Tricia King is the Pro Vice-Master and Director of External Relations at Birkbeck, University of London, where she has been for 10 years. Her career in higher education spans two decades and several universities. A true wonk, her fondness for the sector is clear; “I love it, I absolutely love it.” And so Tricia King was a perfect candidate to begin our new series profiling people and their careers in higher education.
Tricia’s office lies on the ground floor of Birkbeck’s Egmont house, Bloomsbury and the floor to ceiling windows face out on to the busy Tavistock Place. The view is lovely, looking out onto the street full of old red brick buildings and familiar faces. With much of the higher education establishment visiting, or having some base in Bloomsbury, Tricia has a literal window on the sector and her desk feels like the driving seat of London’s HE scene.
“I don’t think I had a plan, I didn’t know what to do at that point, I felt clueless about what a career might look like”
Tricia began her career fresh out of university, where she studied English at York, as a PR officer for Sun Life Canada, a life insurance company. Not knowing what she wanted to do, she had taken the job at a friend’s suggestion. She credits her volunteer work as press officer for the women’s rugby football union as the key, which enabled her to “develop the skill set to get a job”.
Tricia’s next move was on to “what was called marketing” at a west Yorkshire playhouse in Leeds. “No one really knew what marketing was then, it was a big new world”. Then followed moves around a few theatres in marketing roles until finally landing in higher education when she took on the position of marketing manager at the College of Law in York, (now University of Law).
Tricia King in her office at Birkbeck, University of London
“I think it felt like I’d come home when I arrived in the university sector”
The College of Law job was to recruit students on to the legal practice course and work with universities and law firms to recruit and sponsor students. “It was the perfect job for somebody who had three school-aged children; it allowed me to work school hours and recruitment was finished by July which meant I could take August off with my children… it was the best thing I ever did”.
Next was York St John University as head of marketing; “beautiful campus, right next door to York minster”. It was here that Tricia met Dianne Willcocks, Vice Chancellor at the university, who became a key inspiration: “She was a visionary leader, she came in and changed things and I thought, ‘this is someone I can learn from, someone I can get behind’”. Willcocks is one of two leading role models in Tricia’s career, the second she met in her next step up the ladder.
“Then I want to the University of Roehampton where there was another fantastic visionary woman called Bernie Porter” – Porter was leading the institution and had been instrumental in securing university status for Roehampton. Tricia credits the presence of these two women leaders early in her career as formative, encouraging her to do things not immediately inside her job description. “I owe them both a debt of gratitude. I call them ‘Boadicea’, they were both at the front of the organisation in a chariot saying ‘follow me’, and it was very easy to.”
Tricia found herself on the senior leadership team at Roehampton when Porter recognised her skill and the changes she was making to recruitment at the university. Being the youngest member of the team by far, she claims to have been somewhat nervous in front of the ‘noisy, confident’ academics, “People who know me now will be very surprised to hear this, but I remember being absolutely petrified about speaking at the leadership team. I was in my 30s, I felt under-confident, I felt I couldn’t hold my own and I had to learn how to do that, I had to learn how to find my voice”.
When Bernie Porter left the University of Roehampton, Tricia made her next move to Birkbeck, University of London. “The first few years were amazing, there was a real culture here that if you want to bring about change, you can”.
A critical moment came in 2007 when the government introduced their Equivalent or Lower Qualifcations (ELQs) policy which removed 40% of Birkbeck’s funding and could ultimately have shut the university down. Along with her head of institution, David Latchman, Tricia started an enormous lobbying effort, writing to anybody who could help and in return received overwhelming support for Birkbeck’s survival. “There was this huge groundswell of support of students, alums and staff trying to defend this remarkable institution. In a way we haven’t stopped since then”.
One of Tricia’s most formative experiences happened at Roehampton on an ‘outdoor encounter’ with the senior leadership team. At the end of the week, one person gave Tricia really challenging feedback, “I want you to stop whinging about being the youngest person. Either you can do it, so get on and do it, or just shut up!” The feedback represented a turning point in her approach and after thinking about it for a week, Tricia realised “Yes I can, of course I can do it”.
“It was the beginning of me being ambitious and believing that I had something to offer and something to contribute to higher education. I can trace ambition and achievement back to that moment. I think the things that change you, that radically open you up, are rarely comfortable. Big change often comes out of discomfort.”
“It was one of those careers that I don’t think anybody knew was going to be a career until it became one.”
Looking back at how marketing has changed since starting out, Tricia tells me how, at the point she began, it wasn’t even a career, “it was just a thing that might get going”. Tricia can remember typing press releases on a typewriter and describes the moment, when working at West Yorkshire Playhouse, that somebody entered her office asking “This world wide web thing – do you think we should have a page?” and she replied, “ooh, what’s one of those?”
“In the time I’ve been working in these sorts of roles, they have moved from being publicity into being strategy. Now it’s about strategic thinking and strategic direction in a complex higher education environment. My real hope is that people in these roles are at the senior team at every university.”
“For universities to flourish we need a fantastic academic community and a fantastic professional service community and I would like to see both of those communities working really closely together without hierarchy.”
Students have also changed the way that marketing roles function within a university, although, as Tricia points out, Birkbeck students have never seen the institution in the same way that other students might see their universities given their unusual offer focused on part-time provision. “I think £9,000 fees has definitely made a difference. People make judgments and expect value for money. I think students today think of themselves as consumers and are quite challenging about what their expectations are and I think all power to them.”
But she also tells me “no university is unique, but they can all be distinctive. And often what’s most distinctive is the way that you deal with your students and the way students experience you.”
For anybody starting out their journey into marketing, external relations or higher education, Tricia lends some words of advice; “You must first understand the purpose of a university and the life-transforming role that we play, and then become very excited about it. Secondly, if you understand how the culture here works, you will get further, faster.”
“I think it is an extraordinary profession, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d like to work. Though it isn’t always straightforward, there are things that you can learn that allow you to be effective and allow you to advance your institution, even if it sometimes doesn’t think it wants to be advanced. I absolutely love my job, I hate it some days, but mostly I love it. I’ve got a job that gets me up in the morning and I’ve not been bored for one second in the last ten years.”