Janie McCusker’s route to becoming chair of the Glasgow Colleges’ Regional Board is one that many may view as unusual – although she does not think so.
“I am a very normal person, who has gone through a very normal route in life, who has had opportunity to progress and has used education to progress, and at the right time in my life,” she says in her first interview since taking up the post earlier this year.
Born and raised in Glasgow’s East End, she worked for a short while as a typist before joining the Royal Air Force, and she went on to spend 22 years serving in the RAF Police. “I just decided that I wanted to do something different with my life, and so I enlisted in the RAF. There was no big ‘I want to go down this or that route’. At the end of 22 years, I wanted to do something different and that is when I went to university.”
A master’s degree in conflict resolution followed, inspired by time she spent in the former Yugoslavia just after the wars there.
“After that, I was temping for a year and then, through a variety of whys and wherefores, I ended up at the United Nations just after 9/11.
“I first went in as a field security coordination officer, and was sent to Uzbekistan. From Uzbekistan, I went to New York to work with the UN Population Fund and ended up as a senior security coordinator. And then, after working for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe for five years, I came home and became chair of the West Lothian College board.”
McCusker’s move into education, although unexpected to some, was a logical next step to her. “It was no big ideological thing – I just wanted to come home and thought, ‘What can I contribute towards? Where can I share what skills and experiences I have where I can also relate to people who might want to take a different educational journey or even a different life journey?’ I got the job and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
So, why did she then go back to the UN? “I guess, for me, I had some unfinished business that I wanted to go back and explore,” she explains. McCusker ended up at Unicef (the UN Children’s Fund), which she says “does a really great job and has a really important mandate”.
Coming back home
After a term of office as Unicef’s principal adviser for security coordination, McCusker was appointed chair of the regional board in Glasgow – which covers the area’s three colleges – in January.
“I missed Scotland a lot,” she says. “And because I had such a positive experience in the sector, I thought, ‘Why not try?’, and here I am.”
Her first impression is one of great diversity, “not only in terms of the diversity of Glasgow but the diversity of education that the college sector has on offer”.
The city is one of only three multi-college regions – all the others have just one large, college – and the only one with an overarching regional board not tied to one of the institutions as well as three individual college boards.
From the outset, this regional structure has not been without its critics. But McCusker is excited about the opportunities that her new position provides.
“My role is about harnessing all that strength and talent,” she says, “and looking at the broader strategic aspects of what a collective can and does do, to build upon that. And to continue to work with our partners – business, government, learners – to make sure we stay agile in a very fast-moving and changing world in terms of technology and the economy.”
She adds that the three colleges are “three different institutions and yet there is a need for all they do”.
They differ, she believes, “not in an independent manner but in a collaborative one, and it is that collaboration that I am impressed with, and the strength in that diversity”.
The initial phase of her appointment has been all about “partnership building”, she says. “In the first months, it was really about listening – hearing what anybody had to say and think, including the students.”
‘Listening and learning’
McCusker says: “I have met with all the student associations. I am still in that listening and learning phase, so that I also better understand the colleges and Glasgow, and what contribution I can make.
“For me, it is about being ambitious for Glasgow, for the learners. It is about being responsive to their needs. That can apply to government strategy, learner needs, staff – there are so many players that you have got to constantly be juggling. My role is to harness all that, being inclusive, responsive and effective. The world is fast-moving and there are so many brains around that table and so much experience – that just makes it super-exciting.”
The most significant issue the sector needs to tackle, she says, is responding to change. “Funding is a big challenge and that will always be there, but the needs of employers are changing so fast, policy direction can change so fast. And when I say ‘responding to change’, I mean, how do we see that as an opportunity, in a positive vein?” Finance will always present obstacles, she concedes, “but how do we respond to change around us and make sure we are still at the head of our game?”
Colleges are a critical link for education and employment, McCusker argues, and that especially applies to the three Glasgow colleges. “Glasgow is an ambitious city – it always has been – so how do we work with our partners, the Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland, our local employers and local government?”
She is also keen to ensure that the students are at the centre of all she does. “I never want to forget about the learners,” she says. “They are our key component. One of the things I hope to do as I progress in the role is to have more interaction with learners. It is sometimes just nice to have a chat with a student.”
One thing McCusker is very clear about is that she will remain true to her origins: “At the end of the day, I am still that girl who grew up in the East End of Glasgow, and I will never forget those roots.
“To some, it might seem as though I have had this very exciting life, but I have also just come from normal, very basic roots.”