Profile: Helen Watson

Helen Watson is Director of Planning and Resource Allocation in the Planning and Resource Allocation Section (PRAS). PRAS’ website is at

Helen Watson

What does your current role entail?

I lead the Planning and Resource Allocation Section, or PRAS, which manages all aspects of strategic planning and resource allocation at corporate level in the University. PRAS undertakes the effective delivery of various essential operations including the development and implementation of internal resource allocation systems, internal and external reporting, and managing relationships with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), including the annual HEFCE funding round and preparation for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) initiative. We provide the Secretariat for the Planning and Resource Allocation Committee (PRAC) and Research Committee and related subcommittees, provide policy advice and support including monitoring the external environment, co-ordinate the annual planning cycle, and support capital planning.

How did you get into this job?

I worked at City University London for nine years before I came to Oxford and before that for four years at Imperial College.

After a degree in music at Oxford, I worked for three years for a music publisher and a couple of contemporary music promoters, both of which did a lot of educational work.  In search of a new challenge, I began to develop an interest in working as higher education administrator.  My first university role was working for the British Postgraduate Medical Federation, then part of the University of London, supporting pre-registration medical training in London and the South East.  This provided a good grounding for when I joined Imperial College’s Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care as Departmental Administrator.  The move to City was a good opportunity to broaden my experience particularly with regard to change management (my first task was to restructure the support for a range of independent Departments into a coherent School administrative service). 

After a number of years and roles including Head of Administration for the School of Health Sciences and Deputy Academic Registrar, I became City's first Director of Planning, holding that job for two years before I came here.

City was very supportive in terms of my personal development.  In addition to enabling me to complete the Masters in Higher and Professional Education with the Institute of Education which I had started at Imperial, the university funded me to join the Leadership Foundation’s Aspiring Registrars’ Programme. This has provided me with a valuable network of colleagues at a similar level in universities across the country, as well as insight into my own development needs.   

What led you to originally apply to work at Oxford?

Initially I was approached by headhunters. I was interested in the job because I thought it would be interesting to apply what I had learnt about planning in the higher education sector to a completely different environment. City was a great place to work, but it is a small university and I wanted the challenge of working within an organisation of Oxford's scale and complexity.

Thinking about your career, what would you like to be doing in the future?

I have been in my current post for just under a year so my immediate 'next' is to continue to get to grips with working in this complex and challenging environment. I am looking forward to working on the University's next Strategic Plan and leading the team responsible for the Research Excellence Framework submission.

In the longer term, I would be interested either in heading up a broader range of functions in a university or continuing to develop my interest in higher education policy and strategy perhaps through working at a national organisation.

What do you like about working here?

Discussions are rarely dull! You meet interesting people with a wide range of views on a daily basis and relationships with colleagues are nearly always warm and constructive. This may sound strange to those who have worked here for a long time, but the transparency of the decision-making processes at Oxford are such that you always feel you know 'what is going on' – this is quite different from a lot of universities where all key decisions are now made by a small executive team. And it's nice being in Oxford after years of working in central London.

What are the challenges of working here?

That very transparency can make it hard to get anything done in a reasonable timescale, and the opportunity for things to be de-railed at any step in a process is considerable.

I have a young family and substantial commute, and the demands of balancing an Oxford workload with their life can be tricky occasionally, although colleagues are very supportive.


Last updated: December 2011