AUA 2021 | A Summary

Each year we develop the AUA Annual Conference to deliver something different, and AUA2021 was certainly a new experience! Being held online everyone involved from delegates, exhibitors, speakers and the AUA Team engaged remotely; and whilst the ad hoc chats in the line for coffee were missed, the conference and networking platform worked seamlessly and enabled plenty of discussion and conversation….even the conference’s traditional quiz!   

Given the events of 2020 there was plenty to reflect on over the three days and in the coming weeks we shall be reporting back in more detail, but for now we asked members of the Board of Trustees to share a summary of the sessions they attended.  

Monday 29 March

Despite all the meetings I’ve attended on Teams, Zoom and Skype over the past twelve months, this was my first online conference – not quite as exciting as rocking up for a “real” conference of course (three cheers for the bar), but an engrossing experience none-the-less, and brilliantly organised by the hard-working AUA Team. 

The opening plenary from Prof Shearer West CBE set the tone for the conference, reminding us that academic and professional staff need each other, and that we have a responsibility to find ways of working together constructively. Without academics there would be no universities, true. But without professional staff, modern universities would be unable to function effectively. Universities today are both cultural communities AND big businesses.  

Universities today are both cultural communities AND big businesses.

At a practical level, Hannah Lowry and Kate Moss (Session 101) explained how the Academic Registry in UCLan facilitated change using the principles of LEAN methodology. Particularly in the context of the pandemic, they emphasised the importance of flexibility, speed of adaptation, understanding the needs of their “customers” and using technology as an enabler – more than a driver – of change. 

Jon Baldwin (JISC) reinforced the importance of leveraging our digital infrastructure in an excellent session on “Learning and Teaching Reimagined” (Session 204) – a reflection on the JISC initiative designed to understand the sector’s response to COVID-19 which recommends that Universities use their strategic and structural planning processes to effect a digital transformation of learning and teaching, seizing the opportunity inherent in necessity. The future balance between investment in physical and virtual infrastructure, at present skewed heavily in favour of bricks-and mortar, may have to change. 

Gerry Webber, AUA Trustee

Tuesday, 30 March

We were lucky to hear an engaging and thought-provoking talk on Radical Partnership from Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students which began with an uncomfortable and challenging outline of some of the student experiences of the past twelve months. These have been unprecedented times and it was inevitable that there would be shortcomings but Larissa outlined how some endemic challenges and inequalities in the UK HE System (marketisation; unequal relationships with students as stakeholders; inaccessible forms of teaching and assessment) exacerbated the impacts.  

If the pandemic is a portal through which we can imagine another world, this was a passionate plea to shape the new.

The NUS are advocating for a new approach to education which is fully funded, lifelong, accessible, and democratised. Larissa called upon university administrators to work with Student Unions, support students’ academic mitigations in response to the pandemic, and advocate for change. If the pandemic is a portal through which we can imagine another world, this was a passionate plea to shape the new. Interesting stuff. 

Gill Sadler and Sharon Harrison-Barker give us insights into their approach to engagement and  its practical application to the University of Hertfordshire’s Review of Student Administration (StAR) programme. This made significant and impactful changes to the University’s administration and was performed at rapid pace: 14 months seems like the blink of an eye to some of us. What made a difference here – aside from the excellent staff they no doubt had working on it – was the deep commitment to stakeholder engagement. By ensuring that the engagement was total and transparent, even to the point of sharing all session feedback (good and bad) the programme made sure that key relationships were built with colleagues and that they were connected and involved. 

It was great to see the achievements of so many colleagues in the ‘Celebrating your successes’ session. I thought Dame Shirley’s words were also a much-needed reminder of the importance that our work holds and, while there may not have been any live applause, I’m sure there were lots of claps and cheers throughout the country.

If the award ceremony inspired you to think about starting your own PgCert journey, you can find out more here.

Finally, some of us were given a demonstration of BoardEffect by their Regional Sales Director, Mark Wilson. BoardEffect is a slick dedicated system for managing and running a governance structure which is customisable and integrated with out applications such as Outlook. Those looking for a one-stop solution to taking some of the challenges out of committee management and board engagement should give it a look. 

Mark Hollingsworth, AUA Trustee and Chair of the Board of Studies | Director of Registry and Academic Affairs, University of Birmingham


As well as Larissa Kennedy’s challenging speech on Radical Partnerships, covered in Mark Hollingsworth’s summary above, we had three other inspiring keynote presentations.

