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Finance isn’t frightening!

06 Feb 2020 | Gill Ball Gill Ball, formerly the Director of Finance at the University of Birmingham and a member of the University Executive Board, presents the finance sections of the Senior Women’s Leadership Development Programme (SWLDP). Here she explains her career path and why finance is a key component of the SWLDP.

Gill admits she got into finance by accident, after initially wanting to become a teacher, and that almost everything she now knows was learnt on the job.

“As a youngster I actually wanted to be a teacher of Maths and PE but my parents suggested that I wouldn’t be patient enough! I then decided that I wanted to be an optician, but I my A-Level grades fell short of what was needed and at that point I thought, ‘now what am I going to do?’.

“Then a very close friend of mine was going off to Sheffield to do a foundation course in accounting. It sounded interesting, it was only for a year, and I thought that if I didn’t like it, I hadn’t really lost anything. So I went too and just loved it. Interestingly, my friend didn’t like it at all and became a chartered surveyor!”

After completing that course, Gill completed all of her professional accountancy examinations for the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and worked in local government for five years before moving to the University of Birmingham’s Finance Office.

“Birmingham was amazing place to work and flourish”, she recalls, and provided her with many development opportunities in the wider HE sector. She now has over 30 years’ experience in higher education finance and wants to share her knowledge with others looking to progress into senior leadership roles.

Fluency in finance

The SWLDP looks to help women into senior leadership roles at higher education institutions and being fluent in finance is vital in achieving that.

The finance modules within the SWLDP include key topics such as how HEIs are financed – where the funding comes from; and where it goes, how to understand your HEI’s accounts, what financial sustainability means and how to measure it. “We simplify the jargon and the stuff we talk about is applicable to everyone, recognising that understanding finance is a key part of any leadership role due to the impact it has on decision-making.

“Finance and resources are significant elements of strategic plans and impact upon many major decisions and projects that senior leaders are constantly engaged in. Affordability and financial sustainability sometimes mean that finance can be seen as a showstopper for whatever you’re trying to do and often, for academic and professional services colleagues alike, that is a difficult concept to come to terms with – even frustrating. Understanding why those financial challenges arise and what might be done to ease them is a key skill for all senior leaders – not just the Finance Director.”

Overcoming fear

The programme is designed to try and dispel some of the myths and fears that seem to exist about finance in HEIs.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run this type of programmes and at the outset, participants say, ‘oh, I don’t do finance’. To me that is really code for, ‘I don’t understand it because nobody’s explained it to me and I’m too scared to ask’.”

Gill says that her modules within SWLDP try to take the fear out of finance for academic and professional services colleagues. Her experience is that women are far more likely than men to admit that they don’t understand finance and are keener to talk about it and learn.

“Of course, at senior levels, you are often considering plans which are large and complex, perhaps with links to existing projects, sponsors and even other institutions. Very often the scale of the finances is significant for your HEI and if you don’t understand what you are looking at and committing the institution to – potentially for the long-term – then you’re operating in a dangerous place. It is really important that you have the knowledge which allows you to contribute to and make effective financial decisions”


Her finance module is there to make finance more interesting for people without an accounting background and to try and explain how the levers of finance work in higher education.

“We try and make it a bit livelier than just grinding through numbers. We try and give participants an overview of the national position of what HE looks like now and in the future and this allows colleagues to consider their own institutions in that context too. There is also a big focus on jargon-busting.

“Some people are very surprised at the scale of spend, but HE is a very large industry. As a sector, it’s bigger than the travel industry in the UK for example.

“We take time looking at institutions’ accounts and colleagues begin to understand the messages those accounts are delivering for their own institution. You may be in a large or small institution but they will all produce accounts which tell a story which you, as a senior leader really ought to understand and seek to influence!

“We’re trying to help people to realise that finance really isn’t frightening and that they can ‘do finance’ after all!”

Taking place over the course of four months from 28 April, the Senior Women’s Leadership Development Programme consists of two, two-day face-to-face modules and an action learning set.

Click here to book your place on the SWLDP and take part in Gill Ball’s sessions on finance in HE.


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