Catherine Benfield was born in Walsall on 16 August 1963 and educated at Queen Mary’s High School. She went on to a BSc in combined studies at Nene College in Northampton (1981-84) and then an MSc in management science and operational research at the University of Warwick (1984-85).
She began her working life as a scientific officer in the Department of the Environment (1985-86) and the then Department of Education and Science (1986-90) before joining London Electricity as a senior project analyst (1990-91).
It was at this point that Ms Benfield moved into the higher education sector to run a small statistics team at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (1991-97). She formed part of a group that lobbied for the creation of an organisation that would bring greater coherence to higher education statistics across the binary divide between universities and polytechnics. When the divide was abolished and the Higher Education Statistics Agency was established in 1993 she became its first company secretary.
Four years later, Ms Benfield took on a full-time position at Hesa as head of research and development (1997-2010) and then head of business development (2011-14), although she took a year’s leave of absence to work with government and schools in Uganda on collection and utilisation of data.
Her roles at Hesa required considerable diplomacy, since she was caught between an ever-increasing demand for complex and detailed data and the pressures that this placed on universities.
Andy Youell, director of the Higher Education Data and Information Improvement Programme, recalled how Ms Benfield “worked on a very human level, both in terms of the way she managed complex, technical negotiations and her passion for developing the people who worked with her”.
“These negotiation skills came to the fore when she led the work to bring the sector’s estates directors into the world of Hesa reporting. There was much suspicion about the ways in which Hesa would use (and publish) the data, and concern about the agency’s ability to properly engage with the subject matter. Catherine spent months on the road speaking at meetings and conferences with the community, understanding the issues from their perspective and working to allay their fears.”
Diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly after she left Hesa to go freelance in 2014, Ms Benfield died on 13 August. A keen hill walker and gardener, she was also a passionate Archers fan, so the theme tune was played at her funeral during the final committal of the coffin.