Alison Wheaton is CEO of GSM London (formerly Greenwich School of Management), a for-profit private higher education institution in West London. She has just been appointed to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s committee on leadership, governance and management.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in a very small town near Buffalo, New York in 1964.
How has that shaped you?
I grew up in a rural, working-class town. My great grandfather was a farmer. My grandfather held an unskilled blue-collar job. My mother did not have the opportunity to go to college as the money was set aside for her brother. She excelled at administrative roles. Each generation hoped their children would have a better life than themselves, but education was not essential.
What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
My stepfather was a professor, so there was no question about whether I’d go to university. Despite our lack of resources, I went to the best university I could get into and worked for 20 hours a week and took out lots of student loans to fund it. I studied government and economics at Cornell University; while there, I became curious about how organisations worked. Also, I took time out to study at the London School of Economics for two terms.
After three years in banking, I returned to higher education when I studied for my MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. My strong educational background and experience gave me the confidence that I had the right raw material, skills and qualities to take on subsequent challenges in my career.
What impact do you hope to have in your new Hefce committee position?
Given my curiosity, I hope to listen and learn more about governance, leadership and management challenges across the sector in both publicly funded and private providers. I also hope to be able to make specific contributions on particular topics such as consumer insight, strategy and effectiveness.
What do you bring to the committee, given your background and the type of institution you run?
I bring a passion for social mobility and inclusion in higher education. I bring my experience in strategic development, consumer, brand and asset management strategy, effective investment and organisational development. Given the type of institution I run, I bring perspectives on how the current regulatory regime impacts on the efforts to diversify the higher education sector – increasing choice and effectiveness.
Is the government doing enough to accommodate private providers?
The government has made some strides – making student loan-funded places available, facilitating the validation arrangements with public sector providers, and establishing a more transparent regulatory regime. However, there is still more to do to create a truly level playing field and, importantly, more certainty, thereby facilitating investment and development of private providers.
Have you ever had a eureka moment?
The day in 1988 when, having transferred to Morgan Stanley’s London office from New York, I realised that we were about a generation behind in the UK [compared with] the US in terms of the role of women in work. I could have left out of frustration and to avoid the hassle (some did), but I decided I could make a difference by becoming a role model for the next generation of women (and men).
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be too intimidated, assert yourself and take nothing for granted.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing is working with passionate, capable people towards a shared goal and learning something new almost every day. The worst thing is we can’t do it all at once.