Collaborating to support student mental health during the pandemic | Rosie Tressler OBE, CEO Student Minds

It was a great pleasure to welcome Rosie Tressler, the CEO of Student Minds, to deliver a keynote on “Collaborating to support student mental health during the pandemic” on the Tuesday morning of this year’s virtual AUA Conference. Rosie delivered the AUA Annual Lecture in 2019 so this keynote gave members the chance to hear on the work of Student Minds over the pandemic and also the ongoing development of the Mental Health Charter for the sector. 

There was a vibrant discussion around returning to campus, the differing financial circumstances for many students, the importance for many of part-time work and issues around housing – all of which could have an impact on mental health. We also talked around how the pandemic had exacerbated or accelerated existing challenges and inequalities but had also led to many improvements in the services offered; with universities responding swiftly to new ways of working and a very different approach, which also presented new challenges for staff.

Chris Ince, AUA Vice Chair | Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer, University of Hull

Old ways won’t open new doors: why should universities major in social mobility? | Anne Marie Canning MBE, CEO The Brilliant Club

Anne-Marie Canning’s keynote presentation on social mobility drew a large audience keen to hear how HE could play a role in improving life chances, and they were rewarded with an inspiring, thoughtful session that will have galvanised many to continue to press for real change in their institutions. Informative and challenging in equal measure, Anne-Marie shared statistical data and real life stories, including her own, to bring the subject to life and demonstrate clearly why it matters to us all.

By highlighting new research on social mobility both in the UK and the US, Anne-Marie described the ‘Lost Einsteins’ and the social and economic consequences of exclusion from educational opportunity both for individuals and the wider community. This included regional inequalities in the UK as well as the positive outcomes for societies where higher social mobility leads to higher levels of trust in society and institutions in general. She called for a ‘whole institution’ approach that goes beyond the Widening Participation Team and draws on a university’s education, research and institutional power to actively address issues of social inequality. By demonstrating institutional commitment to tackling inequality, such as through paying the living wage to all staff, universities can capitalise on their position and authority to contribute positively to social mobility in their communities.

Thea Gibbs, AUA Trustee | Director of Operations, UCL Faculty of Laws

People, place and purpose: The Glasgow partnership story | Rachel Sandison, Vice Principal, External Relations, University of Glasgow

My overall take home message from the AUA’s 2021 Conference was a reminder of how privileged we are all to be a part of such a varied and complex sector. Rachel Sandison’s keynote speech specifically highlighted this through the range of partnerships that the University of Glasgow has stretching from those close to home in Glasgow to those in various places around the world. Our own institutions will each have their own range of partnerships which add to the variety and complexity of everything that we do.

I was particularly struck by the absolutely key role that the University of Glasgow is playing in the development of the city through being an anchor institution. This has led to a variety of diverse interactions between the University and the city. Whether these be tackling issues of inequality, economic growth or environmental concern they illustrate how universities can make a significant contribution to their local communities. I’ll certainly be bearing this in mind in the work that I do in the sector for AUA Consulting.

Steve Smith, AUA Trustee | AUA Consultant

Wednesday, 31 March

“This house believes the Current regulatory regime has been shown to be totally unfit for purpose in a time of crisis”

We started the day with the always enjoyable panel debate session, with a great line up of speakers debating the motion “This house believes the Current regulatory regime has been shown to be totally unfit for purpose in a time of crisis”, dynamically chaired by the creator of Registrarism –  Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottingham.

But before the speakers got underway, the obligatory live audience poll via Slido revealed the perhaps unsurprising result that nearly 2/3rds of the audience were in agreement with the motion at the outset.

For the motion

Speaking For the motion, Smita Jamdar, Education Partner at Shakespeare Martineau, whilst noting that she was not criticising OfS staff per se, as recognised that they had been working hard to deliver in a difficult year, focused on three main reasons for her stand:

1: The foundation of OFS was based on the regulation of a putative market, which hasn’t always been borne out by either the data from UCAS cycles or student surveys, and was not customised towards the stability & support for the vital national asset that is the UK’s Higher Education sector.

2: The focus of the OfS serves neither the interests of the sector or of students – since the nature of their interventions can be obscure, or unworkable in practice (Their directives around expected certainty relating to consumer protection law being a case in point).

