Inaugural AHEP Annual Conference 2024 Connecting, Reflecting and Reinvigorating

Jake Harding (He/Him) MAHEP MSci PGCE, Student Enrichment Manager, Manchester Metropolitan University

On Sunday 24th March, I was driving down the M6 towards the Inaugural AHEP Annual Conference 2024 at the University of Warwick with a mounting sense of dread and then terror… as a first-time delegate, what if I could not find anyone who would want to talk to me? What if I did not feel part of the community at my first in-person association event and spent the whole 3 days alone in my accommodation in between working sessions? Maybe I should just turn back now…


After checking in to the on-campus conference accommodation and registration desk, I tentatively made my way over to the welcome session to meet my conference buddy. I had signed up to the buddy scheme for first-time/lone delegates when booking as I knew that the idea of initially cold call networking would illicit my feelings of foreboding on the day… and I was glad I had. My buddy, who had reached out to me before conference, waved to me across the room when I arrived, and I instantly felt welcome.

After a brief chat, introduction to some other first-time/lone buddies and some (relatively) non-cringeworthy ice breakers, I had gone from a network of zero to a table full in under an hour. This scheme and session were invaluable in genuinely making me feel part of my professional community and meant that I could now look forward to confidently attending the social events each evening, secure in the knowledge that I would already have some points of contact to look out for who, in turn, would connect me to an ever wider professional network.


The 2 packed days of conference sessions that followed included: keynote addresses from Matt Western MP, Shadow Minister (Education), outlining the Labour Vision for Higher Education, as well as Prof. Rajani Naidoo, Vice-President (Community & Inclusion), University of Bath, outlining the Contribution of Higher Education to the Common Good; plenaries in conversation with Jisc discussing AI in HE, as well as with Prof. Damien Page, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Buckinghamshire New University, discussing working class leaders in HE; panels debating Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education Professional Services – Attracting and Retaining, as well as asking is it time to stop elevating higher education and think tertiary? After all that, the regular refreshment breaks were well needed times set aside to contemplate, discuss and reflect with your professional network. This in between time was often where practicable actions were formulated to take away and back to our own settings.

There is not space to talk about all the additional optional working sessions that were available for delegates to dive into, delivered by members of our own professional community, but I want to mention 2 reflections in particular. Firstly, it was a pleasure and privilege to be able to witness the AHEP Awards ceremony take centre stage and celebrate the successes of such well deserving colleagues across our community. Secondly, I was invited to deliver a working session myself, only feeling able to do so thanks to the encouragement and support of the AHEP team and their accessible and personable approach.


On Tuesday 26th March, I was driving up the M6 towards home (and my own bed) with a mounting sense of reinvigoration and then excitement… even as a first-time delegate, I had found colleagues and new friends who wanted to keep in touch with me and share problems and solutions, I genuinely felt part of my professional community and spent the whole 3 days formulating practicable actions in between working sessions. I now could not wait to get back home (go straight to sleep) and start putting theory into practice the very next day for the benefit of our wider colleagues and students…

In summary, having attended a number of conferences in my previous career, this experience was without doubt the best, most diverse, inclusive, relevant, supportive, accessible and welcoming conference I have ever attended, especially as a first-time delegate and presenter, and I hope that I have conveyed that in this article. On that note, I would like to end with some top tips that I took away from this experience and I believe helped me to make the most of both the content and networking opportunities on offer, which I hope you find of benefit:

  • If you are a first-time/lone delegate, take part in a buddy scheme or use the delegate list to reach out to colleagues that you feel you align with in advance.
  • Similarly, download and use the conference app, if there is one, to connect with colleagues and ask/answer quick questions throughout.
  • Just because you are a first-time delegate/presenter, do not let that stop you from putting in a working session proposal to share some good practice with your community.
  • Attend all the social and networking events if you can, they can both be scary words sometimes, but bear in mind that many people will probably be feeling the same but have all taken the time out of work to specifically talk to you as their peers.
  • If in doubt, attend all the additional optional working sessions anyway as sometimes the title does not do justice to just how relevant the content may be for your role.
  • Be present in the refreshment and in between times, these often prove to be the most invaluable moments to reflect on the conference content with colleagues so turn off your work notifications if you can.

See you at conference next time!

Check out other articles from AHEP