People in higher education: Mary Curnock Cook

After just over seven years in post, UCAS Chief Executive, Mary Curnock Cook is stepping down.

In her role, Mary has been a leading figure in education sector wonkery, increasing the public profile and policy activity of UCAS, whilst steering the organisation through a period of unprecedented change in university admissions. To mark her departure, we spoke to Mary about her reflections on UCAS, the higher education sector, her career inside and outside education policy, and the future.

On UCAS

Mary firmly believes that UCAS has been drastically transformed during her tenure. “It used to be as regular as Christmas to see stories about UCAS crashing on results day”, she tells me, and bringing its systems and processes run smoothly has required years of patient investment and improvement. Her worst day on the job? “That’s really easy. Results Day in 2011, when I had to go on national television and apologise for the UCAS website crashing for an hour and a half”.

“2012 was difficult, we squeaked through”. It was not until 2014, she tells me, that “we didn’t let any customer groups down”. Things have got even smoother since then. Few organisations have to deal with all their major customer groups “at maximum volume” on just one single day, and the simple scale of the operation is immense, as I found out on a visit last year.

But getting websites, data transfers, customer services, has been more than a business and administrative challenge. It is also a political one, with many stakeholders with interests to placate and manage. “In some ways, the transformation of our governance was the rock on which everything else was built”, which Mary describes as having been “dysfunctional” when she took over. The board has been made smaller and more skills based, and an advisory Council was set up to represent the many and varied interests of admissions professionals, schools, colleges, students, university leaders, and different types of higher education providers.  

This stakeholder management will only continue to be a challenge. “The organisation must continue to be smart enough to make a shared recruitment service continue to work in a competitive market, with the base of providers that use the service diversifying, it’ll keep UCAS on its toes”.

Mary’s successor will be Clare Marchant, currently Chief Executive of Worcestershire County Council. Does she have any advice to pass on? “Get out and talk to customers. Talk to students, talk to schools, talk to parents, talk to colleges and universities. That’s where I’ve always got my most useful intel”.

On the higher education sector

Since 2010, universities have seen significant expansion, £9000 fees, the decline of part-time and mature student numbers, qualification changes in schools, and the end of student number controls. Which has these has been the most significant? “There is no doubt in my mind that biggest change maker over this period was the removal of number controls”, says Mary, despite fees getting most of the attention.

This has also altered how admissions are reported in the press. “I call it the ‘scramble’ flip”, Mary tells me. In 2010, the headlines around results day were always “Students scramble for university!”, but now it’s “Universities scramble for recruitment!”. It’s completely changed the landscape “UCAS is now a recruitment channel for the HE sector as much as an admissions service. Cranking the administrative handle is not enough anymore”, Mary suggests.

The unleashing of an uncapped market in England perhaps hasn’t been as much of a boon as some universities hoped. “They wanted the flexibility to grow, but the removal of the cap was not just the removal of the cap on each university, it was the removal of the cap on each of their competitors as well. It took a while for that reality to sink in”.

Finding common ground across the higher education sector is not always inevitable, as UCAS’s experiences in the build up to last year’s White Paper showed. UCAS was criticised by political figures for an apparent reluctance to release their full set of individualised data for research. “I felt a bit wounded by this idea that UCAS was somehow being mean with its data”, says Mary candidly. “I feel that one of the defining things of my time at UCAS has been to actually open up our data”.

Since that row broke out, UCAS has released two sets of in-depth equality statistics for public release, and completed the process of transferring its individualised data to the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN) last October. “I was very proud that the data we released showed that, broadly speaking, admissions are fair”, she tells me.

The politics of data availability and linking has been a challenge elsewhere. “Our data is now linked up to the National Pupil Database, which has packed some punch in terms of what we can do”. Yet creating links with the other end of the applicant journey has been more challenging: “I still think that linking up UCAS and HESA datasets together would open up a huge new resource for the sector and public understanding”.

I ask Mary what frustrates her most about universities: “As someone who’s spent an awful lot of time surfing university websites, I’d love to find one that gives students one click to all the information they want and need. I don’t think me make it easy enough for them”.

On work

Mary is widely known for having not gone straight into university herself, having left school at sixteen to work as a secretary in the biochemicals industry. She quickly moved up the ladder, and also had a stint in management in the food and hospitality sector. She entered the education sector with the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority, before taking over at UCAS.

Her career path is quite unique, I suggest to her, particularly when so many people in the higher education sector have never worked outside it. “For me, my career gelled when my occupation – leadership, management, whatever you want to call it – came together with a sector: the education sector. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until I was in my forties”.

Mary has even come in for criticism only this past week for suggesting that students are too pressured to settle on a firm career in their twenties. She of course points out that much has changed since she entered the workforce: “It’s more difficult now to progress in management if you leave school without a degree”. Yet, perhaps, she argues, that young people are overly encouraged to focus on trying to make it up the ladder in large companies, rather than seek opportunities for advancement in smaller organisations. “The idea that you’ve got ‘one shot’ at your career is bizarre”.

How does the private sector compare to education? “On one level, it’s all about customers. But the great privilege of working in education is that it’s about social impact and social good”.

What’s next?

Despite leaving UCAS, Mary will remain a familiar face to the higher education sector, working for at least two days a week in a new role – she can’t say yet exactly where. “I’m exercised by the big challenges in education, participation, and progression”. Obviously that includes her well known interest in the disadvantage of white working-class boys (“somewhat boringly, you might say”, she jokes).

As well as that and other challenges around education, there’s the issue of careers education: “I feel quite strongly that educating young people about how the world of business and employment works will help them make better choices”.

The issue of education and career pathways – and the social value of guiding people through them – appears to run through Mary’s interests both inside and outside UCAS. “I feel strongly that UCAS is something very valuable”, she argues, and she has clearly been driven by the organisation’s central role in facilitating life opportunities, hopes, and aspirations. Her knowledge and experience in this area is thankfully something that the world of higher education policy won’t be missing.

Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t other priorities. The first thing she’ll do next? “I’m going to get a dog”.

2 thoughts on “People in higher education: Mary Curnock Cook”

  1. Richard Gledhill says:

    I am horrified as an HR manager and long experienced careers adviser that students should delay career planning till after graduation; this is the kiss of death!

    It should start in Y1

    1. jfefleming says:

      My understanding was that the requirement to “start in Y1” is a more systemic problem. Students shouldn’t need to do this because the wider world shouldn’t expect it of them – the wider world does, so students must at present.

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