John R.

Happy to mentor
Happy to be contacted

About me

John R.
Biology and Education
United Kingdom

My employment

United Kingdom
Government and civil service
Small business (0-49 employees)

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A day in the life of a Consultant in the United Kingdom

Briefly describe the organisation you work for

For the last 19 years I have had a portfolio of self-employed consultancy and public appointments. My consultancy is largely in the field of higher education and builds on my time as the founding Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. My public appointments have included membership of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, trustee of City & Guilds, Chair of the Police Negotiating Board, Chair of the Police Advisory Boards, Chair of a Sector Skills Council, and lay member of Tribunals, sitting mostly in the Information Rights jurisdiction.

What do you do?

Consultancy has taken me to some 20 countries around the world,with a major part of the work being to chair accreditation panels for universities and other higher education establishments, to provide training in evaluation of higher education provision, and to assist accrediting bodies in the development of their systems. Within the UK I advise the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers on their accreditation schemes, and I have done work for the University of Law (where I was Senior Research Fellow for a number of years).

Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?

My career path depended largely on transferable skills. Intellectual skills developed through an academic discipline transfer to problem solving in a wide range of employments. The problem solving skills of a biologist work well in many other settings, the same is true of all disciplines. You are unlikely to spend your entire career in the field you studied at university, indeed I never worked in biology, but it was the problem solving skills of the discipline that I have used throughout my career. Read widely, it was an article I stumbled across on medical ethics when looking for an unrelated article in the BMJ that assisted me in getting a job with the Law Society nearly 20 years later.

After York I was elected first as Deputy President and then as President of the National Union of Students, giving me an invaluable exposure to the workings of Government and the Civil Service. From NUS I went to the (then) Civil Service Union as a negotiator, rising to become Deputy General Secretary. To that point there had been a logical progression, from representing students at York as Union President, to representing students nationally, to representing workers in the civil service. The next move, in my late 30s, called on transferable skills. Career pathways in the trade union movement were severely curtailed by Mrs Thatcher's reforms, so it was time to look elsewhere. I was appointed as Director, Professional Standards and Development at the Law Society, with responsibility for professional conduct, professional education and a range of associated regulatory and compliance issues.

After 10 happy years it was time to move on, and I was appointed as the founding Chief Executive of QAA, with a challenging agenda, set largely by the Dearing Report, of setting common standards for degrees, both generic and subject-specific, as well as conducting evaluation visits to universities, and setting criteria for institutions that aspired to university status. It was a tempestuous time. Our work on degree standards gained wide recognition, with our descriptors forming a model for many other countries. But an external body seeking to set academic standards was always going to have a challenging relationship with the universities. Some differences were irreconcilable and after four years I resigned to, as they say, pursue other interests.

By then in my fifties, it was hard to get shortlisted for Chief Executive jobs. Whatever the discrimination legislation said, age was a factor. So, it was time to build the old fart's portfolio of consultancy and public appointments I describe above. The confidence to take on a wide range of roles came from the experience of the use of transferable skills gained both through my degree and also through work experience in varied roles

Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?


Describe your most memorable day at work

It probably has to be the day I went to Windsor Castle to pick up the CBE I was awarded for services to policing. All careers have their ups and downs, and this was a great recognition that the ups outweighed the downs.

Are there any challenges associated with your job?

There are enjoyable challenges in international consultancy which arise from the need to be sensitive to the very different cultures in which I work.

What’s your work environment and culture like?

In its nature, very varied. Working from home, with no office base, the collegiality of an office is something that I sometimes miss, and the lack of administrative support means that time has to be spent on things like booking flights and accommodation. But leading accreditation teams and sitting as a member of a Tribunal brings a lot of collegiality.

What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?

Being President of the Students Union developed negotiating skills that have stood me in good stead throughout my career.

What would you like to do next with your career?


What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?

Try to analyse the problem solving skills of your discipline and think about how these apply elsewhere. For example, a biologist often has to reach conclusions in an environment in which it is not possible to hold all the variables constant while you study the one that interests you. In a work setting you will find that taking decisions when you cannot hold variables constant, or you have incomplete data with which to work is a feature of any managerial job.

Just because you are studying biology doesn't mean you have to work in biology. The knowledge you have acquired will quickly become outdated as research drives forward. But the problem solving skills will endure. Building a career on those problem solving skills is not a waste, for many people it is absolutely the right thing to do.

What topics from students are you happy to answer questions on?

Anything from the above.

Next steps...

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