Heather Dunk

14th June 2013 at 01:00
The principal designate of Ayrshire College talks about how her sector is coping with the reform process, the challenges of preparing for a college merger and the importance of keeping staff involved. Interview by Julia Belgutay, Photography by James Glossop

What was your first job out of school?

I went to Woolworths to work on the sweetie counter, because I love sweeties. I got moved after two weeks because I ate too much and they made no profit. They moved me to hardware, which was deeply boring.

What is the most important skill needed in your job?

Communication. Communicating with people is the key to being a good leader. How do you think the sector is dealing with the reform process?

Most people recognise the benefits of regionalisation. I can already see the benefit for our communities to have greater choice and a one-door approach. There are huge benefits for employers in working with one organisation, we will have economies of scale from regionalisation and there are also great learning opportunities for staff.

Is the Ayrshire merger made more difficult by the campuses being quite far apart?

For a townie they might seem quite far apart, but for me, actually, they are not far apart at all. What we have done is look at the travel arrangements from a student perspective so we can make sure there are options for them to travel by public transport. The vision I have is we will provide the access level programmes and national qualification level programmes on every campus and then we will have specialist centres at HNC, HND and degree level.

Kilmarnock College had a number of issues before your time - what was the key to turning it around?

Staff were open to change and wanted leadership that empowered them to do things differently. The other key driver has been that we have celebrated our successes. If you are a member of staff in a college that has always been seen in a negative position, when you suddenly find people are coming to you wanting you to share your good practice - that builds confidence.

As you prepare for merger, what has been the biggest challenge so far?

There are different cultures in each of the three colleges. That is the biggest challenge, and the challenge of staff in Kilwinning and Ayr not knowing me very well.

An independent culture survey done at the three merging colleges showed a serious lack of trust in management at James Watt and Ayr - what can you do about that?

The study gives you a snapshot of how people feel. To me, the most important thing is how we move forward positively, and we have done that as a team across Ayrshire. Staff showed in the study they wanted to be engaged in the future of the college and be part of the decision making, so we have done a huge number of different things to engage staff. My key priority has been to go out, meet staff, engage with teams, make sure they know what is happening, and to communicate and listen.

How easy is it to keep staff involved?

I can't be at every campus every minute of every day, but I think it is important that when I am on the different campuses I am visible and people can talk to me. It is also important I communicate consistently with all staff. I have to be able to empower staff to work together and take ownership of this whole process. I can provide the strategic direction and the leadership, but staff at the different campuses have to work together to make it happen.

James Watt College management hit the headlines recently - what impact did that have on the atmosphere?

As a leader, my approach is when there are reports in the press about particular issues, staff will ask questions, and you just have to answer them as honestly as you can. I don't have answers to the specific questions about the individual colleges. I am the principal designate for Ayrshire College, and James Watt is still a college. That is where I have been very clear about boundaries. Mergers can be a very fragile situation and for me the most important thing is to keep the relationships positive. What I want when students and staff come back in August is to mitigate the impact of the merger so it is seamless.

Is it an advantage to be a principal of one of the merging colleges rather than an external appointment?

There is a big advantage because you know your community and your stakeholders. There is a real challenge in that staff expectations of me are very high to deliver quite a lot in a short space of time. I will do the best I can to deliver on those expectations, but it is a real challenge.

The beginning August is not far away. How long do you think it will take until the three colleges are truly one?

We will become one college quickly as we move forward post August. But if you are asking me about culture change, I would hope we would have developed our new culture in Ayrshire in the next three years.

If you look back in five years' time, what would make you view the merger as a success?

If we managed to make sure all students continued to access the provision locally and achieved their potential and if we manage to continue and extend our partnerships with key stakeholders. I would also like to hope staff were proud to be in the Ayrshire College.


Born: Kelty, Fife, 1959

Education: Kelty Primary School, Beath High School, both in Cowdenbeath; Napier Technical College (now Edinburgh Napier University); Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh; London South Bank University

Career: Salesperson on the sweets counter at Woolworths; accounts and economics teacher; principal of Kilmarnock College; principal designate of Ayrshire College.

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