There’s a sign on Sue Higginson’s desk that reads ‘The Buck Stops Here’.
There are plenty of offices where this could translate as a form of ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m the boss’ posturing. Not here.
For Higginson, principal of Wirral Met college, the sign acts more like a mantra. A reminder of why she came into education in the first place: “I wanted to be part of the change. Sitting behind a desk isn’t for me anyway,” she says as we take a tour around the college’s huge and maze-like Conway Park campus.
“I’ve always been the type to roll my sleeves up and get things done.”
Students bustle from the coffee shop to gleaming industrial-style kitchens to prep meals and pipe cream onto delicate French patisserie, or dart across the atrium to the beauty salon where clients lounge on treatment beds, ready for their glow up.
The place feels full of purpose and ambition. It feels alive with potential.
When we talk about regeneration, it’s tempting to pore over artist’s impressions of new industrial zones, sandblasted warehouses and fancy coffee shops. But the story starts right here, with students mapping out a future they’ve chosen for themselves. A future that, maybe, they never really thought possible.
“It’s fine for young people not to have a big, grand plan,” Higginson says. “How many of us are doing what we thought we’d do when we left school? This is about letting people have a go. It’s about asking ‘have you thought of this?’ and it’s about telling adults it’s not too late. It’s never too late.”
This laser-focus on the end goal – decent jobs – might start at the college, but it relies on over 800 local employers playing their part, too.
“Not everyone wants to be an academic,” Higginson says. “We need plumbers, hairdressers, welders and healthcare workers if we’re to have a society that works for everyone,” Higginson says, “and these jobs need skills and knowledge too.”
Walking through Conway Park’s animated campus, you get a tangible sense of how the future – our future – is being shaped by the present.
“It’s not about just picking a course and putting off real life for three years. It’s about asking ‘what career do I want to pursue’,” Higginson says. “We have a clear line of sight to a vocational end point,” Higginson adds as we stroll.
For Higginson, though, her vocational end point is coming sooner than most – after 11 years at the helm, this will be her last two terms. “I’m going to miss this place, but I’m looking forward to retiring,” she admits.
“I’ve been in education for 33 years. I started right here. My team has built a really brilliant college. A college that’s loved by its community, owned by its community and now is starting to reshape its community too,” Higginson says.
“The college has been around since before the invention of the telephone. We’re all just passing the baton, in the end,” she says.
That may be true. But few have done it with as much conviction and clear-eyed vision as Higginson.
Under her stewardship the college has developed a new found sense of purpose: and, as it’s grown in stature, it’s grown in size too. Higginson now oversees a series of five career-led campuses from Bromborough to Birkenhead, including the jauty-roofed Wirral Waters building.
Of course, all those hairdressers, plumbers, engineers and chefs need jobs. That’s a lot of new homes, salons and restaurants to move on to: with the many boarded-up shops of Grange Precinct, just over the road from Sue’s office, offering a stark reality check.
Does the buck stop with Higginson there, too?
“I’m an optimist,” Higginson says, “there’s a lot to be positive about. But I’m a realist too, and I understand the difficulties people face now.
“You can’t click your fingers and make everything right. It’s fine to criticise, and to say there aren’t enough cranes changing the skyline around here, but pause to see what’s actually happened within the past five years here. Look at how the pace of change is accelerating,” she says.
“When we started here there wasn’t even a station,” Higginson says of their Europa Boulevard home.
As we look out, over to the new Milton Pavement buildings, Higginson points to the new Knowledge Quad at the heart of the construction site: “this will offer real work experience and awareness of the built environment,” she says of the tie-in with developers Morgan Stanley.
“Employer partnerships,” Higginson adds “are how we turn theory into practice.”
“When we moved to Wirral Waters there was nothing. Now our apprentices are working with game-changing modular housing, there’s a grade A office development next door, and plans for a new maritime hub.
“We’re definitely up and running. You tell me a region that isn’t experiencing different stages of regeneration at the same time.”
“If you work with like-minded organizations it’s amazing what opportunities come spilling out,” Higginson says. “We ask employers what they need now, and what’s coming down the pipeline in five years’ time.
“We’re the talent pool that they can recruit from,” she says. “Right now, there’s high churn in the NHS, so we’re focused on working with them.”
Higginson sees her role – the college’s role as much about providing adults with a second chance to move into a career as it is about enabling bright young graduates to start theirs. An interconnected-ecosystem that allows people to thrive, no matter where their starting point.
“There’s an inextricable link between skills, life chances and poverty,” Higginson says. “Two thirds of our students come from a background of high deprivation. How could you not want to do everything in your power to change that? When these people are given a chance to fly, they really do. I know, I see it all the time.
“There’s no better job satisfaction than supporting the people of your community to be the best version of themselves. Let’s not forget we have our own West Side Story on the Wirral,” Higginson says, explaining that a baby boy born in Arrowe Park hospital has an 11-year difference in life expectancy, depending on the route he takes home. As she readies herself for her last few months, Higginson is confident that the best is yet to come.
“I love this place,” she says, looking out over the town from her third floor office window. “There are good people here. Yes, we have differences of opinion and priorities, but we work together to solve them.”
That work, that spirit of collaboration, starts right here, Higginson believes: “The quality of someone’s training will make a real difference to the jobs they can do, the salary they can make, and the life chances that open up for them,” she says.
“But what I see, every day, isn’t young people focused on how much money they can earn. It’s young people doing what they love. We turn that light on for them.”