THE first Angela O’Donoghue heard of South Essex College was when she spotted an ad for the job she would go on to land.
Then she moved 275 miles north to become head of Sunderland College and lost touch with the Essex further education scene, and not least with the merger of the two colleges and Thurrock College, to create something big and new.
Today, South Essex College, straddles local council areas, embracing 17,000 students and is the largest college in region.
All that makes her job one of the most challenging in British higher education – and she loves it. She says: “It’s the perfect job. It has a very large footprint and a huge potential. With the right leadership, it can be a dynamic force.”
College development is what Ms ODonoghue does. Her move to Sunderland, seven years ago, brought its own challenges and opportunities.
She says: “I could see the huge potential for change.
“Sunderland was a sleeping giant. And I know we have achieved the change we were aiming for over the past six years. The college has just received a fantastic Ofsted report.”
One radical keynote during her time at Sunderland was the introduction of foreign students, a change she wants to bring to South Essex as well.
She explains: “I’ve had quite a bit of experience with places such as China, Malaysia and India, where there is a keen appetite for British education. Emerging places such as Vietnam and, recently, Libya, are also very promising.
“It can take the form of students coming to Britain and studying on campus, or it can take the form of ‘partner colleges’ where we provide the framework and, sometimes, the teachers.”
Either way, the international link can be good business for the British college. Ms ODonoghue adds: “We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t profitable.”
The aim is to plough back much of the profit from the wealthy Far East into education for our own students. She explains: “It enables us to provide bursaries and other financial support, partic-ularly for adults, in areas where funding has been stripped away by the Government.”
Originally from Liverpool, Ms ODonoghue began her career as a biology teacher, with no thought she might one day head up a 17,000-student institution.
She says: “I loved teaching at GCSE level. “Then I started my family. “I went into part-time further education, because there was such good support for women and children. “There were a lot of other functions involved, apart from teaching, and I began to pick up a range of skills. “That was really the start of the path to eventually becoming a principal.”
She continued to teach during her first principal’s job, at Hackney Sixth Form College in north-east London, explaining: “It was small enough to combine the two roles.” Only when she moved to Sunderland did she devote herself to full-time administration. Although she no longer teaches, Ms O’Donoghue still makes time to meet students and talk to them.
She says: “I never hide anonymously behind my office door. I engage with student bodies, I walk around the building.
“I sit in the canteen. Students are, after all, our clients.”
Ms ODonoghue also makes a point of being meeting local politicians.
She says: “In this country, there is no getting away from the fact education is run by politicians, so it is vital to stay in tune.
“In Sunderland, we dealt with just one town and one local authority. Here, there will be three, but it is important to keep up the political connection.”
Politics aside, Angela clearly has a strong grasp of diplomacy. She made a point of basing her office on the Basildon campus, midway between the three colleges.
She explains:“I think it’s important South Essex College doesn’t become too Southend-centric, which could easily happen.”