3: The instincts of OfS revealed by actions to date suggest a draconian regulatory approach which we might question in who’s interest it really serves, and she reminded us of the Maya Angelou quote “whenever someone shows you who they really are, believe them the first time”. 

I subsequently wondered how many others had first heard Michael Barber speak that day back in 2018 when he told Radio 4 and Wonkfest that the regulator would not bail out institutions in difficulty.

John Hogan, Registrar at Newcastle University weighed in, noting that the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the current regime, and mentioned three design failures with the regulation:

1: It fails to understand the spirit of co-operation that exists within the Higher Education landscape, and the need to treat the system holistically.  By generating invented conflict it helps no-one, neither student, institution, or government. And the removal of discretionary funding means that this sector body is no longer is able to support institutions to achieve through partnership, but takes a combative stance that makes it seem distant and unhelpful in terms of sector ambitions and interests.

2: The new registration process is cumbersome and has had the opposite effect of the lifting of the administration burden promised in the rhetoric that emerged at the outset.  In OfS’s own assessment of the registration process in the first year; it registered only 387 providers from over 500 applications, celebrated the issuing of over 1000 enforcement regulations on these providers, and apparently 72% of applications were submitted incomplete. John argued that a design principle of good regulation is that it enables willing providers to easily comply, and these large exceptions are a sign of the structure of the system being unfit for purpose.

3: The lack of clarity between the remit of the Department of Education & the OfS, the recent contradictory statements and plans around Free speech & admissions reform being the most recent examples, mean that the statutes that created the OfS are not sufficiently clear to enable it to be effective as a body (although who hasn’t suffered with that grey and blurry dividing line between the strategic, and the operational).

Against the motion

Speaking Against the motion: Aaron Porter, Associate Director (Governance) at Advance HE, suggested that there had been important and significant changes to the regime during the past year which were positive– flexes or reductions to the data burden, and relaxation of return requirements.  So the OfS was responsive in nature, and whilst not perfect, not totally unfit.

Aaron also reflected on work he’d completed with Governing bodies on self-assessments in relation to regulatory requirements, all of whom determined themselves to be “able to comply”, and he seemed to infer from this capability some sort of net promoter score from the sector, whilst also hinting that the sector should not reveal itself to be uncapable or unwilling of being regulated.

Last up was Jackie Njoroge, Director of Strategy at the University of Salford, who took a slightly more emotive overview of the transition, and told us that the biggest challenge for the OfS is that Universities keep looking at them with Hefce in our hearts. And we need to accept the divorce that’s been forced on us and move on with this new relationship.

She then brought us back to statistics, and said if we look at measures of success (playfully recommending the regulatory framework as a cure for insomnia) suggested that the fact participation gaps are narrowing, should lead us to infer that the OfS is having positive impact, and therefore the new regime is delivering.

Obviously this could well be correlation as opposed to causation, and I’d like to know how the sector data changes align with A&P plans at provider level. Later one of the speakers made the point that what universities have done during Pandemic has been remarkable, demonstrating amazing capacity to change, but that this has been despite, not because of, the OfS regime, and argued no aspect of the regulation has helped institutions respond better during this last year.  I was later surprised to discover that of the seven efficiency and effectiveness performance measures the OfS had selected with which to assess its own performance as a regulatory body, no data is presented at this time against any metric, their website just containing the message “We have paused some activity due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We hope to specify this measure soon”. 

Later one of the speakers made the point that what universities have done during Pandemic has been remarkable, demonstrating amazing capacity to change, but that this has been despite, not because of, the OfS regime, and argued no aspect of the regulation has helped institutions respond better during this last year.

One question pondered whether it was philosophical resistance to the market concept, rather than the letter of the regulation in itself that drove hostility towards the current organ, which seemed to draw sympathy from some members of the panel.  Although my frustration with the market angle is the focus by so much coverage around the £9250 fee, as though that had really changed things, when there has never really been any price differential at home undergraduate level, and if there is any ‘purchase’ in the admissions process, it is actually all about the value of anticipated academic outcomes on entry, with the decision coming first from the institution, rather than the applicant / customer. You ‘spend’ your tariff on a location through a complex decision making process involving prestige, assumption, promise and impulse, but can only ever do so if you receive an offer.  I do sometimes wonder if the OfS era is some kind of retribution for the non-differentiation on sticker price that occurred back in 2012, much to the disappointment of the Whitehall mandarins.

