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Dr Helen Driscoll flying high in new University role

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Published on 09 May 2022

Dr Helen Driscoll, Academic Director for Educational Partnerships
Dr Helen Driscoll, Academic Director for Educational Partnerships

In her role as Academic Director for Educational Partnerships, Dr Helen Driscoll will support Dr Abigail Moriarty, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching), in the delivery of the University’s strategic ambitions for learning and teaching through excellent student experience.

She will provide strategic leadership in the development of learning, teaching and assessments for students in Transnational Education (TNE) partners, UK partners and supporting access to the University.

Dr Moriarty said: ‘The appointment of an Academic Director for Educational Partnerships role is new for the University of Sunderland. Following an extensive external recruitment process that attracted very high caliber candidates, I am delighted to announce the role was offered and accepted by Dr Helen Driscoll. She will start in her new position over the summer. while working with educational partners on the enhancement of the student experience and outcomes.”

​​​​​​​Below Dr Driscoll writes about her new role of Academic Director for Educational Partnerships, what she sees as the University’s key challenges and opportunities, and what she hopes to bring to the role.

“In my recent roles (Senior Lecturer and Principal Lecturer in Psychology, and Acting Head of School of Psychology) I have been fortunate enough to have opportunities to work across the University and even lead University-wide projects, such as a recent task and finish group to review the curriculum approval process for the benefit of the student experience. I have always loved this institution-wide work, engaging with colleagues in all faculties to lead projects that benefit all. So the opportunity to take up a University-wide leadership role was very compelling to me.”

"Transnational education is absolutely core business for our University."

This role will allow me to lead change and at university level in an area both close to my heart and my experience. This role appealed to me because it is a new role focused on a significant area of University’s work which is so important, and which has always been of great interest to me – educational partnerships.

The majority of these partnerships currently are transnational partnerships, typically overseas partners delivering University of Sunderland programmes. Through my institutional-wide quality assurance and enhancement work, and my recent work in developing the first transnational programmes in psychology, I have learned how central transnational education is to the work of our university, and its importance in widening access to UK Higher Education.

Transnational education is absolutely core business for our University. The scale of our transnational provision is notable, with students studying dozens of Sunderland degrees globally, across many partners and countries, now forming a very significant proportion of our student body. We also have several educational partnerships in the UK which are strategically important and contribute to widening access, such as foundation degrees in partner colleges, and more bespoke partnerships such as those with Dance City and the Northern Academy of Music Education. Given the scale of our educational partnerships and strategic importance (and because it is the right thing to do) we absolutely need to ensure the equivalence of the student experience and student outcomes – and that is something I have been a strong voice in advocating since I began working on partnerships in my School.

Also – and this is a bit of a cliché but very true – I love a challenge, something I can really get my teeth into and make a difference to, something which will develop me and have a positive impact. This role will certainly provide that.

"A truly global university with a global reputation."

In recent years, under the leadership of Professor John MacIntyre, transnational education has become a fundamental and core part of our university. We have seen continued growth, with students studying at international partners now approaching a third of our student body. We are also seeing diversification, and whilst the Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism and the Faculty of Technology still have the highest student numbers, TNE is now important in every faculty.

Transnational education is enabling diversification of income streams at a time when reliance on local markets is risky in a competitive marketplace, but more than that, it makes us a truly global university with a global reputation. It also provides access to UK Higher Education and our fantastic Sunderland programmes for overseas students who otherwise may not have this opportunity, maybe because they cannot afford to study in the UK, or because demand for Higher Education currently outstrips supply in their home country. Transnational education is increasingly important to government as indicated in the International Education Strategy, which is ambitious in its plans to grow UK educational exports. The University of Sunderland is a major contributor to this.

A real strength of Sunderland transnational provision is a move away from traditional transactional models of TNE to building more meaningful partnerships, what I would call true partnerships. This has happened through the development of partnership groups, effective committee structures, the establishment of associate colleges and work to ensure the equivalence of the student experience, such as the introduction of Canvas. This is a journey I want to take us further on.

We also have some key strengths in our UK partnerships. They allow us to develop and maintain positive relationships with local partner colleges, essential not only for recruitment to on-campus top-up programmes, but for broader recruitment strategy. These relationships are increasingly important given the government’s emphasis on the importance of Further Education colleges in delivery of level 4 and 5 provision and technical education. There may be opportunities to work with colleges in these spaces and our existing relationships are key. Our UK partnerships though are no longer just Further Education colleges. There are some key new partnerships with innovative and bespoke providers such as Dance City and The Northern Academy of Music Education which allow us to enter new spaces, offering supported franchises in specialisms such as professional dance and modern music industries.

"Ensure the equivalence of the student experience."

Recently the Office for Students introduced baseline metrics for quality and standards for continuation, completion and progression to employment, which are not subject to benchmarking. We will need to meet such metrics for programmes delivered by our partner institutions too, so there are some key challenges in ensuring we meet those.

There is also more work to do to take us further on that journey to full and meaningful partnerships, to ensure the equivalence of the student experience, and to fully embed University of Sunderland curriculum principles and deliver on the Student Success Plan for partners.

I think we also need to do more to ensure that partnerships are understood to be core business, as central to what we do as on-campus programmes. Students studying with our partners are University of Sunderland students and they are a key part of our learning community, so we need to enable a sense of belonging.

Whilst there are some big challenges, there are also some big opportunities – for example, to fully establish the University of Sunderland as a centre of excellence for transnational and UK partnerships, to develop our relationships with partners to be truly collaborative and to open up opportunities for research collaborations, student exchange, student collaboration across campuses and co-creation of curricula with partners.

"A desire and ability to drive transformational change."

I have many years of experience working in quality assurance and enhancement, programme design, development and leadership, leadership of pedagogical projects, leadership in equality, diversity & inclusion, and transnational and UK partnerships, all of which will be very useful for this role. I also have a lot of experience of leadership and management, much of it going beyond my own subject area.

I have always been very externally engaged and have a keen awareness of the Higher Education Landscape and how it affects the University, which I think is very important in a role like this. One of my key strengths is a desire and ability to drive transformational change and to do this in part by thinking outside the box, and looking at new ways of approaching things.

I’ve also been told I have excellent leadership skills, which I have been lucky enough to develop further through the recent award of a Santander scholarship which funded a place on the Emerging Women Leaders programme with the London School of Economics and Political Science. This was a very intensive course taken with 124 women globally, and involved live negotiations with people across the world, on unseen and complex scenarios, some of them quite unexpected – in one of these, I took on the role of a French mayor, negotiating for a good deal with other mayors with some competing interests, and with a multinational entertainment company opening a major theme park nearby! I loved the challenge and intensity of the course and the skills I have learned are invaluable. I think I also bring some important personal qualities – such as resilience, calmness under pressure, good interpersonal skills and the ability to always reflect.

"No single magic bullet."

As a psychologist, I really believe in the importance of good psychological theory and research for informing the development of leadership. There can be some pseudoscience and poor science around leadership, which is detrimental. However, whilst it is very useful to know the psychology underlying good leadership and management, in my experience I do feel there is absolutely no substitute for experience and continued reflection, and learning from other leaders. For me, these things have been key. I have also found that applying one approach to leadership is not effective – it must be flexible, and responsive to different people and contexts.

There is no single magic bullet that works in every instance, it is far more complex than that.

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