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Rachael Richards, Director of Public Affairs, Durham University

10 December 2019, 9:06 UTC Share

Effective Collaboration: how the corporate world could learn a thing or two from the higher education sector

I am still relatively new to my role as Director of Public Affairs at Durham University, having joined at the beginning of October. Prior to that my career has been predominantly in the corporate consultancy world, working with national and international companies, as well as some NHS Trusts and HE institutions for good measure.

So whilst I have some experience of working within higher education and the public sector more generally, I come to my role with a slightly different perspective to those whose background is solely within HE. What has struck me more than anything is the openness and collaborative nature in which colleagues from different institutions are willing to engage with one another. Those I have met are keen to engage, discuss ideas and seek out ways to support each other, in what can be quite an isolated and misunderstood role within our bastions of academic knowledge and excellence. I see this as being key to successful policy engagement by universities.

Unlike the corporate world, with clear line managers and teams of people to develop strategies and position papers, policy wonks like us often work alone or in small units, with reporting lines blurred between the academic and executive teams. Discussing what we have learnt, who we have spoken to and what might be on the horizon for us all is what teams do within corporate organisations. What they do not do very willingly is share with their competitors, mainly because there is a commercial advantage to be maintained. Only when the chips are down – a threatened legislative change within an industry, a significant ask from Government – does collaboration become a consideration. Whilst we all represent different institutions, we recognise that they are all unique in their own ways but that they all face many of the same challenges from a policy perspective.

At Durham University, we realised that to achieve our global strategic goals we needed to strengthen the opportunities we have to engage, network and build our contacts within the policy arena. To do this effectively and successfully we needed to have a more permanent presence closer to where the action takes place. So I am located in our newly established London office, along with another new colleague, our Director of Policy Engagement. And whilst as a Northern university, like so many other institutions, there is an argument to be made for everything not being London-centric, the fact that central government is in the Capital and by that rationale so many of the policy influencing bodies, means that having people on the ground able to represent Durham more easily, can only be beneficial.

Furthermore, it means that we can be a more active participant in the plethora of networking groups and events that exist to support and inform policy colleagues from across the sector. From what I have seen so far, these genuinely exist to offer forums for discussion and idea sharing around current issues; to create collective positions matters that impact on the sector; to speak as one voice on challenges to our integrity and modus operandi. A set up like UPEN would only work successfully in the corporate world if there was a financial gain or competitive advantage to be had by members. Collective positioning is a way of hiding behind the parapet and deflecting individual attention, rather than adding strength and weight to an argument.

Much is made about the need for universities to start acting in a more commercial way. Anecdotally this doesn’t seem to be happening, but even if there is a push to be more corporate in their outlook, policy colleagues recognise that working together is more effective. Sharing within the HE sector is not about losing a competitive edge, it is about working together to create a better environment in which we can all then push forward our institution’s own strategic objectives.

Rachael Richards is Director of Public Affairs at Durham University. Rachael joined Durham as Director of Public Affairs in October 2019 to support the Vice-Chancellor’s Office and the University Executive team in delivering the University’s Global Strategy. Rachael’s role is based in London and provides a link between the strategic and research offering of the University in Durham, and the world of policymaking and political engagement in Westminster and the City.

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