Meet our members: John McCarthy

Work hard, play hard, be kind. John McCarthy, Associate Chief Operating Officer at the University of Salford, offers insights into his higher education career.

When did your higher education journey begin?

My higher education journey began when I went through clearing to find a place.

That place was Liverpool Polytechnic. The course was Applied Statistics and Computing.

Clearing was somewhat different in those days. It involved a return bus trip to the central library careers unit in Birmingham. I read available vacancies off a bound 256-character-wide computer printout. I then returned home to make the phone calls.

My programme was a sandwich programme. It gave me a year working at the Department of the Environment (DfE) writing computer programmes to support a variety of different processes from grants to planning appeals.

How did your higher education career begin?

After graduating, I combined consultancy work for the Department for Education with part-time lecturing in Information Systems.

Within a year, I was a full-time academic lecturing with the Department of Maths & Computing.

A year later, I moved to Liverpool Business School. They launched a new and innovative degree in Business Information Systems, for which I was the admissions tutor and first year tutor.

I sought to apply the disciplines we were teaching in how we supported students within the school. We built a variety of systems locally to support the work of the school office.

This included:

  • grant cheque processing
  • coursework submission using barcoded cover sheets
  • a system to support updates for placement opportunities
  • student number planning, linked to workload planning and timetabling.

How did your higher education career progress?

I took up an academic management role supporting the Division of Health, Education and Social Sciences. I had oversight of all student number planning, resource planning, and delivery of administrative services.

I then accepted the role of Head of Student Recruitment, which was later combined with that of Deputy Director Student Services.

After 5 years in this latter role, I moved institutions to the University of Central Lancashire as Deputy Director of Advancement.

Subsequent roles took me to Liverpool Hope University, Keele University, and finally the University of Salford in 2015.

What does your current role and remit involve?

My initial role at the University of Salford was in Marketing and Student Recruitment, including Widening Participation. This role has since morphed.

I now have responsibility for:

  • corporate communications
  • external relations
  • student administration
  • student experience
  • university library services
  • school operations.

This means my remit covers the whole student journey, from initial enquiry, through to graduation and beyond.

My remit is very much about championing student success. I have an amazingly talented and motivated management team. Together, we drive the innovation and change we need in our service delivery and customer experience.

We are challenging convention, re-engineering our processes, and deploying new technology to help deliver a very different kind of service.

We are not trying to do this through a big bang or a major change programme. Instead, we have detailed process-mapping of over 500 core business processes.

We also have a vision for our service delivery. We are rolling that out across the whole student journey, following our recent investment in a CRM system for recruitment and admissions.

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

I am not sure if there is a typical day.

A well-planned diary can soon be met with all manner of unexpected issues.

This has certainly been true for the last 18 months during the pandemic. We had to respond to rapidly-changing government guidance. Inevitably, this led to confusion amongst staff and students. It also offered immediate challenges, such as changing programmes and service delivery.

Recently, it feels like we are settling into a more regular pattern of activity. We are focussing on the medium-to-long term.

So, a typical week as we commence a new academic year includes:

  • chairing various groups as we review student numbers
  • planning for welcome, registration and induction
  • implementing those ‘lessons learnt’ from our work during the pandemic
  • reviewing the communications plans for the first term
  • signing off graduation collateral
  • reviewing our building naming policy as part of our anti-racism commitments
  • supporting the search committee for our next Chancellor
  • agreeing our fundraising priorities
  • writing the updated implementation of our CRM Student roadmap for the next Strategic Project Boards.

Each of the above has featured in my diary of late!

Of course, this all fits around the regular management team meetings, boards, committees, and one-to-ones.

What do you find most enjoyable in your role?

The most enjoyable parts of my role are the people I work with.

Every day, I know that we are making improvements to the experience that our students have, even if only in a small way.

I get so much energy, tenacity, and enthusiasm from my teams in our collective endeavour to make a difference. In return, this gives me energy and a passion for what we do. It increases my determination to push on with our change agenda at an even greater pace.

We generally have a low bureaucracy culture. This means my team and I are empowered to get the job done. Yes, we are accountable for what we do, and responsible for ensuring we deliver the change we have set out. And we do have robust governance around change and systems management.

However, it rarely feels that our own processes are inhibiting progress. This is a huge motivator.

What do you find most challenging in your role?

The challenges are time and communication.

Firstly, time: we fit in the business change around the mainstays of how we work as a university. My diary only allows 4 hours in any week to look, listen, and observe what is going on around me, and get a real sense for the lived customer experience.

