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Ambitious Futures: a new graduate programme for university leadership

The decision to pilot a graduate training scheme for professionals in higher education (HE) was taken by a group of universities in December 2011 and is facilitated by the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA). It was recognised that while other sectors had a formalised career development path, the university sector had no obvious entry for high-calibre graduates wishing to begin their career in university leadership and management. Furthermore, for the HE sector, in which employability is a prime concern, the existence of a graduate scheme makes a statement about its own seriousness in respect of this.

In September 2012, Ambitious Futures - the graduate programme for university leadership - recruited its first 16 graduate trainees. The universities were organised into three clusters:

• London;
• Midlands;
• North West.

In 2014, 13 universities are taking part in the scheme and 24 trainees have been appointed. The next cohort will begin in 2015, with the programme aiming to become national in 2016 and recruit up to 100 graduate trainees across the country.

The programme

The programme for each intake of graduate trainees is currently 15 months in length and applicants must have graduated within the last five years. Graduate trainees are employed by their institution and undertake three differing placements, the second of which is at another university in their regional cluster. They also undertake an academic qualification and are placed in development learning sets to help support their transition into full-time employment.

The majority of graduates from the first cohort have successfully obtained roles within the HE sector. These are very varied and cover areas such as governance, health and well-being, press and communications, and careers.

The future

As the profile of the Ambitious Futures programme grows, it is anticipated that the number of universities wishing to participate in the scheme will also grow and it will begin to rival other public sector graduate programmes. Higher education is a vibrant and challenging sector in which to work so that for new and recent graduates it should be an exciting career of choice. Ambitious Futures, with the support of the AGCAS membership, aims to attract these enthusiastic graduates into the sector.

Case studies

Alex Barker and Jacinta Blythe are both University of Manchester graduates and were selected through a rigorous selection process as the university's first Ambitious Futures trainees.

Alex graduated in 2010 with a politics degree, and most recently worked on Tier 4 visa policy and the Prevent Strategy for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS); Jacinta recently completed a Masters degree in Earth Science and managed three short-term projects in the university's accommodation office before taking on a managerial role in the private sector.

Jacinta said:

"Ambitious Futures appealed to me as a graduate scheme as it offered substance, support and structure. With three placements across two institutions, the programme exposes graduates to different environments and departments within the HE sector, allowing trainees to work cross-institutionally."

Their programme began with an intensive week-long induction with all the trainees, which provided them with a thorough introduction to the HE sector, and to the practical realities of working as part of a university's large administration team.

After the induction, Jacinta was placed to work for the library and Alex for the careers service. Both trainees will be managing their own projects and developing a suite of new skills. They have already attended a high-level strategy conference and been encouraged to take part in staff training courses to further their professional development.

Alex commented:

"While I enjoyed my time with the Civil Service, I am hoping to build a new career within the dynamic HE sector. My new colleagues have been incredibly welcoming and supportive."

Tammy Goldfeld from The University of Manchester Careers Service added: 

"We are very pleased to be part of this programme which identifies and develops future leaders within HE and are confident that both Jacinta and Alex will make a terrific contribution as trainees."

Further information

For further information about the Ambitious Futures graduate programme, please contact: Elizabeth Underhill, Development Support Manager, AHUA, 0161 275 8060.

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© Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services 2017