It is now ten years ago since I took the plunge and launched my own freelance business – De la Cour Communications – with a vague plan to do my bit to encourage student mobility, particularly between the United Kingdom and Europe.

That was back in the days before anyone had heard the term ‘Brexit’ or really believed Britain would quit the European Union or understood a coronavirus. It was also before I found out I had bowel cancer in 2014

Looking back to the beginning of 2012 and those first steps as my own boss after a lifetime working full-time in university communications and before that as a news journalist in the North East of England, what lessons did I learn?

Don’t fear the unknown 

First, of course, it is a big wrench giving up the comparative safety of big unionised working environments, but sometimes you need change and a fresh challenge!

Second, don’t fear the unknown and go with your gut feeling. 

And third, weigh up the situation you are in. I was increasingly uncomfortable defending the near trebling of tuition fees introduced in English universities and by the marketisation of higher education, particularly the impact of the fee increases on part-time courses and mature students.

Focusing on UK-European university relations as a freelance

I joined Teesside because I was attracted by its non-elitist alternative approach to the posh universities, but the new financial regime in 2011 meant studying part-time or as a mature was moving out of reach for the kind of working class students that Teesside University was great at supporting and had built much of its reputation on.

The Middlesbrough-based university lost over half its students – the part-timers, those working while studying or bringing up a family – in a matter of a few years after the massive tuition fees hike. This was despite winning the Times Higher Education University of the Year Award in 2009, largely for its work in employer engagement.

I also had a different approach to media relations to a new line manager who believed in a more aggressive and commercial marketing approach.

And so, I jumped while I was in a stronger position and after a few months of unemployment and attending some day sessions on the implications of setting up your own business, several provided by my old university, I took the plunge as an entrepreneur and combined consultancy work with a return to my own craft of journalism.

Use your network

A Swedish university director of communications, Lars Holberg, who had worked with me on the European universities’ PR network, EUPRIO, was looking for advice on attracting more English-speaking students to Linköping after number fell after a big fees hike for International students.

He invited me over to meet Eva Lena Rodriguez and the international student recruitment team in temperatures of minus 17 degree in February 2012. That led to my first contract as a rather novice consultant and I also interviewed an English professor based there and the few UK students studying on their master’s degrees for Linköping’s publicity.

The role was a good fit, but just like a university researcher you have to think of your next job (grant) while finishing off the current project as a freelancer. 

Luckily, a series of short-term projects did come in from UK and European organisations, but it was the Swedish experience that opened my eyes to the marketing challenge of boosting the number of British students prepared to take the plunge and study abroad.

When I started out on my own I had the idea of some kind of website to help students find their best fit studying abroad, but the technology and capital required was beyond my scope. I also came across people like the young Studyportals founder Edwin van Rest who were already ahead of that game.

Nic in James Cook Hospital radiotherapy department in 2015

Health set-backs

I also discovered that as you get older your health needs protecting and my plans were knocked off course, first when I had my gall-bladder removed in 2012 and then when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2014.

Luckily, the cancer was caught early enough for treatment, but for a year-and-a-half I went through radiotherapy, chemotherapy and two operations and couldn’t travel.

Fortunately, I had an office at home and journalistic colleagues like Sean Coughlan at BBC Education News online, Karen MacGregor and Brendan O’Malley of University World News and Sara Custer, of PIE News and Times Higher Education, gave me freelance journalistic work while I was stuck at home.

I was also able to continue providing news and blogs to EUPRIO thanks to then president Christine Legrand and executive members like Paola Claudia Scioli even though I couldn’t get to its conferences and events in Italy and Germany.

Good preparation for pandemic lockdowns

Working through my cancer lockdowns turned out to be excellent preparation for the kind of online working we’ve all had to endure for the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I even won the CIPR Outstanding Higher Journalism Award in 2015 for a piece for the BBC on the brain drain from Lithuania after it joined the EU, but sadly couldn’t make the ceremony as I was undergoing chemotherapy.

So, what tips can I pass on to anyone striking out with their own business at a time when some people are dreaming of early retirement?

Well, you need to have a plan, but also be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. And rely on your network to give you openings.

Also think outside the box and always consider your clients’ needs.

That’s ranged from a producing a 15,000-word report explaining trends and challenges in French higher education in three days for an Indian-based consultancy to spending a week in Oslo interviewing European Union funded Norwegian researchers for Ingvild Straume and her external relations department at Oslo Metropolitan University and rewriting and revamping research publicity in English for Petra Kopplova and the PR team at Charles University, Prague.

Go outside your comfort zone

You can help the process by being open to learning new skills and be brave and tackle projects outside your comfort zone.

I never thought I would regularly report on higher education in Africa and other developing regions or the challenges of branch campuses in China for University World News, but that was a mainstay of my work during the pandemic.

Another tip is don’t be afraid to invest in the best technology you can afford. I moved to Mac from Microsoft worlds when I left Teesside Uni and using different and better technology was a great move. Also sign-up for things like AppleCare to give yourself extra technical support. Remember you can’t just ring the IT department for help. You are the IT department as well as cost-control and everything else.

And if you are ever overwhelmed with work, as I was while undertaking projects for Norwegian and Czech universities as well as for my regular clients after my recovery from cancer treatment, have a good pool of reliable freelancers you can call upon. 

Being freelance or self-employed means your work life will go from feast to famine in no-time, so make the best of busy times but don’t kill yourself in the process.

  • Main featured image shows Nic Mitchell working at EUPRIO’s 2018 conference in Sevilla, Spain