What Do You Actually Do!? Episode 25: Charlie Jeffery, Vice-Chancellor

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on working within higher education, in particular management roles. We interviewed Charlie Jeffery, who is the current Vice Chancellor at the University of York.

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About Charlie

Charlie Jeffery is Vice Chancellor and President of the University of York. He was previously Senior Vice Principal at the University of Edinburgh. He is a political scientist whose main work in recent years has been constitutional politics in the UK.

Useful Links

For more information on working in higher education administration and management:

http://www.jobs.ac.uk (scroll down to Professional/Managerial/Support Services section)

For more information on becoming an academic see:


Job vacancies:

To hear more Higher Education sector related podcast stories:
Laura Hallet, Head of Strategic Projects and Change, York St John’s University:

Hannah Greig, Historical Adviser (film, TV and radio) and Lecturer, University of York

JT Welsch, Writer and Lecturer, University of York

Aiden Heeley-Hill, Atmospheric Chemistry PhD Candidate, University of York – https://yorkcareers.wordpress.com/2020/02/26/what-do-you-actually-do-episode-21-aiden-heeley-hill-phd-student/


(Please note – This podcast was recorded before the global pandemic)


You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do podcast!? Each week, we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip or an encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world.


Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do? My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about working in the higher education sector. Today we’re joined by Charlie Jeffery, who’s the Vice Chancellor and president of the University of York. So Charlie, what do you actually do?


What a good question. I think my job probably falls into three parts. The first part is to be the senior academic in the university, thinking about the standards by which we work in our teaching and our research. Second part is the kind of Chief Executive role, so making sure we have enough money coming in for what we want to do, making sure we allocate it in the right way, making sure we organize ourselves in the right way. And the third is really about promoting the university, to all of those outside who can benefit from what we do to all of our potential students who we hope will become real students, to all of those who will help to fund the work that we do. So I think those three things – the academic, the chief exec, and the advocate for the university.


So what does that look like then? Are you going to lots of different meetings? Are you traveling about you having to write things? How does it work in terms of actual tasks that you’re doing?


I think a lot of meetings is probably the right starting point. I’m new to the role. I’ve been here now for four months so my meetings have largely been internal. I wanted to really get to know the university, all of the different departments, all of the different specialisms, all of the different support services which helped to make the academic part of the university run. I suspect as time passes, I’ll do more outside of the university in the advocate role, trying to mobilize the external people who can work with us to get shared benefit, to be in the right place, to lobby government, to make sure government does sensible things with the higher education sector. So I suspect the balance will change but it’s all about meeting people, connecting people up, making sure that all of the brilliant talents we have among our students and our staff are connected up in the right way to have maximum impact.


So it’s interesting, you need to kind of have quite detailed awareness of everything that’s going on, but at the same time you need to be out and about. So it’s managing those two things – really of understanding and having the time to get to know everybody, but then also doing that advocacy and representative stuff?


Yeah, and it’s making sure I get out and about around the university. I can’t just sit in my office all the time, I won’t learn. If I get out and talk to students and I talk to staff, I talk to people doing their brilliant research projects, I understand what students are doing when they’re working through the Students Union, when they’re doing volunteering in the city, learning about some of the issues that concern them which can range from student mental health, so really quite fundamental things to laundry services, which I know exercise our students very much because of the cost and some of the challenges when the washing machines don’t work very well.


Do you feel like you can make a difference with people’s concerns? So you’re gathering this awareness of what’s really important to people. Is it a case of passing that on to somebody else? Or can you say, right, I’m going to make that change.


It’s really about making connections. You know, if something’s not working properly, that’s not because somebody has not wanted it to work in a suboptimal way. It’s because things are not connected well enough. I think people typically are really passionate, really committed, wanting to do the best. Sometimes you just have to make the connections so that the right expertise comes together in the right way.  Sometimes you use the role to make it very clear that that’s what you think is important, but you know, universities are not places where you tell people what to do, because we rely on very much the idea of giving people the freedom to think great thoughts, which transfer into brilliant research, breaking the boundaries of knowledge and which convey that into the teaching which our students benefit from. If you try and tell people what to do, I don’t think you get that creativity. So it’s a real balance.


So you were a professor in politics before moving into university management. What led you to develop your career away from sort of traditional academic teaching and research?


