People in higher education: Maddalaine Ansell

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After a decade working in government across many departments, Maddalaine Ansell joined the higher education sector as the new CEO of University Alliance this January. On an unseasonably hot day in April, we sat down in her Whitehall office to discuss her career.

Maddalaine read Latin and Greek at the University of Cambridge and remembers her time at university fondly; “It was such a dream, such an aspiration for me to go to university, it wasn’t a certain thing at all.”

Does her time at university impact her work with universities now? “I think it must do, in the sense that it was a life changing opportunity for me. I think as many people that want that kind of experience should have it. But that was 25 years ago and universities have changed. I’ve been careful to visit as many institutions as I can and understand exactly how they’ve changed.”

Maddalaine grew up in Northampton where her father was a window cleaner and her mother a data entry clark; “my horizons growing up were quite limited”. The opportunities that seemed available were not graduate-level jobs. For Maddalaine, without a career plan or any idea what she might want to do, leaving university felt like standing on a ‘cliff edge’. She ended up studying law and worked in different firms for six years. “In part I went into law because law firms make it easy, they make the pathway from university into work incredibly easy.”

While her time in law was an important step, Maddalaine confesses she didn’t love it, “It was probably the wrong career for me”. She realised she wanted a change when she started dating someone working in the foreign office, “It opened my eyes to the possibility of getting a different kind of job.”

Wonkhe Maddalaine  Ansell University Alliance

Maddalaine joined the civil service as a fast streamer and worked in several different government departments over her time. She became head of skills strategy when her boss became permanent secretary of DUIS which later merged with the BERR to become BIS. Madeline worked for BIS for six years becoming Head of International Knowledge and Innovation Unit in 2011.

“I really loved it! You got to work on really interesting issues.” In the civil service, Maddalaine spent lots of time writing and reviewing papers – including a major role in the development of the 2011 HE White Paper – she would also spend time talking to organisations involved in projects that the government was running. As a senior civil servant, she spent a great deal of time on management; “My team was about 32 people – the way the civil service is, you end up spending a lot of time on recruitment, having conversations about development and that sort of thing.”

A highlight for Maddalaine was working on the skills strategy with Lord Mandelson. She remembers when the project launched, Lord Mandelson mentioned Maddalaine in his speech and personally thanked her for her work. “I thought that was really really nice, a proud moment.”

I asked Maddalaine for her thoughts on balancing political pressures, given her role in such high profile projects like the 2011 White Paper. “As a civil servant, you’re quite aware of political pressure but you’re also quite protected from them [the politicians] as it’s your duty to be impartial, though you should never be naive about it. To an extent, I didn’t have to balance it all, I just had to be aware and make sure that neither the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems ever felt that something had been done without them having a proper opportunity to consider it and give their advice.”

The future for BIS is precarious and the department is likely to see big cuts in the next spending review, what does Maddalaine see on the horizon? “I would be really surprised if the department didn’t continue to exist. It does too much that somebody in government would have to.” And so this proved to be prescient, as following the election, BIS seems stronger than ever with new Ministers close to the Prime Minister and Chancellor of Exchequer.

“You want to take the experiences you’ve had and learn how to use them in different contexts.”

Maddalaine’s ten years in the civil service have undoubtedly shaped her; “I developed in almost every possible way during that time. I learnt how do policy, manage stakeholders, manage staff, I learnt my own leadership style.”

How has she found her move to the higher education sector, having recently taken the reigns of University Alliance? “It has been really great, there are lots of things that are very liberating about moving to a smaller organisation.”

Maddalaine tells me more than once in our short interview how brilliant universities are, not just for the students or the staff who work there, but because they have a far wider reach. “At BIS, we spent a lot of time thinking about what skills the economy needs. It’s very clear that it needs more highly-skilled people than it has at the moment. There aren’t enough young people to meet this skills gap and so it absolutely must be possible for people already in the workforce to retrain and gain new skills.”

At BIS, we spent a lot of time thinking about what skills the economy needs. It’s very clear that it needs more highly-skilled people than it has at the moment.”

Maddalaine has spent a lot of her first three months visiting some of the Alliance’s 20 universities. And something she enjoys most is meeting passionate researchers and teachers. “The research is very interesting itself, you can see why it will have an impact, but it’s also really great to have things explained to you by people who are really enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Similarly I meet people who’ve thought really hard about the best way to teach a particular set of knowledge and skills.”

At the beginning of her journey with University Alliance, Maddalaine hopes to develop her leadership skills in a different way. “It’s one thing to have leadership skills in an organisation as part of a team, it’s another to try to be a thought leader within a sector like higher education.” As chief executive she also finds herself for the first time without a day-to-day boss to use as a sounding board, “I should become better at making decisions and being accountable for them myself.”

As Maddalaine has worked on both sides, I asked her what higher education could learn from the civil service – and it seems that a more organised exchange of personnel could be a good starting point; “Secondments enable you to learn so many different things, give you fresh perspectives and help you be more creative in your approach.”

A lot of the challenges will be similar; both are large organisations, and are having to think about how to deliver things more efficiently. “There’s probably quite a lot that people could learn from looking at how their challenges have been dealt with in a different organisation.”

For any junior policy wonks at an earlier stage in their career, Maddalaine advises diving in to different areas of policy. The civil service gave her that opportunity and there are other organisations that might as well. It’s about getting “exposure” – as she puts it – to as much of what goes on as possible, and then working out what interests you most. Higher education is a big and diverse sector, and so could well provide a grounding in policy for wonks that want to go all the way.

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