Interview: University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson

This interview first appeared in University Business on the 15 September 2020.

University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson talks to Anna Britten about taskforces, WhatsApp deluges and how to create champions

Cast your mind back to the last day of the London 2012 Olympics. Team GB has won a record haul of medals, and the nation is basking in the glory of what was – surely? – just a fabulous fluke.

Suddenly, UK Sport makes a public announcement: they’re going to go one better in Rio 2016.

The nation furrows its brow. Who would dare set such a crazy goal? Vanessa Wilson, that’s who.

Before she took up her current role as CEO of University Alliance (UA), you see, Vanessa was communications lead for UK Sport. When David Cameron and George Osborne agreed to a massive investment into UK Sport to capitalise on the feelgood factor of London 2012, Vanessa got the call: a jawdropping press release was needed to reward the government’s largesse. She promptly came up with the Rio medals goal – and still chuckles at the memory of the performance director’s wry ‘thanks so much’ the next day.

Talking to Vanessa today, over video call, we ask her which Olympic sport her new job in higher education – helming the 12-strong mission group of professional and technical universities – most resembles.

“Let’s go for heptathlon,” she says, after a long pause. “Lots of different disciplines, lots of different things within it – some areas seem really easy, but there are some that are quite difficult, and the heptathlon is a bit like that. An athlete will be stronger in some areas, and others they have to really work at. But you need to do all of them really well to be successful.”

Winning over Whitehall

Right now, one of the ‘disciplines’ dominating Vanessa’s diary is government relations.

In August, universities minister Michelle Donelan invited University Alliance onto her new HE taskforce – along with delegates from Ucas, the Office for Students (OfS), Universities UK, Guild HE, the Russell Group and Million Plus – to explore the challenges currently facing the higher education sector as it continues to deal with the effects of Covid-19.

The crisis talks took place daily in the aftermath of the A-levels crisis.  At the time of our interview, the taskforce is meeting three times a week – and will soon do so just weekly.

Being asked by the Department for Education (DfE) to take a seat at the table was, Vanessa tells us, a proud moment.

The taskforce is, she says with an enthusiasm that radiates through the screen, “a real massive commitment from the department” and “a great forum, because we’ve got that direct engagement with the minister.”

Having started her career in the civil service – she had a senior comms role at Defra – Vanessa has a different perception of the HE/DfE relationship to many working at this level.

Back-and-forth animosity bothers her:
“When I came back to this sector, now in this role, I was quite shocked at the reputation that the department had.

“It seemed really quite fractious, like higher education was getting a real bashing from everyone. It just felt like ‘What’s happened here, why is the relationship seemingly a bit broken?’” The taskforce, she says, has “done a lot to mend that, and been really good in terms of restoring what I know to be the true picture of senior officials there.

“Senior officials are extremely committed and passionate, really professional. And that’s really come through in this. They have really excelled themselves in terms of trying to engage with the sector. I’m not saying that mistakes haven’t been made or things couldn’t have been done in a slightly different way. But certainly the engagement and the appetite to work with the sector has been there.

“It’s just shown how you can get business done when you really need to.”

She anticipates the taskforce won’t come to an abrupt end post-Covid, either:
“I think the commitment from the minister is that she finds this particular group of people really useful. I get a sense that the group itself will be used more regularly for consultation and engagement. Certainly, all the messages that we’re getting out from the department and the bodies is positive.”

Michelle Donelan has “really stepped up to the plate really on this one”, in Vanessa’s view. “Trust has been built up. She’s been very proactive, very honest and open about what’s happening. It’s been a good platform for her.”

What’s helped, she adds, is “actually very little moaning from universities in the media”.

Could this be one of Covid-19’s dreamed-of silver linings – the restoring of a beautiful friendship between HE and the DfE?“I absolutely hope so.”

Dream team

Since joining UA 18 months ago, Vanessa has signed up three new members – “I think that’s an endorsement that we’re doing the right thing.” Birmingham City University, Leeds Beckett University and, most recently, Anglia Ruskin University have all joined the fold and become “great assets”.

She is full of praise for all her vice-chancellors, describing them as “extremely professional, passionate people who want to do the very best they can. Very resilient, and very agile.”

She is immensely proud of UA’s handling of the Covid nightmare, calling it “a great opportunity to find out what our strengths were.” UA’s internal networks – linking up individual members’ HR and finance departments, registrars, health and safety bosses and heads of department – meant that “we were able to quickly mobilise everybody.”

The HR group in particular, she feels, benefited from UA’s collaborative approach to an extraordinary challenge: “They had to face all the issues around sending people home to work remotely, dealing with unions, dealing with people getting sick, closing down the operations and then opening them up again.
“Having that community – ‘I’ve got this problem, you’ve got that problem, we’ve all got this problem; how are you dealing with it?’ – has been enormously helpful.

“At the beginning of the Covid crisis, we were meeting once or twice a week, virtually. We’re now starting to scale it back and we’ll meet every couple of weeks. But the engagement, and the relationship and the building of that really strong, cohesive group that really get on with each other… All universities are in competition with each other because it’s a market system, but how people have offered advice and offered what they’re doing, it’s been great to be able to coordinate that and be really responsive.

“I mean, it’s been challenging. I’ve woken up on Saturday mornings, right at the beginning, and there have been issues flooding through on my WhatsApp from the vice-chancellors – and it’s been great to be able to deliver for them.”

