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Pausing reluctantly: the sector’s outstanding leadership development programme

The Ambitious Futures programme for developing the next generation of higher education managers is paused for this year, but - as Paul Greatrix reports - it will return.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Over the years I have updated regularly here on the sector’s future leaders programme, Ambitious Futures.

I’ve gone on rather a lot about the importance and value of Ambitious Futures and sought to reinforce how essential it is for the future of professional services in the sector and what a great training programme it is for anyone looking to build a career in higher education management.

And it was great last year to see it recognised in the Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development category at the 2019 THE Awards ceremony.

As the judges put it:

Key achievements in 2017-18 included securing almost 1,000 applications for 28 places, with 50 per cent holding or expected to gain a first-class degree; encouraging increased diversity, with ethnic minority participants comprising 19 per cent of entrants; and creating a new professional development and group coaching programme.
More than 90 per cent of the 2017-18 cohort continued to work in higher education, on average securing a role at one grade higher than those entering direct, in areas including project management, strategy and planning, digital and marketing, international, research support and research excellence framework coordination.
The judges found that “this innovative approach helps to develop personal resilience, adaptability and emotional intelligence in high-achieving graduates”.

The Ambitious Futures Scheme

Ambitious Futures takes the development of high quality future leaders for higher education very seriously. The programme invests in participants’ career development, offers exposure to a range of interesting business areas and work cultures, and provides the foundation for future leadership roles in universities.

It really is an excellent scheme and I have been privileged to be associated with it since the very beginning and latterly as Chair of the Ambitious Futures Board. Wonkhe has, I am delighted to say, long been supportive of the programme too.

Difficult Times

But these are extraordinary and challenging times for higher education and in the current circumstances and with the huge financial uncertainties facing the sector we have had to take the exceptionally difficult decision to suspend recruitment to the Ambitious Futures programme for the foreseeable future. This was not a step we took lightly as it continues to be the case, even in the most difficult of times, that the sector needs to train and develop many more professional service leaders. Our sector also needs greater diversity in its leadership and this too is something all of us need Ambitious Futures to nurture and support.

The programme has brought competitive advantage for many universities. The knowledge, skills and abilities of the Ambitious Futures graduates have helped to transform services and processes and managed change across a range of strategic and operational projects.

After Covid-19

Ambitious Futures has had, and still has the potential to bring many benefits to a post Covid-19 world, including:

  • to attract, develop and retain exceptional talent in our universities’ professional services.
  • to nurture future HE leadership potential across the entire sector.
  • to contribute to workforce development and career progression.
  • to support succession planning strategies.
  • to enhance the profile of universities as excellent places to work.
  • to develop a talent pipeline for the HE sector.
  • to drive transformation, change and improvements in processes and services.
  • to deliver added value, high impact outcomes.
  • to align knowledge, skills and abilities with strategic and operational priorities.
  • to drive a progressive, adaptive and agile approach in HEIs.

Ambitious Futures will return

It is and remains a terrific programme and the success of all Ambitious Futures in their careers and in contributing to their institutions is testimony to its value.

I am confident that Ambitious Futures will return, it is too important and valuable to our sector not to. Until then we will have to celebrate all of those who have made it so successful over the years including AHUA as sponsors of the programme, Tess Brooks, colleagues at University of Nottingham who started it off and supported it consistently (particularly Clare Gough, Sam Potter and Jonathan Lamley but also more recently the Finance team), previous and most recent Chief Executives, Christine Abbot and Sally Jones plus Programme Manager Sam Woolley (who will be managing the programme through to February 2021 when it is formally suspended) as well as all of the partner universities, sponsors, programme directors and, of course, our wonderful trainees. I want to thank all of them so very much for all that they have contributed to

We’ll be back.

8 responses to “Pausing reluctantly: the sector’s outstanding leadership development programme

  1. I would be interested to see how much this scheme costs to run per graduate across a sample of partner institutions. Given that most universities only take one or two trainees, was this not a relatively small drop in the pond? Universities, more than any other employer, will be awake to how extraordinarily difficult the graduate job market will be for the graduating class of 2020. Would it have been too high a cost to keep the scheme running for one more year, so that applicants who had already invested in a lengthy and demanding recruitment process retained their job offers? (ex-AF trainee).

  2. It’s a fair point. It was unfortunately the case that most participating institutions, in looking to retrench in the face of the Coronavirus challenge, had decided that continuing in the scheme was not essential expenditure and sought to withdraw from the next round. Not everyone has though and some will be continuing with entry as planned or deferred. The numbers though are so small that it cannot be seen as a national scheme this time around. The model though is proven to be successful and will return at some point in some form.

  3. As a successful candidate for the 2020 cohort, I can say the news of this was truly devastating. Having rejected other job/scheme offers, travelled across borders and spent countless time and energy on the process, the withdrawal of the offer was somewhat soul-destroying.

    This is the first any of us have heard from the scheme, or yourself, since the ambiguous email we received retracting our offers of employment. This email, with no responses to replies sent, was a kick in the teeth in such an unpredictable and frankly bleak time.

    I genuinely believe the scheme has potential in the future and, if so, presume and hope that this year’s successful (would-be) trainees will be contacted with options to rejoin the scheme.

    Hopefully we can all learn from this and how it was dealt with moving forward.

  4. Really quite shocked and disappointed to hear this. I hope I speak for all alum of the scheme when I say we are happy for the postponed 2020/22 cohort to get in touch with us in the meantime if you wish to discuss anything HE career development related. You can find most of us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

  5. Very sad! I first heard about the scheme around Christmas time and was looking forwards to applying next time round. I’ll be eagerly looking out for the scheme’s return

  6. I was also in the same position being a successful candidate for the 2020 cohort.

    I found the email that Ambitious Futures used to notify candidates of the scheme’s closure was extremely abrupt and insensitive. I actually first heard the news through a call from the University where I was due to start in September. Before this call, I was completely unaware that closing the scheme was even being considered. Looking back, I’m extremely grateful that this news was delivered to me personally by the University rather than Ambitious Futures.

    More needs to be done to support those, like myself, graduating in 2020 who have been left in the lurch in what should’ve been an extremely exciting year. For those looking to start a career in Higher Education, we have been presented with an even more difficult and uncertain situation, especially because there are not many alternatives to the Ambitious Futures scheme that are as successful and nationally recognised as this one.

    I can only hope that the way this matter was handled, and the graduates it affected, will be recognised by Ambitious Futures in due course and I hope the 2020 cohort are contacted if there are any updates regarding the future of the scheme.

    Best of luck to all those in the would-be 2020 cohort.

  7. I have just come across this post as I was curious if there were any rumblings that the scheme may start up again. I was also one of the successful candidates due to start in September 2020 and can only echo what my two peers have already said.

    I was in contact with the Ambitious Futures team to get hold of my contract and I was passed from pillar to post. Looking back, I now understand it was due to internal discussions on ending the scheme. I was delighted to have secured what was my dream role and felt so let down by a sector I thought was invested in young people’s development; but it seems that is only the case in the best of times. Again, the email was very abrupt and quite cold in light of everything that was occurring at that time. I felt at least a phone call would have been the very least that could have been done. I didn’t realise that universities had the option to continue the scheme themselves. This is something I suggested to my host university who said that this wasn’t possible…

    I do still hope the scheme can go ahead as I believe it would have been an excellent career pathway, and I hope that the 2020/22 cohort are contacted before applications open.

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