Secondly, communications: effective communication takes time. It takes meaningful engagement. And it must be a two-way process. This is challenging in a large and complex organisation because we have many, many stakeholders to engage with and listen to.

Adding to this challenge, we have experienced 18 months without many of the non-verbal signals that we observe in face-to-face meetings. These signals elude us through Teams and Zoom calls, especially when cameras are turned off due to poor bandwidth or WiFi signal.

As such, we had to adjust to reading those signals in a new way. We had to revisit how we take our colleagues with us on a shared journey of change.

What are the current challenges for your institution?

We are challenged by the PROCEED metric for several of our programmes.

In some cases, completion is the issue. In others, it is the roles available to our graduates when they complete their studies with us.

We recruit heavily from our region and many of our graduates wish to stay near to their families and communities. This does not always provide the roles most appropriate for their studies.

Some of those communities also suffer from lack of investment and infrastructure. The higher-paying roles tend to be located in the larger cities across the north, rather than some of the many semi-rural towns.

In early 2020, just before the first lockdown, we launched a cross-university programme, ‘Enabling Student Success.’ This programme is a comprehensive approach to joining-up our academic delivery, our customer experience, our estates planning, and our digital infrastructure.

During the last 18 months, we have made much progress.

However, lockdown created several challenges in delivering such a comprehensive and wide-reaching programme of change.

The opportunities to engage with colleagues and students face-to-face was replaced by Teams calls. We had to adapt to new technologies to attempt to replicate the activities we would normally do through in-person workshops.

We have momentum with this programme, but I am concerned that we have forgotten how to step out of the day-to-day, after a year of having to respond to constant changes, challenges, and government guidelines.

We’ve had a year of needing to be directive, with a short-term outlook of dealing with the immediate issues. It will be a challenge for us to take a step back to re-empower frontline teams.

But we must step back, so we can:

  • Set our horizon to the medium-term
  • Fundamentally reimagine the student experience
  • Understand the impact that the pandemic has had on how we do business
  • Investigate how our students and other clients want to work with us.

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

We are challenged by the government’s mixed messages on higher education.

I don’t doubt that ministers care deeply for universities and our students. However, the COVID pandemic has only heightened my belief that the government doesn’t always understand us. Just look at the directives issued to us in the last 18 months from the Department for Education.

The response to managing COVID was geared up to suit universities that follow the boarding school model, but not all universities do.

At Salford, around 60% of our students commute to campus rather than live on site. As such, a mass-testing programme needs to recognise this distinctiveness. A one-size-fits-all approach cannot, and did not, work for higher education during the pandemic.

Add to this:

  • Last-minute decisions on extra places
  • Expectations about face-to-face teaching
  • Tweets directly sent to students, telling them what to expect, and to complain if the university does not comply
  • Setting levels of expectation about academic and service delivery for autonomous institutions, when we are best placed to know what will, and will not work, on the ground.

For now, the government is focused on the subjects we should teach, the students we should recruit, the fee we should collect, the salaries graduates should earn, and the type of jobs they should do.

‘What next?’ may very well keep some of us awake at night.

Who has inspired you and why?

There are so many people that have inspired me, but there are two themes.

Firstly, I am inspired by people who broke the mould, thought differently, and who truly wanted to make a difference in their sphere of influence. This includes industry figures, such as Michael Edwards and Sir John Harvey-Jones.

My academic DNA in information systems and data has been inspired by Clive Humby and Edwina Dunn. They co-founded dunnhumby where they revolutionised the Grocery and FMCG industry through the introduction of Tesco Clubcard. Yet, today, our sector is only just beginning to realise the power of the data we have about our customers and their behaviours.

Secondly, I am inspired by people who have been my role models. Over the duration of my career I have been blessed to have had the most wonderful line-managers. They have encouraged me to be bold, to think big, and to believe in myself and others. They have led by their example of trust and compassion and a can-do attitude.

But my greatest role model and inspiration has to be my late father. He was orphaned at 3 years old, and brought up by his grandma in a one-up-two-down terrace house in Merthyr Tydfil.

He never got the chance to go university, even though he passed the exams for Oxford. Instead, he served an apprenticeship with BSA. By the time he retired, he was on the European Board of Schneider Electric, a Fortune Global 500 company, and one of the world’s largest electrical equipment manufacturers and distributors.

If he had a motto it would have been “work hard, play hard, and be kind”.

John McCarthy is the Associate Chief Operating Officer at the University of Salford.