A successful return to campus – making it safe but also satisfying from a student-experience point of view – is UA members’ “biggest priority at the moment.” And “they’re very much ahead of the game”, she says.

How worried are they about the predicted financial storm ahead? Could any UA members be among the 13 UK universities that the IFS has warned might go bust as a result of Covid-19?

Vanessa doesn’t think so. “Our members are in a good position. They’re large.

They don’t have an over-reliance on any one funding stream – they do have international students but not in huge numbers, they haven’t put all their eggs in that particular basket. They receive research funding, but it’s not huge amounts of money. So a reduction in that doesn’t upset the balance too much.
“The main concern for them was the domestic market. But as we’ve seen, the numbers of deferrals didn’t materialise. In fact, they had huge numbers for public sector courses, like nursing and teaching.

“Obviously, time will tell, but I’m not particularly worried.”

Recognition, research and regeneration

Her wish, she says, is for the government to recognise, and invest in, UA members’ vital role in their local economies.

Often located “in the cold spot areas”, they’re large employers who also funnel skilled labour to other local organisations.

“They very much see themselves as part of the solution to really regenerating those areas. What has been missing is taking that opportunity to invest a little bit of money in those areas – because often where the investment comes in through the university, you can grow and support local industry, particularly where you’ve got graduates who’ve got no jobs to go to. You can help support SMEs to keep going and you can get the graduates that work experience and then, hopefully, as things sort themselves out, then the jobs will resurface.

“In the past, the need was for the university to be created in order to provide a skilled workforce. But now the university’s a real driver for new industries to come to an area, and new jobs and skills to be created. They’re very good at attracting new business to an area because they can provide a workforce.
“We pride ourselves on the employability aspect and actually delivering the skills that are needed. So that will always be first and foremost.”

Given that UA members are primarily known for their teaching, how easy is it for them to build up research bases? And how effective does Vanessa think place-based funding will be?

Our members are in a good position. They’re large. They don’t have an over-reliance on any one funding stream. Obviously, time will tell, but I’m not particularly worried.

“We have had that discussion with UKRI and Research England, etc and see the recent research and development (R&D) roadmap as a really good opportunity to influence the future of how research funding is distributed.

“There’s often a perception that there’s a bias towards types of institutions, and that’s certainly something that we would like to see changed. The government is missing out on some really great opportunities, particularly the type of research that my members are doing, which is very applied, real-world, solutions-orientated, and timeframes are much shorter.

So you really do see the tangible benefits.

“There are commitments to fund research excellence where it’s found. But the reality is, that some of the more ancient, traditional universities just have huge systems in place to be able to apply for research on a scale. And that’s not always in place at Alliance universities. Certainly, government seems to be wanting to do more and address that. So we’re hearing that message and it’s for us to come to the table and offer ways of how that can happen.

“I see the doors open on that one and responsibility on both sides to try and change that landscape.”
On 30 September, University Alliance launches its latest campaign – UA: Powering the UK’s Future – which is designed to shine a light on what UA universities do, and their track record in driving the skills workforce agenda.

The UK economy’s recovery will require workplace-ready graduates – and Vanessa is keen to stress that UA members are dedicated to producing those.

“Businesses do tend to want to, first and foremost, recruit from the elite, higher-entry-tariff universities, and then they’re disappointed when they haven’t got quite the skills and they have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Well, if you focus more around employing from our types of universities, you’d find you’d have a graduate that really has got those social soft skills that you’re complaining that they don’t have.”
As well as being the workforce of tomorrow, graduates from UA universities tend to be a diverse, non-traditional bunch. And for Vanessa, widening participation is more than a catchphrase.

When she filmed a video for this year’s A-level students, urging them not to worry if their results weren’t what they’d hoped, she was speaking from experience.

“I messed my A-levels up a little bit. So I had to go into Clearing.”

She became the first in her family to go to university, reading German at the University of Manchester. “The right university always finds you, I think.”

I was quite shocked at the reputation that the DfE had. It seemed really quite fractious

Higher education, she affirms, unlocks potential in people.

Much like a good Olympic coach, in fact. And it’s this commitment to bringing out the best in people that is the golden thread running through Vanessa’s career. Whether it’s industry or the long jump, stars are made, not born.

“What working in sport taught me was, actually, talent is everywhere. And it’s about nurturing talent.
“That passion to want to achieve is a major part of it. You can create an Olympic champion – or a medallist, certainly. They found youngsters that had the right build, but had never done anything and they just turned them into champions – and I found that just incredible. People were discovered overnight, who had never even touched the sport.

“There was always this stereotype that all elite athletes went to private school, which is completely rubbish. You know, actually the majority go to state school.

“When we look at higher education – and I feel really strongly about this – this is an opportunity that if people want it, they should be allowed to go for it.

These types of universities actually provide that talent, opportunity and potential to unlock opportunity for people.”

Do you remember what did happen in Rio? In the end, we didn’t go one better than London 2012. No – we went two better. It was Team GB’s greatest performance to date, finishing second in gold medals to the United States.

“I’ve got goosebumps now I remember,” says the woman whose prediction everybody rolled their eyes at.

“It was incredible.”

Something tells us University Alliance is onto a winner.

Further reading