Claire Carter, Partner, Anderson Quigley

Claire is an experienced recruiter in interim management. She connects senior leaders with flexible talent that helps universities adopt strategies to drive sustainable change. This covers steps to optimise their operations, drive their top-line and reduce their cost base, including back-office transformation, change in target operating models, adopting modern digital solutions, estates rationalisation, and strategic partnerships. Claire has built an impressive track record helping institutions identify the right solution in time-critical situations. Claire also provides guidance to those who have not previously considered an interim career before, but who have unique insights and skills to offer the interim market.


For the Higher Education sector, change is inevitable. It would not be a leap to say crises are inevitable. Whether it’s a change in leadership following the arrival of a new Vice-Chancellor or a change in curriculum due to regulatory conditions or other pivotal moments in a university’s lifecycle, these transitions can be challenging to navigate.

These transitions look even tougher in the current economic environment. Many universities are under extreme financial pressure and are looking to create efficiencies. One of the biggest costs is staffing, as a result, some institutions may restructure. Ultimately, to make savings universities have been cutting jobs.

However, one strategic, positive approach gaining prominence across such scenarios of transition and change is the use of interim management.

Beyond crisis management: a proactive strategy

Traditionally, interim management was viewed solely in the context of crisis situations. Whether it is financial, industrial, technological, social, environmental, or health-related, interim managers were called in when universities had to react rapidly to minimise the impact of a crisis on their operations, image, or health.

However, it is important to see the applications extend far beyond firefighting.

Universities are recognising the value of hiring an interim against a wider economic context of high inflation eroding tuition fees, all whilst students face a cost of living crisis. With the tuition fee cap remaining at £9,250 for 2024-5, this context does not look like it will change. Universities have already lost about £6bn in real terms since 2017, with the pace of losses accelerating. Higher education institutions lost around £1.5bn in the 2021-22 academic year, almost ten times the amount it lost in 2017-18 (£145m). Despite UCAS predicting a rise in student numbers, by 2027 universities are expected to be losing £5bn to inflation each year.

The Russell Group has said it makes a loss of around £2,500 per home student. One-quarter of universities are currently making a loss and total losses over the entire sector sit at £2 billion, a huge increase from the £200 million in 2021. Universities are increasing the number of foreign students and trying to cut costs: the government does not look likely to increase grants any time soon.

Interim management is cost-effective. Permanent appointments are harder to make and are in the long term more expensive. Hiring an interim can help take a step towards balancing the books following restructuring.

But, importantly, it’s not only savings and temporary stability that interim managers bring; opportunities arise from change and transformation. Universities are recognising the value of interim managers in proactively steering through change and transformation, in thought-out strategic hires for fixed projects.

It is not firefighting: universities and interims can work together to plan and implement change and deliver against their strategy.

Leadership gaps, mergers, planned change programs, and other significant shifts present unique challenges that require a steady hand and strategic vision, typically one that remains unburdened by the routine demands of day-to-day operations.

Interim managers provide a strategic compass during transitions. By swiftly adapting to the university’s ethos and leveraging their wealth of experience – often across many universities (and sometimes out of sector experience), interim leaders ensure that the trajectory of academic excellence and student experience remains unbroken.

If done well, interim hires create sustainable, positive change within institutions.

Case in point: the success of interim leadership

Consider the case of a UK university, strategically navigating two key leadership transitions within the Marketing, Student Recruitment & Admission directorate while facing the formidable challenge of meeting student enrolment targets. Amidst low team morale, a lack of leadership, and dwindling conversion rates, the university embraced a forward-thinking approach by appointing an interim manager with a proven track record in transforming admission functions.

By bringing in an interim manager with a track record of successfully leading admissions teams through similar shifts, this university not only improved operational efficiency but also capitalised on new processes and revitalised applicant communications.

The result? A university poised for a substantial upswing in conversion rates, setting the stage for a positive trajectory towards achieving its student enrolment targets.

The takeaway: a forward-thinking approach

Interim management, traditionally seen as a reactive measure, is evolving into a forward-thinking strategy for universities undergoing transitions. By strategically deploying interim managers during these pivotal moments, universities can not only weather the storm but emerge stronger, more adaptable, and better positioned for future success.

Embracing interim management as a proactive choice during transitions is a strategic move that empowers university leaders to turn challenges into opportunities, ensuring a smooth sail through the ever-changing tides of higher education.

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