Well, I’m not sure it is away from traditional academic teaching & research necessarily. And I say that for two reasons. One is when I became involved in managing larger scale projects, it came out of my teaching and my research. So, the first big job I did was to run a research program around the UK on the evolution reforms of the late 1990s. Now that was simply because that’s what I’d been researching and what I’d been teaching, so it grew out of that, and I think as I moved through into other different roles, and then ultimately into this one – leading a university, one of the absolute watch words is to make sure you know what ordinary academics, in their everyday research and in their everyday teaching, are doing, experiencing, what challenges they’re feeling, so that they can give their best, and if I don’t know that, I can’t shape things, I can’t make those connections to make sure they can give their best and our students can get the benefit from it.


It must really help to have done the job on the ground to understand how universities really work rather than be ‘Oh, I was chief executive of this other industry’ kind of thing coming in to have actually experienced it yourself and as you say, understand people’s needs. But do you sort of miss being part of just one department and teaching and that side of things, or do you feel you’ve just evolved into something different and this is a different skill set?


I think I’ve certainly evolved, but I’ve also not let go. I’m still doing a bit of teaching. I would have done a bit more this year, but the diary just didn’t work out. But I did a session for a Master of Public Administration before Christmas, and I’m doing some second year work in the politics department in a few weeks’ time. And next year, if we can get the diaries organised, I’ll do some first year teaching. So I know one of the things that really, I’ve always most enjoyed is getting first years to feel enthusiastic about this subject that they’ve come to university to do. So I will continue to keep my hand in.


That’s exciting. And is that typical for a VC? Or is that because you’ve got that passion and interest for it?


I think quite a few VCs do but they’re teaching and I think it is a way of understanding some of the challenges that staff face in their everyday roles and also, you know, keeping in touch with students.


What kind of personal strengths or qualities would you say you need to have in order to be sort of happy and successful in both university management roles, but in higher education in general?


I think you need to be relentlessly optimistic. There are some, you know, brilliant people. We recruit brilliant people and we have brilliant people here as students. And clearly, you know, they have a fantastic contribution to make. And I think if you’re not optimistic about that you shouldn’t be in the role. Having said that, I think you also need to be quite patient because universities can sometimes be slow moving organizations and often for good reasons, sometimes less good reasons. But that’s how they are. And I think that optimism, the creativity, on the one hand, but also patience, because you know there’s lots to be gained if you get it right and sometimes if you rush you don’t.


And you mentioned, it became clear how important that ability to build relationships from all different levels. Would you say that’s quite an important part for any university management job or is it more this senior level?


I think it goes throughout the whole of the organization you know, I’ve been in my travels around the university, meeting people in pretty much every role and one of the things that really struck me was a comment made when I met our cleaners. A big lecture theatre full of cleaners and other people working in the more manual jobs in the university, and one of the things that struck me from that conversation was how important our cleaners are in the wellbeing of our students, because they’re seeing them in the morning, they’re a regular point of contact and you know, if something’s wrong, they notice and they can help the university to intervene by noticing. So I think from the top, my role, right through to the cleaners or the ground staff, you know, it’s really about being aware of the people around you and about their wellbeing.


What would you say then, given that sounds like it’s a really varied job, you’re able to keep your hand in a bit with the teaching, you’re a positive kind of person anyway, you’re enjoying your first four months it seems, what’s the sort of best and worst bits of the job in your opinion?


I think the best bits, we are discovering great things happening. Practically every day I find out something that our staff are doing in their work, which astonishes me. And when I find out stuff that our students have achieved, whether in the course of their study or outside their study, which is just exceptional, and that process of seeing all these fantastic things happening is really a joy. On the other side of the equation, well, I go back to that kind of slow moving thing. You know, sometimes the regulators, you know, the government and its agencies, make us do things which often don’t make as much sense as they could. And they create work for us. And sometimes, we create work for ourselves by organizing ourselves in the way to deal with things in the most expeditious way. So sometimes that combination of external and internal can clog things up a little bit. And one of my tasks is to unplug. I guess that’s one of the areas where you can get a bit frustrated sometimes.


I guess that would probably be the case in any institution, the bureaucracy, the red tape.


Any big, complex organization will find itself inventing ways of doing things which may have made sense at one point, but you know, they don’t necessarily change as quickly or as often as they could. And that’s when you get some of these problems. And then government tells you, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that and you’ve got to do it by that date and it can sometimes take over a little bit.


I guess that’s the added twist of how political stuff really influences what we can and can’t do that may not be the same for other businesses in that way. So for people wanting to work in this sector, it’s keeping in mind you’ve got to kind of know the rules of the game with the institution. But there are these constantly changing external influences as well.


