by Rob Cuthbert, SRHE News Editor
Helen Perkins was appointed as Director of the Society for Research into Higher Education in 2004. In December 2021, after another very successful Research Conference, she gave notice of her intention to retire. Her last day of office was 30 June 2022, fittingly coinciding with a meeting of SRHE Council, which was able to congratulate and thank her for her outstanding contribution to the Society in her 18-year tenure.
Arriving in turmoil
Before Helen’s appointment the Society was facing serious challenges, with parlous finances, uncertainty over its office accommodation, and a limited range of activities for members, despite its established annual conference, its leading journals and a respected book series. The annual SRHE Conference had traditionally been hosted each year by a different university, each time with a new conference organising committee and a new chair: that mode of operation was creaking and no longer fit for purpose. The Society’s financial difficulties were amplified when the new owners gave notice of termination of SRHE’s lease of its office premises in Devonshire Street, London. In 2002 the chairs of SRHE’s main committees had reached the end of their terms of office, but SRHE glitterati Maria Slowey and Rosemary Deem had been persuaded to chair Research Committee and Publications Committee, respectively. Maria Slowey took charge of the annual conference and immediately started work on the quality and quantity of submissions, while Rosemary Deem began the process of restoring SRHE’s finances by negotiating a new contract with long-term publishing partner Taylor & Francis. Director Heather Eggins had announced her retirement but secured new premises for the Society, which became a tenant of the Institute of Physics in Portland Place, just around the corner from its previous perch.
Nevertheless in 2004, as Ron Barnett took the SRHE Chair, there was still great uncertainty about the long-term academic and financial future of the Society. His first major task was to recruit a new Director, and the minutes of the 50th meeting of SRHE’s Governing Council, held on Thursday, 28 October 2004 at 76 Portland Place, London W1B 1NT record that: “The Chair (Professor Ron Barnett) introduced the new Director, Helen Perkins to the members of Council and informed them that she would be beginning her term in January 2005.”
Steadying the ship
Helen Perkins had held senior posts in British Steel and then as Head of Human Resources at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). While at PWC she also served for several years as Chair of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS). Arriving with both senior managerial experience and a knowledge of HE, she knew from the start how to achieve a workable compromise between the academic desire to argue to a conclusion (however long it took) and the managerial need to reach a timely decision. As Ron Barnett led the rewriting of the SRHE’s mission statement, Council happily endorsed a series of improvements in how the Society was governed and how its activities were managed; its location, staffing and finances became increasingly secure, as successive Chairs – George Gordon, Yvonne Hillier, Jill Jameson, Chris Pole, Pauline Kneale – would testify. In all these changes Helen Perkins was of course centrally involved, and behind the scenes she put together a superb staff team which, although it remains small, now oversees a range of publications, conferences, workshops and network activities which were unimaginable 20 years ago.
The Institute of Physics decided in 2009 to reclaim its sublet premises, and the Society’s offices moved for two years to Bedford Row, an Open University building, before the move to Collier Street, which for 11 successful years facilitated the burgeoning range of membership activities. The pandemic prompted a rethink on working from home and some retrenchment, with the Society eventually moving to its present offices in All Saints Street, part of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations building.
The annual Conference continued to gain strength, but until 2008 it continued its peripatetic existence, in Edinburgh, Brighton (twice) and an unforgettable experience in Liverpool, where the Adelphi Hotel more than lived up to the reputation forged in an earlier fly-on-the-wall TV documentary. Helen sought a new approach to the Conference and her unrivalled negotiating skills secured an affordable slot at the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, which proved an instant hit and became the venue for every Conference from 2009 to 2019. As the Research & Development Committee took full charge of the event it became possible to expand the Newer Researchers Conference and also accommodate it at Celtic Manor, end-on with the main Research Conference. The pandemic interrupted this sequence, but the staff team led by Helen excelled themselves in creating from scratch a week-long online conference for 2021. This did more than almost any other academic conference to recreate online many of the conference features most valued by Celtic Manor participants, spawning many attempted copycat events by other learned societies.
Reaching new heights
Meanwhile Helen’s negotiating skills were also put to good use in successive new long-term contracts with publishers Taylor & Francis and Wiley, achieving for the Society a level of financial security unimaginable only a few years earlier. The benefits were such that the Society was able to introduce its now established series of annual research grants. Since 2005 SRHE has made 82 Research and Scoping Awards and 35 Newer Researcher Awards, with grants totalling more than £750,000 of direct support for research into higher education.
The range, scope and quality of SRHE’s journals have continued to grow. SRHE News was rethought and relaunched in 2010 as a service to members, and since 2014 has developed an associated blog which is now read by researchers, policymakers and managers in more than 110 countries worldwide. Despite the apparently crowded field of journals covering research into HE, Helen Perkins was a prime mover and innovator in establishing a new journal, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, which has showed that there was indeed a gap in the market for the distinctive opportunities which the new journal offers. Helen would insist we also acknowledge publishers Taylor & Francis and in particular the support and encouragement of Ian White, for many years the Society’s main contact. Appointing new editors for journals and the book series can often be problematic, demanding a balance between the interests of the Society, the publishers and the academic needs of the journal and its editors. Publications Committee is responsible to Council for all such appointments. The Committee’s Chairs, most recently Sue Clegg and Rob Cuthbert, recognise and greatly value Helen’s skill in bringing so many editorial appointments to a successful conclusion.
For so many SRHE members, Helen Perkins and the Society have been inseparable and it will be hard to imagine SRHE without her. But the academic and financial health of the Society have never been better, and the staff team she created but now leaves behind is a strong guarantee that SRHE will continue to develop and prosper. Helen leaves with our thanks, our congratulations and our best wishes for her next steps as she develops a new portfolio of activities to refute any idea of ‘retirement’.
 Images and statistics here are taken with permission from Rob Gresham’s splendid tribute to Helen, in his presentation at the lunch attended by many friends and colleagues following the Council meeting.
Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @RobCuthbert.