most enjoyable and/or challenging in your role?

In both categories – right now it has to be our recently launched Start to Success project, a region-wide OFS-funded initiative to deliver a new integrated approach to student mental health and wellbeing. In conjunction with Staffordshire University and other regional FE, NHS, and civic partners, we are promoting a shared vision of a joined-up, community focused and multi-agency approach to student support. It is really exciting to be leading a partnership of students and staff who are determined to make a difference in a crucial area.

What are the current challenges for your institution?

As for many institutions, our greatest challenge is ensuring financial sustainability in the face of funding challenges and unremitting sector competition. We need to find ways of becoming ever more efficient whilst never losing sight of our focus on outstanding education and impactful research.

Keele also has a more idiosyncratic challenge in that, being (I think) the only university in the UK named after a small village, people don’t always know where we are! So we are always working to enhance our reputation and put Keele on the map.

What do you think are the biggest changes ahead for higher education?

The UK political context is inevitably going to bring further change for our sector – the impact of Brexit and the upcoming spending review; the skills agenda and the growing (re)focus on FE and lifelong learning; the mooted introduction of a UK ‘BARPA’ to challenge the existing research funding model; the interventions of the pensions regulator, to name a few. In England, the Office for Students will continue to grow in its regulatory reach, with particular focus on our current admissions and governance models, and our ability to deliver equality of opportunity for all students. At a global level, our collective reliance on China as a key market for international students will be tested by the impact of the coronavirus.

I hope that out of these changes and challenges will ultimately come many positives – increased opportunities for students from all backgrounds; greater diversity across our staff and student communities; enhanced collaboration between HE and FE, and renewed recognition of the value that universities do and should make both regionally and nationally. However, there is undoubtedly some white water ahead.

Who has inspired you and why?

Without doubt, my greatest inspiration is my incredible staff and our outstanding students. My office is based within the Student Services Centre at Keele, so I’m reminded on a daily basis of the care and commitment of staff providing support to students who are struggling.

Last month, my staff organised a weeklong row-a-thon to raise money for the Row Britannia mental health initiative – the team spirit was amazing.

As for our students – amidst the journalistic bombast of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘grade inflation’, it is too easy to forget that behind every good degree lies a student who has often achieved success in spite of life circumstances. As one example – every meeting of our governing body begins with a ‘student story’, where one of our students shares their personal experience of life at Keele. We have heard from asylum seekers, students with disabilities, mature, international and commuter students….every single story has been truly inspiring. I feel honoured every day to be making a small contribution to those experiences.