Terry Neville (right) came out of retirement to do an interim job at the University of Northampton – that was five years ago. Rosie Niven speaks to Northampton’s chief operating officer about the leading role he is playing in a campus relocation project that will transform the university.
The University of Northampton is moving to the Waterside Campus following millions of pounds of investment through an innovative bond arrangement. What are the professional challenges of this particular project?
Everyone says “Cor, that’s a big project”, but generally, if you manage a project decently, you’ll find it relatively straightforward in terms of building and raising the money. Supporting staff with the culture change related to the relocation of the university, and the vision associated with that, has been a real main feature of this project. We have found the varying needs between professional services staff and academic staff has given us food for thought for our internal communications activity.
Any advice on the culture change aspect?
Culture change is a lengthy process, build on frequent and varying methods and channels of communications. We have held a series of roadshows and events; these have been well received and in some cases more influential than written communications. We have an exhibition set up, with a model of the new site and a lot of information boards showing what things look like and how people will be working. This is focused at helping staff to get an idea of how the campus will look, where facilities will be located and how close to Northampton town the campus will be.
Do you think that the new campus will have an impact in helping to foster more efficient and collaborative ways of working?
For a start, it is half the space we used to have. Building a new campus, to high BREEAM standards, will of course give us efficiencies in terms of heat, light, water and power when compared to our current estate.
We also conducted an audit of how space is used throughout the campus. One of the things we discovered was that in term time, due to the nature of an academic’s work, academic offices are used inconsistently. So, at the new Waterside Campus we have opted for more mobile working areas for academic staff allowing flexibility to work, meet students in more informal areas and be around different colleagues on a day to day basis. That’s one of the most difficult things we are doing.
What we have done in the past two weeks is set up the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC) in an open plan, hot-desking format so the vice chancellor, Nick Petford, myself and the rest of the OVC staff just come to any workstation, desk or chair and use that. We have made it entirely mobile.
Is it important to show that university leaders are also adopting these ways of working?
Absolutely, that’s why the VC and I are among the first ones who are doing it. It’s also a good way of ironing out problems so that you know it works efficiently for everyone. So it gives us a while to test things out. We have every type of laptop in that room, every type of mobile so that we know that they work – or not – with our system.
We’ve had teething troubles obviously, but we have worked through those and staff are invited to come and see this way of working in action.
For further efficiencies, wherever we can, we have assigned spaces at the new campus putting together subject areas that are likely to share resources. We have designed space for biological medicine next to health so that they can share specialist labs and equipment. The buildings won’t have their own administration and the teaching areas are open to anyone in any building.
The other thing is, you don’t always have to come into work these days. It’s much easier to do things remotely, we are looking at the way IT infrastructure at the new campus can support new, more efficient ways of working outside the traditional idea of ‘the office’.
How does the efficiency agenda relate to your role as chief operating officer (COO)?
If you look at the things we have got to do to afford a brand new campus, you have got to be massively efficient. So it is our job as senior leaders to make sure we do do things as efficiently as possible. Everything in our strategic plan relates to these things. Everyone’s annual review, including the cleaners, will have something that relates to the strategic plan so everyone’s on board. It’s built into everyone’s psyche.
Can you outline some of the challenges that COOs face in encouraging cultural change in universities?
Higher Education is more conservative than you would think as an outsider. Professional service staff and academic staff have differing needs in their roles; even across differing academic and professional disciplines, staff follow change at a different pace. Changing the mindset across the staff body, encouraging collaboration, sharing of resources and avoiding silos is a huge challenge for any organisation.
At one of my previous universities, they wouldn’t share the large scale equipment between departments, so there ended up being two of the same (expensive) things in adjacent buildings. It is that sort of attitude that needs to change, there needs to be full collaboration in universities for them to work to their full potential.
As universities deliver more business-like characteristics, what are the implications for senior leaders?
I think the key thing is that it is great being business efficient but it doesn’t have to be overt. People forget about the student experience when talking about operating in business-like manner. You can do things in a business-like way without it actually being the be-all and end-all.
For us the student experience is everything. You would think that is the case in most universities, but it isn’t always. I think you can do things and run things in a business-like way but still make the student experience is at the core of what you do.
Northampton hasn’t been afraid to collaborate with other universities, the Uno bus service with the University of Hertfordshire being one example, what can other universities learn?
It’s not just about sharing with other universities. We are looking at working with the County Council to collaborate with them, especially in the areas of health and wellbeing.
We are also looking at integrated transport for Northamptonshire and surrounding councils. We’ve looked at working with local universities, but there are a lot of opportunities with local authorities and other organisations that are perhaps easier to deal with locally than universities that are often further apart geographically.
I think universities can do a lot with each other where they don’t compete. For example, with the University of Hertfordshire, there are a lot of similar requirements for bus services. I am also quite happy with information on payroll and financial services being shared between universities. I am not so sure about other, more competitive areas.