Day in the life of a student advice centre manager

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Sadie Ibbotson joined City of Bath College in 2014 after 15 years in the Navy’s logistics department. Training, course management and student services posts followed in the NHS, Plymouth College of Art and Wiltshire College, and led to her current manager role

Why and how did you become an advice centre manager?

I left school at 16, did a BTec in business studies, and sort of fell into education. In the Navy I qualified as an NVQ assessor. On leaving I cut my FE teeth in the NHS by arranging NVQ and basic skills courses for poorly qualified workers. My admin and assessor background helped me get a head of student services post looking after reception and course admissions at Plymouth College of Art before returning to the local NHS to manage a support service for the mental health team. A customer services role at Wiltshire College followed, and I then moved to Bath College, first as a coordinator of student services and then manager.

What’s your main role?

I’m responsible for all applications to the college from full-time students aged 16-18 and 19+, part-time applicants for professional qualifications and all applying for our leisure courses. I lead a 14-strong team that ensures all students are enrolled, processes all applications, organises interviews and looks after accommodation for international students under 18 who live with families under the national ‘homestay’ scheme. I also manage the careers and employability team that is implementing the government’s new careers strategy and look after work experience. 
    As duty manger, I go out once a week to meet the students on campus, ensuring they’re wearing the right ID badges. And although we are a support service, my team has strong links with the curriculum and we regularly meet up with curriculum staff.


What’s the FE element you like most about the job?

The sheer variety – anything can happen. You have to answer all types of questions. We deal with both FE and HE students, and we often help university applicants with their personal statements. I really enjoy being with students on their journey from day one through to getting a job or going to university - on open days I meet them before they are even here. It’s that feeling of accomplishment when they succeed.


What’s a typical day?

My hours are 08.30-17.00 but I get in earlier to catch up with emails. I’ve recently been confirming attendance in order for eligible HE and 19+ students to qualify for learner loans, and fielded a host of bursary enquiries. We are now taking applications for 2019-20 alongside those from A-level drop-outs who still want to go to college this term, involving constant liaison with department heads to check if places are still free and ensuring all interviews are being done. We want to give next September’s students their specific enrolment date when we send out ‘offer’ letters to avoid holiday date clashes. I also regularly meet the careers staff plus hold 1-to-1s with my team.
    With the looming January deadline for university applications next year, we try to get into all classes to run workshops on filling in personal statements. For Oxbridge hopefuls the deadline is October 15 – we get one or two students applying every year and one got into Oxford last year.


Name a few tasks you did last week?

Around 20 careers advisers from north-east Somerset attended our prospectus launch, during which our heads of department introduced their courses. I also spoke during an HR induction for new staff about the centre’s services (eg bursaries, bus passes and other student needs, such as help with council tax letters stating they are studying full-time at the college); and we began enrolment for our ‘Love to learn’ leisure courses.


Any big challenges in the job?

Organising interview dates with busy curriculum staff; and handling students’ frustration when they apply for funding but don't alway have all the information they need – sometimes they complain to us as they have nowhere else to go. Our front desk team is left to sort it out.


Anything you are particularly proud of?

We have completely changed our enrolment process. Instead of doing time slots for students, this year we let them come in at any time of day to enrol. And even though we had over 2,000 coming in during enrolment week, it’s been the most successful and slickest process we have used. Wherever I’ve worked in FE before it’s never quite worked as we have had massive queues and people have got stressed. This year we got it right! 


What personal qualities and skills do you need?

Are you a ‘people’ person and good at communicating? You’ll be working on the front line and always talking to people. Good memory? You have to be able to absorb and disseminate loads of information. Flexible thinker? Things change daily at FE college and you have to think on your feet. Team person with a positive outlook? Essential!


Ditto background/training/qualifications?

We often take strong candidates with a call centre, retail or financial background – I was surprised how much I deal with finance (student payments for courses and trips, bursaries, etc). My information guidance and advice qualification has opened many doors – it’s one of the best qualifications I could have done as it was generic in nature. My NVQ assessor’s award has helped me understand those doing NVQs and similar qualifications. 
    A management qualification can also help, but don’t forget internal progression – I got promoted from a coordinator role. Most people coming through are graduates (although we only require 5 good GCSEs), but many get shortlisted because they have a people-facing job and may have worked in a shop. We always encourage new staff to develop their skills and many of our recruits then move on to other departments as a result.


What spurs you on to work each day?

No two days are the same, I have a great boss and colleagues, and I know my college will support me in my ideas to develop my own skills.

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