A question about whether we might look abroad for inspiration about how to do it better didn’t really flag up any obvious role models, with Australia’s TEQSA mentioned as being far more prescriptive with its quinquennial reviews sounding a little bit AC-12, although there were positive mentions of the bodies in the devolved nations as taking an approach which maintains a place for healthy collaboration, and the approach of the Financial Services Sandbox being an example of something that strikes the right balance between consumer protection and support for innovation.

By the end of the session the slido poll was back, and the affirmative % had climbed further to 72%, so if the OfS does ever get round to their stakeholder perception survey, they may not be promoting it too enthusiastically to this audience!

John Baker, AUA Trustee | Financial Business Partner, London South Bank University


For session 5, I attended the double session on collaboration learning processes.  I was particularly struck by the point made in relation to PgCert study by colleagues from the University of Oxford and University of Warwick that Independent learning is NOT working in isolation, and inspired by their creative advice on mentoring and the benefits of targeted networking.  The second part of the session contained a Mistake Framework created by colleagues from the University of Bath which was a really helpful way of framing consideration of blame culture, whilst giving helpful guidance when the inevitable ‘less favourable outcomes’ situation presents itself from time to time.

And in Session 6 the energetic Michael Monaghan of Liverpool John Moores University led a lighthearted and enjoyable wrap up session, that included elements of not one, not two, but three different television gameshows in a fun quiz format that gave us the opportunity to make one last use of the breakout rooms on Zoom to interact with colleagues and reflect on our learning and development over the past 3 days. I was struck by a colleague’s comment about how the interaction with other attendees via the chat function during sessions has been a useful example of how there are some benefits to online delivery that are not available face to face (when talking during a presentation can bring black looks!) The word cloud generated by session attendees made me feel proud as a Trustee of the Association, both of our professional community and everyone’s commitment to development, and how well the AUA Office team pulled the conference together so successfully in such a different format from prior years.

As ever I left the conference enthused with new ideas, new contacts, and a revitalised sense of passion and enthusiasm for the University Sector.

John Baker, AUA Trustee | Finance Business Partner, London South Bank University

AUA Awards

The AUA would not be the thriving association it is without the hard work and dedication of our members. Every year, it brings us great pride to be able to recognise the hard work of our members and networks. With this, we are delighted to share our 2021 Annual Award winners as nominated by you, our AUA family!

Network of the year

This year, the winner is the North Wales and North West geographic network!

The panel was impressed by the network’s creative development of their Regional Accreditation Peer-Learning Groups. They described the groups as an interesting initiative which provide the network with new development opportunities. Moving their annual regional conference online, along with regular contact and support of regional members was also praised.

Also shortlisted for the award were the International Higher Education themed network and the Managing Change themed network.

Member of the year

This year, this has been awarded to Emma Flight, University of Roehampton!

The panel acknowledged evidence of Emma’s initiative and commitment to embedding AUA competencies and values institutionally. She has engaged a wide-range of staff in AUA activity, along with instigating an AUA working group and a professional development programme. The panel were impressed by how these two initiatives incorporated and embedded the AUA professional behaviours. In addition, work was done in regards to growing branch membership.

Also shortlisted for this award were Dan de Sousa, Brunel University London and Kate Moss, University of Central Lancashire.

Lifetime achievement award

The lifetime achievement award is our chance to say a big thank you to a longstanding member whose sustained and significant contribution to the development and leadership of the AUA has helped advance professionalism and promoted excellence across the HE sector.

This year, we are delighted to present this award to Dr Bruce Nelson, University of Edinburgh.

Bruce has been a member of the AUA for over 30 years. During that time he has given a significant amount of his time and expertise to the AUA including as a member of the Executive Committee 2003-11, Vice-Chair and Chair-elect 2005-06, Chair for 2006-08, and Treasurer 2010-11.

His impact in Higher Education is extensive, acting as a member of the AUT Committee, non-executive board member for the Student Awards Agency Scotland and Member of the Court of the University of the Highlands and Islands. Along with taking part in international reviews and consultancy projects.

