I reported here last summer how, with great regret, it had become necessary to suspend the Ambitious Futures graduate training programme for those looking to build a career in higher education management.
We recently held a celebration event for the final cohort of trainees to complete the programme in its current form. It was a really special occasion – remote rather than in person of course – which gave us the opportunity to mark the achievement of all our trainees and to hear from them about some of their experiences. With some bloke called Mark Leach as guest speaker it certainly made it an event to remember for everyone albeit not quite how we had originally planned it.
A real success story
Ambitious Futures was a success story. It faced many challenges during its seven years of operation but the 195 graduate trainees who participated in the scheme are testament to its success. As their careers in our sector progress we can be confident that they will continue to be outstanding ambassadors for Ambitious Futures and advocates for the restart of the scheme in future. Ambitious Futures focused very much on the development of high quality future leaders for higher education. The programme invested in participants’ career development, offered exposure to a range of interesting business areas and work cultures, and provided an outstanding foundation for future leadership roles in universities.
It was a fantastic scheme and I was proud to be associated with it from the beginning – it had its origins in the University of Nottingham’s own Graduate Training Scheme – but also as Chair of the Ambitious Futures Board. Last summer, given the financial position of member universities, the Ambitious Futures Board was forced to take the difficult decision to suspend the programme. The Board still sees the scheme having a vital role to play in our sector in the future and remains immensely proud of all of the achievements of our successful trainees and of the staff who have run and contributed to Ambitious Futures.
Everyone needs to own this
The sector needs a scheme like this but the onus is very much on universities and their Registrars, COOs and HR directors to consider how best to revive it in the future. The programme depended significantly on a core group of fewer than 10 institutions which anchored the scheme throughout and far too many universities participated only on a short term basis.
This is not a sustainable model for the future and it will require more universities to recognise the vital importance of the scheme and to commit to it for the long run in order for a revived programme to thrive. Ambitious Futures was more than the sum of participating universities but next time around it will need a critical mass of institutions demonstrating a long term intent to the development of future higher education leaders signing up to the scheme. Otherwise we will find ourselves in a similar position the next time there is a major financial challenge in the sector with universities backing away from the programme all too rapidly leaving it in an unviable position.
It is difficult to overstate the importance and value of Ambitious Futures and how essential it is for the future of professional services in the sector and what a great training programme it has been for those looking to build a career in higher education management. It remains particularly satisfying to recall it being 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
More than 90 per cent of the 2017-18 cohort continued to work in higher education, 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 programme has brought competitive advantage for many universities. The knowledge, skills and abilities of the nearly 200 Ambitious Futures graduates have helped to transform services and processes and managed change across a range of strategic and operational projects.
A priority for the future
Ambitious Futures has had, and still has, the potential to bring many benefits to a post Covid-19 world, including attracting, developing and retaining exceptional talent in our universities’ professional services as well as nurturing future HE leadership potential across the entire sector. This is something that should concern every professional services leader in UK higher education. Developing the next generation of leaders in of university management and administration costs money but this surely has to be among the post-Covid priorities for investment.
There are good grounds to be confident that Ambitious Futures will return, it is too important and valuable to our sector not to. But it will require widespread commitment from universities. Let’s hope we can get everyone on board when we come back.