The AUA is delighted to announce the appointment of our new Honorary President, Keith Zimmerman.

Keith is a board-level executive with 28 years’ experience in higher education – recently appointed as the new Executive Director for Transformation of Education and Student Outcomes at King’s College London, to start in March 2023, and currently Chief Operating Officer at the University of Bath.

During his career he has served as Group Chief Operating Officer for the Open University; Director of Student Administration and Services at the University of Oxford; Academic Registrar at the University of Exeter; and Managing Partner and Head of Research Leadership at academic and scientific recruiters Perrett Laver.

Keith has extensive stakeholder management skills developed through the advocacy and delivery of organisational change and large-scale transformation programmes in high-profile and politically-charged settings.

He has also delivered a diverse range of customer and corporate services and led projects and programmes in large, complex, and highly regulated organisations.

We caught up with Keith to find out more and hear his thoughts on the current state of the sector, the future of higher education and his vision for the AUA.

Tell us about your background in higher education.

I’ve worked in university administration for nearly 30 years. In the first half of my career this was mostly in what I would describe as academic administrative roles, and then I moved into more executive leadership roles.

I started as a department administrator – in fact, I was one of the first department administrators in the University of Exeter back in the mid-90s. I still consider that to be a formative experience. I was working in partnership with academics and finding out how administrators can support exam boards, business planning, admissions, and so on, and really ensure that academics can rely on that kind of work being done well by others rather than having to undertake it themselves, so they can focus on teaching and research. 

I used to go regularly to AUA meetings back in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s. I was always quite a shy networker, but I really enjoyed meeting people who I then “grew up” with through the sector. I’m still shy, but I think it’s really important and encouraging to learn from one another in these ways.

What are the major changes you’ve seen in higher education over your career?

I feel like I’ve been on a ride that the sector has been on; towards research intensity, towards much more institutional differentiation, and towards huge growth in the sector.

The big trends have been towards research intensity, much more institutional differentiation, and huge growth of the sector as a whole.

The Dearing Report in 1997 was not long after the start of my own journey in higher education, and I’ve watched the sector grow tremendously under Dearing and then under the Blair government. We have seen a massive expansion of participation in higher education and ensured the UK’s research continues to be amongst the best in the world.

Since then, I have watched with some dismay as some of those successes have become harder to pursue as the unit of resource has been deflated and universities have become more politically controversial, or rather have been caught up more in political controversies. 

I think the pandemic has been a really important moment for the sector – in many good ways. We all came together across teams of academics and a huge, even wider, set of professionals, all working together. I think this was a moment when the whole team, academics and all professional staff, showed the strength in our diversity. Our students needed us more than ever, and I think, certainly at Bath but also across the sector, we successfully supported hundreds of thousands of students living in the small ‘towns’ that our universities represent. In doing so, we learned that we have capacities and capabilities that we didn’t know we had. 

We didn’t think our institutions could move quickly, but they did. We thought we were always going to be plagued by this ‘caste system’ between academics and administrators, but that fell away in that period as well. Far from putting university life on hold, the crisis became a catalyst for progress. It gives me great hope for the future.

Tell us more about how you see the future for higher education professionals, and for AUA.

My ambition, for HE administrators and for my period with the AUA in the next couple of years, is to really capitalise on the progress we made in the pandemic. I hope that we can rearticulate a common core to the profession of university administration, and use that as a way of refreshing the idea of what it is to be a higher education professional, and to work in a much more cohesive partnership across the university.

We have all become atomised over the last 20 years or so into HR professionals, finance professionals, student services, and so on – but the AUA should be, and I think can be, the place where those different professionals come together to identify what they have in common and build on that. Most people who are in those specialist roles consider themselves to be working in a university before they consider themselves to be part of X profession. They are driven by facilitating the noble missions of teaching and research: activities that change lives and, at their best, change the world. I think the AUA is a place where we can revalidate that identify, and give people a refreshed sense of purpose. 

Towards the end of my tenure perhaps, I’d like to bottle this up and use it in some way to help the rebuilding of the higher education sector in Ukraine. In a couple of years’ time, when it becomes relevant, I would like to see the AUA getting behind the twinning arrangements that we’ve seen between universities, and working with those truly inspiring professionals in the Ukraine HE system who are teaching, examining and supporting their students right now through conditions that are unimaginable to us. I find that motivating and think it’s something that would make those of us in UK higher education administration feel we have much to offer not only to our own institutions, but to the rest of the world.

Keith will be speaking at the AUA’s 25th Annual Lecture, on 17 November.
To find out more and book your place, click here.