Bruce has had a highly successful career in the University of Edinburgh. Starting as an Administrative Assistant in Registry & Planning in 1984, he eventually became Academic Registrar and Deputy Secretary before progressing to his current role of College Registrar in Science and Engineering.

His impact during this time has been on more than just his own career though. As an advocate of the AUA and firm believer in taking control of your own career, Bruce has been dedicated in nurturing and supporting staff and sharing his own journey and experience. Many colleagues are thankful to Bruce for his encouragement and belief that has and continues to allow them to grow their own careers in higher education.

Bruce will retire at the end of May 2021 and we would like to take the opportunity to thank him with this award for all that he has done during his career.

Clare Vallance, University of Edinburgh

PgCert Graduation

It wasn’t the usual ceremony for the graduates of our AUA PgCert in Higher Education Administration, Management and Leadership, but that didn’t stop us recognising their fantastic achievements. Congratulations to…

Debra Budworth, Keele University | Steph Clark, University of Sussex | Victoria Ann Jeffs, Cranfield University | Amanda Weston, Lancaster University | Katerina Emmanouilidou, Royal Agricultural University | Jacqueline M Preston, University of Kent | Melanie Sawers, Nuffield College, University of Oxford | Samantha Vinall, Harper Adams University | Jackie Clifton, Lancaster University | Emma Collins, University of Northampton | Angela Craggs, Newcastle University | Heidi Elliott, University of Central Lancashire | Nikki Elliott, Brunel University London | Emma Forrest, University of Edinburgh | Charlotte French, University of the Arts London | Kelly Gale, Cardiff University | Laura Goodhand, Advance HE | Clair Jenkins, Cardiff University | Sarah Lewis, De Montford University | Sarah Madden, Coventry University | Zaib McNeilly, University of Aberdeen | Erin Miskell, University of the Arts London | Nicola Morgan, Birkbeck, University of London | Sarah Pryor, Cardiff University | Madelaine Stewart, University of Sheffield | Abigail Stickland, University of Bristol | Chrissy Aresti, University of Suffolk | Wendy Barden, University of Brighton | Chris Buckland, University of Glasgow | Katy Dale, Cardiff University | Andrew Davies, Cardiff University | Julie Dixon, University of Aberdeen | Lieselotte Harrison, University of Leicester | Mike Hawes, Bournemouth University | Mirjam Hermann, Oxford Brookes University | Francesca Jennings, University of Warwick | Rebecca Lloyd, Cardiff University | Matthew MacLachlan, University of Surrey | Laura Neasmith, University of Sheffield | Sam Offiler, University of Nottingham | Gemma Parker, University of Leicester | Laura Parsons, Cardiff University | Danielle Russo, St George’s, University of London | Orla Sheehan Pundyke, University College of Estate Management | Robyn Skelton, The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology | Richard Townend, The Open University | Sharon Weekley, University of East Anglia | Britt Westerberg Mattu, Coventry University | Kelli Wolfe, University of Roehampton

Accredited members and Fellows

This year we are celebrating the efforts of 19 members who have become accredited members and 14 members who are now AUA Fellows. For colleagues to have completed their applications in a year of uncertainty and considerable challenge, demonstrates true commitment to their development and professional practice. Congratulations to…

Accredited members

Jamie Brown, LJMU | Paula Burchell, LJMU | Margaret Campbell, LJMU | Mel Campbell, LJMU | Craig Clarke, LJMU | Peter Cooper, ForMission | Siobhan Dumphy, University of Kent | Rockhill Tembi Focho, University of Bath | Michael Fuller, University of Oxford | Sarah Gare, LJMU | Freddie Gent, University of Manchester | Joan Graham, LJMU | Andrew Heyes, LJMU | Mikaela Hoang, University of Roehampton | Kimberley Larkin, LJMU | Sarah Lightfoot, LJMU | Sichen Liu, University of Oxford | Sam Randles, LJMU | Alison Williams, LJMU


Caroline Arnold, LJMU | David Duell, University of Birmingham | Eleanor Moore, Leeds Conservatoire | Daniel Ramsay, University of Gloucestershire | Andrew Eagleton, University of Bath | Josh Gulrajani, Bath Spa University | Jo Hatt, University of Bath | Emma Flight, University of Roehampton | Greg Sheridan, University of the West of the Scotland | Tess Thomas, University of Bath | Hamish Walker, Robert Gordon University