Andrew Young: ’everyone wants to get value for money from things they do’

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Andrew Young, chief operating officer at London School of Economics
Andrew Young became London School of Economics’ (LSE) first chief operating officer when he joined the institution earlier this year. We caught up with him to find out about his new role.

Why did LSE decide to introduce the COO role?

From the brief that I have been given, it seems to have been the right time for LSE to have a chief operating officer to help to join the services up. By that I mean to avoid the silo effect of services doing their individual work without reference to other areas. That was something both the leadership and the staff recognised.

I think they agreed that’s what was required and that was the major part of my brief. Apart from encouraging joint working, I actually need to generate support for the great work they do. One of the things we don’t do is celebrate some of the great initiatives that the services deliver on. 

What would you say are the biggest challenges facing LSE over the next five years?

I think that many are the same as other higher education institutions. The Green Paper and the teaching excellence framework will be challenges for everyone.

A very high proportion of our students are in LSE halls in London – an unusually high proportion. We also can’t afford to ignore the high cost of a degree in London nowadays so we are putting a lot of money into supporting students with bursaries.

We have some issues around our rates of student satisfaction. We just announced a very big initiative to address some of those outcomes in the national student survey and we’ll be looking to see the feedback we get from our graduates over the next two or three years.

We’ll continue to have challenges simply from being in the centre of London. It’s an expensive and constrained place to be so if you want to grow as an institution, you have to bear in mind the cost of growing and staying within London.

How are you tackling student satisfaction levels?

We have a selection of strategic objectives around interdisciplinary education, along with the environment that students study in and we are spending a lot of money on renewing that environment.

We are also making sure we take into account some of the developing pedagogic methodologies in the delivery of degrees such as flipping the classroom, which is more interactive and develops the concepts of critical thinking much more.  Our students are well-informed, critical, analytically sophisticated and globally employable and we have introduced some new initiatives around that. We are building on learning and skills development opportunities offered by LSE courses, so in other words broadening the education of students while they are here both academically and in terms of the environment in which they learn.

We are also doing some work around how students interact, building a dynamic community that reflects the school’s distinctive identity.

We also can’t afford to ignore the high cost of a degree in London nowadays so we are putting a lot of money into supporting students with bursaries.

What role will efficiencies play in your programme of work?

Clearly everyone is after value for money and we are no exception to that. There are areas where we will focus particularly, such as on staff travel, which in my experience is always a fairly interesting one to get best value from because there are so many different operators out there.

We have a big capital development program here and we are trying to get best value from that. At the moment we are demolishing the central buildings on the campus and  our new buildings will be constructed over the next two or three years. We have a new building on the corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and we are currently holding a design  competition to get a really interesting proposal for that space 

I want to do some work on benchmarking our services against other Russell Group universities too. The Russell Group have been engaged in a benchmarking exercise over the past couple of years and we want to join in with that so that we can better understand where to invest in future.

How do you expect the role will differ from your previous work at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine?

In some ways the two institutions are enormously similar, but also very different. Similar in that they are both specialist, but different in that LSE is much bigger and has undergraduates which the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine doesn’t have. That has an enormous effect on the feel of the organisation.

There are so many issues attached to having undergraduate students, like all of the issues around a relatively young student population. . It’s very interesting to be involved in that again because if there is one thing that I have missed it is the interaction with undergraduates, they are great fun!.

Having been an early-career researcher, how well do you feel the efficiency, effectiveness and value for money agenda is understood in academic departments?

As an agenda, I don’t think it is well understood but it is relevant to academic departments because everyone wants to get value for money from the things they do.

Working together, the departments can get much better value. If there’s a way of us working together in terms of our administration, while maintaining autonomy, that is what we are going to do. That way we can join up these activities, not just within services but between departments. If we can work together then clearly we can get economies of scale and, of course, we can get better value for money. 

You have been chair of the London Universities Purchasing Consortium (LUPC) board. Can you highlight any examples of smarter procurement within London universities?

LUPC has been leading on this – we’ve just launched something called Ensemble Purchasing, which is a cost sharing group between four small specialist colleges in London to support their procurement work.

The Royal College of Music, The Royal Academy of Music, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Royal College of Art have come together to share a procurement officer and I think they are going to get a second one too. Individually they are of a size where they could not support their own procurement officer and while LUPC can support them to a certain extent, it’s much better if you have your procurement officer because you can start to embed good practice within the organisations in so many areas.

LUPC often do OJEU work so our members do not have to and we also do national framework agreements which are shared across the other purchasing consortia in England. A great example  is when we worked with Queen Mary, University of London to help them offer students course materials at a much reduced price, helping them to save money.

Have you ever drawn on the knowledge gained while studying for a PhD in Zoology in your career as a higher education administrator?

I don’t think the technical and zoological side has been a massive benefit, but actually the fact that I have been an academic is tremendously important.

I find it is very useful in terms of my being able to genuinely understand the challenges that academics face in doing their work. And I do understand that the vast majority of the time academics just want to be left alone.

Our challenge is to work with our academic colleagues and, as far as we possibly can, deliver our administration with minimal academic input. There are obviously times we can do that and times we can’t, but when you need that input to have an approach that is collaborative and which helps us work together as colleagues.

So many academics’ impression of administrators is a negative one and I have spent a lot of time trying to reverse that. Having said that, administration is a career and a profession. I’m very clear that we need to support our administrators with their careers as well. I’ve spent most of my life working between the two groups of people and that is something that I really enjoy. 

Andrew Young is chief operating officer at the London School of Economics and chair of London Universities Purchasing Consortium.

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Rosie Niven
Rosie is the content editor at Efficiency Exchange