Yeah, and I suspect many students see their experience in the university as being solely determined by people like me, but a lot of it is part of being a national sector and the national regulations and the obligations that go with it. Large, complex organizations get regulated by government. That’s part of the thing that we have to deal with.


So I see a lot of PhD students who are thinking of wanting to build a career, either in academia or potentially, in university administration. What sort of things is it worth them thinking about? What’s on the horizon in terms of key issues or topics, challenges? What is it worth people anticipating and perhaps doing a bit of research into if they’re thinking of trying to break into this sector?


Well look at that national context, but extend it internationally. Universities are very international organizations. They recruit students from around the world, they recruit staff from around the world, they have partners around the world, as well as working within the national context. So it’s being aware of the national policy situation. We’ve just had an election. In the next few weeks, we’ll probably know a little bit more about what this government’s priorities are that’s going to shape us for the next few years. At the same time, we can see change happening in a global sense, we can see demographic change, meaning that you know, there’s likely to be people coming through from parts of the world where the university doesn’t yet recruit from but will do in the future. So being aware of those international trends, and linking the whole lot – technology. The digital revolution is absolutely changing the way that universities work. And that’s partly the operations of universities, how we organize ourselves, certainly about teaching. So a lot of our teaching now happens online on campus. So our virtual learning environments, or even a PowerPoint presentation as a digital media, form of teaching, and that just becomes more and more pervasive. But it also enables us to teach at distance in ways that we couldn’t in the past and to reach some of those people in some of those demographically emerging areas who might not be able to afford to come to York for an on campus education. I suspect that will become more and more part of what we do. And then if you look at research that’s also been in every discipline, whether it’s from archaeology or nuclear physics, it’s been transformed by our capacity to process data in quicker ways, in new ways which enable us to get the meaning out of data better than we might have done in the past. So technology is really transforming us and it hasn’t stopped yet.


So it sounds like having a good awareness of current affairs globally, but also making sure that people pay attention to developing as much as they can in terms of the technical digital skills. And I think that point you made earlier about creativity, I think that goes hand in hand with reading so much about how we don’t know how AI and other developments are going to impact on things. But people who are able to think creatively and adapt well to change, they’re going to do better. I think our industry is probably maybe more than any others because as you said, the cutting edge research and everything, it’s having that ability to make use of these emerging technologies – see the potential in them.


One of the crucial things for us is to remember where the knowledge that is driving that technological transformation came from, because it came from universities. It came from computer science and it’s now diffusing across all of our disciplines. There’s a lesson in there for how we can learn from our own activities. I think sometimes universities are really good and researchers are really good at projecting what they do to others, to those who, in some way use our research. And of course, we’re very, very good at projecting through our students, knowledge and expertise and skills into whatever careers that they go on to do. We could be better sometimes at learning from ourselves and making sure that the university itself runs better or does new and exciting things because of the knowledge that we’re generating.


So any other sort of words of wisdom or advice for people who think they might want to develop a career in this sector? Any type of experience that would be worth them getting? They can do that background research and thinking, is there anything else that will be a useful thing for them to do if they want to work in this sector?


Well, it’s really playing back one of the questions you asked me earlier, and it’s about people. Universities are about people, ultimately, you know, we’ve got 19,000 or so students, four and a half thousand or so staff. And that’s what the engine of this place is. So it’s that ability to work with, to connect, to mobilize people that anyone thinking about a career in a university setting should really be thinking about.


So looking for opportunities where they can demonstrate that?


And then don’t forget, what we’re doing is, it’s a noble cause, because I think pretty much everybody in universities and certainly this is the impression I have from the University of York. They think we’re here to do good in the world through the knowledge that we generate and the knowledge that our students take with them into their careers. And that’s not a bad thing to be involved in.


Yeah. It’s nice to feel you’re working towards something you actually believe in. And I think most of the students I see now as well, actually, that’s a key priority for them. I’m seeing less and less where people want to earn X amount. They want to do something they believe in. So the good news for students is obviously we’ve got lots of volunteering projects and local internships where there will be a chance to connect with lots of different people and work towards producing a certain outcome. So that’s nice to be able to show ‘this is the impact that I had.’


Well, for more information about the career areas we’ve mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. I just want to say, thank you so much for sparing your precious important time when talking to us today, really appreciate it.


Great to be here. Thanks very much.


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers & Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers & Placements. For more information, visit york.ac.uk/careers