What is your higher education history?
I studied Zoology at the University of Liverpool in the late 1980s. I then moved to Scotland for a PhD on the diseases and parasites of wild and farmed fish (always a good dinner party topic) at the Institute of Aquaculture, Stirling University.
After a period as an industry-funded post-doc, I crossed over to the dark side and chose a career in university administration.
Firstly, I held a succession of roles at Abertay University. I then moved back to Stirling as Director of Strategic Planning and Governance and Deputy Secretary. Finally, I was appointed to my current role at the University of Dundee in 2009.
What does your current role and remit encompass?
I’m responsible for all of the University’s professional services, both in our central Directorates and our ten academic Schools, with the exception of Finance.
I ensure we meet our statutory and regulatory responsibilities, oversee all high-level legal and compliance affairs, and provide support for the University Court, Senate, and wider governance framework.
Can you describe your typical day?
There isn’t one!
I’ll have a number of internal and external meetings, from the formal to the informal. This includes catch-ups with the Principal, direct reports, student leaders, and other colleagues.
Over the last week, the focus of those meetings has included:
- A new life sciences innovation centre
- Reform of our in-house pension scheme
- A staff disciplinary case
- Finalisation of our new trans policy
- Development of a new digital strategy
- Appointment of a Senior Vice-Principal
- The future of one of our spin-out companies
- The outcomes of our latest student pulse survey.
And that’s without mentioning COVID…
What do you find most enjoyable in your role?
Universities are great organisations to work in.
They are liberal, tolerant places where people value diversity, transform lives, and make a real difference to society. The sheer diversity of the role, and the need to be an ‘all rounder,’ means that you never feel stale.
I have wonderful colleagues in the Professional Services team. I enjoy working with them to deliver tangible improvements in the services we provide, and in staff and student feedback.
We have a great relationship with our Students’ Association. I particularly like engaging with students (they keep me feeling young!) and ensuring their voice has a central role in our decision-making.
On the downside, my diary can be something of a nightmare. It’s sometimes hard to find time in the day to think, take forward longer-term projects, clear email, buy a sandwich, or go to the loo.
What are the current challenges for your institution?
The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly represented the biggest challenge of my career. It has been stimulating, uncertain, difficult, frustrating, and rewarding in equal measure.
Scottish universities face a more difficult funding environment than those south of the border. Balancing the books and generating surpluses to reinvest is always a challenge.
This has been made more difficult in our case by having been slow to focus on international student recruitment, and also having costly (but world-class) biomedical and life sciences research.
We have a great reputation for our student experience. However, I worry that the need to teach and deliver services more efficiently will put that under increasing strain in the coming years.
What do you think are the biggest challenges ahead for higher education?
There are several big challenges ahead:
- Maintaining the reputation and standing of UK universities in the face of internal funding pressures
- International competition from countries investing more in their higher education systems
- Justifying the funding we do receive through demonstrating tangible benefits to our graduates and society more generally
- Trying to understand how digital technologies and artificial intelligence will (and won’t) transform teaching, research, and service delivery
- Innovation and new operating models for the delivery of Professional Services.
Who has inspired you and why?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some fantastic people throughout my career. These include VCs, senior leaders, and peers, as well as mentors who’ve supported and believed in me.
I’ve met truly inspirational researchers and students who have shown incredible maturity, or encountered and overcome the most challenging of personal circumstances to succeed.
But perhaps most of all, I’ve learned my trade from some wise (and wily) administrators, secretaries, registrars, and lay governors.
There are too many to name (and it would be unfair to do so), but they know who they are!
Jim McGeorge is the University Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Dundee. You can meet more senior university leaders in our Meet our Members series. You can also learn about their experiences of the pandemic in our Life in Lockdown series.