Helen Cooke works as a Senior Manager in Curriculum Innovation at The Open University and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
My working career in higher education began just over 13 years ago, initially spending a few years in an academic research-related role at a different institution before moving to The Open University (OU). After a few years working in research administration when I first joined the OU, I moved into a more learning and teaching focussed role in 2013 and, so far at least, have never looked back! Since then, my responsibility for supporting learning and teaching has increased to the point where I now lead the management and development of the OU’s largest and most popular degree, the BA/BSc (Hons) Open degree. This degree allows students to construct a personalised degree from a range of undergraduate modules across all faculties in the OU, which enables them to choose a flexible study path which focuses on personal interests and/or career-related skills in a multidisciplinary way.
Now I mention all of this not to ‘sell’ the degree to you (I’ll save that for another day!) but to explain why this uniqueness is so important in terms of my HEA Senior Fellow application. You see, not only is my role unique within the OU, it’s also a fairly ‘rare breed’ across the higher education sector more widely, and it was only through writing my HEA Fellowship application that I really started to appreciate, and critically evaluate, the value of this unique role to students, the OU and wider higher education sector. But, more importantly, the process helped me to constructively reflect on many aspects of working in higher education, including why my current role is such a good match for me, from both a professional and personal point of view.
Taking those initial early steps towards investigating the fellowship opportunities available through the HEA was possibly one of the most challenging parts of the whole process, but not because it was difficult to find any information about the scheme or because my institution was unsupportive. Quite the contrary in fact, as the OU has its own programme to support HEA Fellowship applications) and I was lucky enough to have the support of a senior academic director (an HEA Principal Fellow himself), who recognised the uniqueness of my role all along. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would never have considered applying for a Fellowship had he not been so persistent in trying to convince me that I had the relevant skills and experience to apply, in such a supportive and encouraging way. I may not have fully appreciated it at the time, but I’m really glad he did.
Instead, what I found more of a challenge was having to grapple with my own preconceived ideas of what it truly means to be a “student” or “teacher”. You see, if you ever find yourself at the OU campus in Milton Keynes (you should by the way, it’s lovely), you’ll discover that it’s a fairly quiet university campus, away from the hustle and bustle of a city centre location, and devoid of hordes of undergraduate students trapesing between lectures or propping up the university bar. As a result, my own definition of “student” and “teacher” are arguably quite different to staff at many other institutions. Likewise, the staff roles associated with supporting these students at the OU are often quite different to those that you would find in a more traditional, face-to-face university.
This is one of the things I love most about my job – and why I’m so proud of my HEA Senior Fellowship. Not only has my fellowship given me the opportunity to recognise and celebrate the uniqueness of my own role, but also to challenge the perception of what it means to be a “teacher” in a higher education environment and to recognise the value of roles that straddle the perceived ‘divide’ between academics and professional staff.
I’m not sure I’ll ever reach the heady heights of a Principal Fellowship, but I continue to enjoy challenging these perceptions and supporting other internal, and external, colleagues through their own HEA Fellowship applications, as both a referee and a mentor. My hope is that I can encourage and inspire others to find recognise and value their place in the higher education environment in the same way that my colleagues – and my HEA Fellowship – have done for me.
For more information about HEA Fellowship please click here.