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Arlene Griffiths, Lifetime impact award winner

Arlene Griffiths, who has previously held leadership positions at IDP Education and the British Council as well as Cardiff University, was awarded a surprise Lifetime impact award at The 2021 PIEoneer Awards. She told The PIE more about her career.


Photo: Laurie Noble

"The interest of international education to me is the wealth, the richness of different cultures, and how that can really, in the long-term, change people's lives"

The PIE: How did you enjoy this year’s PIEoneer Awards and receiving the Lifetime impact award?

Arlene Griffiths: It was brilliant. I’m still shocked. Getting that Lifetime impact award, I had no idea, and I’m just so grateful and I’m still lost for words. A friend said to me about six months ago, the problem with you Arlene is you look in the mirror and you see someone totally different to who we see. And I’m sort of thinking, well, maybe he’s right, but honestly I am just incredibly grateful. Words will never be able to express my gratitude.

The PIE: Why did you opt to focus on international education for half of your working life?

AG: When I was about 17 years old, my school put me forward for the Lions Club’s youth award, and somehow I won it. And they sent me to an international camp for three weeks in the summer. And it was a real life changing experience. I found myself  with people from all over the world, and it really sparked my interest in national cultures.

And many years later, when I was doing my MBA at Cardiff University, I came across a gentleman who worked at Cardiff University international office, and I thought, ‘wow, that sounds really interesting’.

In the first half of my career I was just so fortunate in the pharmaceutical company, I started off with Glaxo as a Marketing Trainee, and got the most phenomenal training.

And then I came back to live in Wales and saw an advert for an international office officer in Cardiff University. And that’s how I got into it. And the interest to me is the wealth, the richness of different cultures, but how that can really, in the long-term, change people’s lives if we can become more understanding of each other.

The PIE: And over the last 20 years, what are the biggest changes that you recognise in the sector?

AG: Well, I must have been one of the first that the international offices took from the commercial world. Obviously with the private pathway providers entering, there have been a lot more. Generally from my eyes, the operation has become more commercial.

So 20 years ago, if I had made statements like, ‘we have to get the balance right between the student experience and bringing in the revenue’, people would have been horrified. Now it is accepted that revenue is important, albeit only one part of the work.

“The commercialisation of it, the understanding that it’s a business model, must not be at the expense of the student”

In the early days, it would have been difficult not to grow the student numbers, but as time has gone on, the challenges and the risk have increased. The commercialisation of it, the understanding that it’s a business model, must not be at the expense of the student. The student has to be at the heart of it, and that’s been a consistent throughout in universities.

The PIE: On Friday you said that actions, not words, are important. What recommendations would you make to your colleagues in today’s sector? 

AG: I think we have to understand that when we talk about the international sector, our heads tend to go straight to universities. But even if we just look at education providers, it’s broader than that. There’s further education, English language, private pathway providers, partnership arrangements with other universities.

One sector that has grown beyond all recognition is the commercial entities, whether that is private pathway providers or agencies, within that, the secure testing sector as well.

But I think what people need to focus on depends on what sector they are in. What I meant when I said it’s actions that are important, not words, is something that comes back to organisational culture and national culture, really.

“As we come into this next phase, there are some real serious questions to be asked about sustainability”

In the early days of my career, when people said something, it was done. People didn’t talk the talk, they walked it. I hear a lot about theory and how diversity is important, but actually it’s not necessarily being delivered. It’s really hard to ask yourself and be honest to yourself, but it’s only by being held accountable that we make real progress. And that includes genuinely listening to colleagues.

The PIE: I see that in lots of different industries, not only education. But I do think that sometimes around the idea of sustainability and that sort of marketing ‘greenwashing’.

AG: In my view there is no post-Covid, there is only living with it, but as we come into this next phase, there are some real serious questions to be asked about sustainability, of the environment and health.

Should we continue to be travelling to the same extent? People would have seen a massive change in health, spending less time travelling around, and my hope is that people genuinely embrace the lessons and the new way of working.

I would hope that universities now understand better how they can recruit more students directly, virtually.

I think that agents who doggedly stick to ‘this is our business model and you have to fit in with us’, even though they don’t physically say that essentially what happens, they need to have a very serious look at themselves. It is going to have to be more bespoke and certainly if I was working in a university now, I would be looking at doing more virtual work to recruit.

“There’s always a risk about getting the balance between the income and the student experience”

The PIE: Do you have any other sort of concerns or worries about which direction the industry is  heading? 

AG: There’s always a risk about getting the balance between the income and the student experience – if you do not get student experience right, you will not in the long-term, get the income. With the pressures of Covid and the impact that’s made on the bottom lines, it’s really going to take enormous strength to maintain that balance and get that right, because universities are under enormous pressure, so are a number of agencies. But, this is incredibly important.

We say to students, this is the most expensive purchase that they’re going to make, and actually the money isn’t the biggest expense. The biggest expense is making the wrong decision because it will affect their lives. And I think this is what I find so awe inspiring when you look at most people who work within institutions. They are so incredibly dedicated and committed to doing the right thing for the students, which delivers the right thing for the university or college.

The PIE: Can I ask you to reflect on your career and talk about your biggest highlights and biggest hurdles?

AG: If I’m being honest, the biggest external hurdles is very cliche, it’s being a woman and it’s being a Welsh woman. It’s as simple as that.

I’ll give you an example. We moved to England when I was seven. I was bullied, beaten up, chased home because I sounded different. I’m Welsh, I’m British and I’m European, but throughout a lot of my life things have been said to me, very often in humour, that have been very insulting.

Things were incredibly tough as a woman, especially the first half of my career. It’s so much better being a woman now, but even at the end of my career, there were challenges because I was a woman.

Certainly one of the things that saddened me was when I entered the commercial world in 1981, for many years I was in the minority as a woman and the more senior I got, the more isolated I was. And there were no female role models. I was incredibly lucky because I was predominantly surrounded by really good men who looked after me. And I feel a gender balanced team is vital, as reflected in the good wishes I received on Friday’s video.

I’ve seen the role of women and diversity generally change beyond all recognition. Sadly when I finished my career, I’d seen things regress somewhat.

The biggest barriers internally have been, one my health, because I was born with orthopaedic problems. So legally, I would be classified as disabled, but I’ve never up until recently registered as that, and I had my first cancer surgery when I was in my 30s. And on the other side is my lack of confidence or self belief – something many people will be surprised by.

“The biggest highlight to me has been seeing people develop”

There are so many highlights. The sheer diversity of the people that I worked with overseas in the British Council, and with IDP, is just incredible. The British Council locally appointed staff are so good, they are so giving. It is just humbling.

But I would say that across all sections, the biggest highlight to me has been seeing people develop.

One person who tried for years to get into sales, I gave them their first break in sales. They ended up working on London 12, then got a massive job to do which came out of that. We heard from Martin Edwards on Friday. Look at him now. It’s really just seeing all those people develop, it’s just incredible to see that.

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