AUA Study Tour 2017: Live Blog

An unlikely invasion...

An unlikely invasion…

On Sunday 11 June neutral Switzerland faced an unlikely invasion of fearless university administrators. Braving the “flexible” timetables of diverse low cost airlines, nine AUA members descend on Zürich, intent on extracting all manner of knowledge and information out of their local counterparts. A full report of what we learn will follow; in the meantime, you can follow our exploits over the course of the week via this blog. We’ve a full programme that takes on Germany too. Here’s the “before” picture. Will we look as bushy-tailed by Friday?!

Heather Moyes, Cardiff University

Finalising plans of invading Switzerland’s HE sector…

Day 1: Switzerland and the University of Bern

A different #TourDeSuisse….

Welcome to our first full day here on the #AUAswitzgerm blog. If you are looking for us on Twitter we are not to be confused with #TourDeSuisse which is a rather momentous cycling race taking place at the same time we are here. We have not spotted too many bikes yet, just lots of large blue balloon and a shortage of places to stay for less than £600! We are, therefore, staying in Zurich where the cyclists are not visiting, which is a real treat for us as the old city is beautiful (a momentous climb up the tower in the Gross Munster had views that literally took my breath away).

Our visit formally commenced this morning with the first scheduled visit to Swiss Universities, the equivalent of our UUK (though they are still in their infancy at only two years old – good luck guys, keep going!). It was a wonderful welcome both from the people and their air conditioned offices which were a blessing given the glorious weather over here which is giving us Brits a good old roasting. We have all been surprised at the extent to which the educational structures in Switzerland vary from ours in the UK. From multiple Ministers for Education in the different “Cantons” to the greater influence and appreciation of vocational (professional) education. There is also an entitlement to university admission for those completing secondary education which would see vast swathes of UK admissions officers out on the streets and the concept of marketization and competition of education virtually irrelevant.



Beautiful Zurich

With colleagues from Swiss Universities

It has been an eye opener indeed, as well as the glorious architecture and landscapes with which this country is blessed. Oh, and air conditioned double decker trains which have seats even in the height of rush hour. Wish you were here? We are delighted that we are…

Lou Sumner from University of Oxford

Visit to University of Bern

Sometimes the warmth and openness of colleagues in institutions we visit amazes us, reaffirms why we work in our sector and through discussing differences in approach, style and the landscape we work in, it opens our eyes to a different way of working.  This is what we found at Bern with eloquent and engaged staff developing new approaches to internationalisation following immigration rules amendments in response to a referendum.  Oddly familiar?

Main Building at the University of Bern

A great day topped off by the delegate from Oxford’s insistence on an evening oompah experience.

Tomorrow sees us journey to Basel and then onwards towards Munich to start the German leg of our journey. 

Alastair Rodgers from University of Birmingham

Day 2: A warm welcome at University of Basel

A warm welcome at University of Basel

The sun has continued to shine on us in Switzerland. Those of us with fair skins have been reaching for the sun lotion and seeking the shade.

Another warm welcome was given to us on Tuesday, this time from the University of Basel.  We learned about the approach they are taking to quality and how they are trying to develop a ‘culture’ of quality rather than just creating quality assurance processes. 

It was encouraging to hear that they have managed to win hearts and minds in the academic community by engaging in meaningful discussion on good practice. 

The GRACE graduate centre is working to provide effective support for graduates through it’s training programme.  Demand for the training courses is outstripping supply at present.  It was also fascinating to hear about how an extensive programme of workshops and focus groups fed into the design of learning spaces.  We were shown photos of rooms given to students for them to design and use as they wish. A very interesting contrast between the room created by the theology students and the IT students. 

The old town of Basel looked wonderful in the sunshine.  We enjoyed eating our lunch in the shadow of the town hall and manged a stroll through the beautiful streets before catching a train to Munich. 

Liz Hudswell from Southampton Solent University

Why Study Tours matter

Some mid-point reflections: why study tours matter

An early start on day four of the study tour: I’m writing this on the 07:16 InterCity Express from Munich in Bavaria to Jena, in the old East Germany. We’ve become aficionados of continental rail travel this week and this  train is particularly comfortable, allowing rare time to reflect on how valuable the experience has been so far.

We started our trip with some clear themes to explore: Brexit and the future of international partnerships (of course!); the impact of the big data revolution on university strategic planning; the role of the student voice in driving innovations in learning, teaching and study spaces; regional divergence and convergence in HE systems and support for postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. We’ve have some absolutely fascinating discussions in these areas with exceptionally engaging colleagues, who have given generously of their time (and of their Kaffee und Kuchen!) and are really helping us to understand what’s different and similar about HE in our respective systems. But some unexpected additional themes are starting to stand out: the huge impact of marketisation on the way HEIs in Britain work; the capacity of universities here to strive for excellence without the need for constant reporting, the open mindset that living in close proximity to so many different countries fosters.  

Some of the questions we’ve asked our colleagues over the past three days have been as interesting to them as their answers have been to us, which has been revealing in itself. If one of the main benefits of engaging with the AUA back home is realising just how many ways there are to skin the proverbial cat within the UK context, this study tour is that times a thousand. So many of the things we’d taken for granted as necessary features of all HE systems turn out to be choices, whether imposed by government or created by sectors themselves.  

Imagine the combined brainpower of this lot!

The value of being part of a study tour group is that you don’t need to compute all this alone. It’s a full-on schedule and brains get tired: thinking as a team is definitely the way to go. So, onwards to Jena and thence to Berlin. This evening we’re having dinner with members of the Berlin area regional chapter of our sister organisation, the Netzwerk fuer Wissenschaftsmanagement. Time for a nap now, perhaps? Don’t want to doze off in my Nudel-Suppe!

Heather Moyes, Cardiff University


Day 3: Technical University of Munich

Technical University of Munich

Day three of the #AUAswitzgerm blog (is it really only day three?!) saw us stay in one city for the whole day, which was wonderful following all the travel we’ve done so far! We visited the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and were welcomed by their School of Management, who treated us like VIPS and had put together a full day of presentations and activities together for us starting with a fab breakfast of pretzels, coffee and fruit.

The German system was slightly less different to the UK system than in Switzerland, but there is a key difference, the lack of fees for all students, including for international students. Students pay just €120 per semester as an admin fee.

Brutalist architecture at TUM Management School

Presentations by different members of staff were about the structure of their University, their school, leadership in academia, as well as telling us more about how their PhDs are structured. It was all really informative, but a lot to take in and they patiently answered all of our questions. Then they had some of their own about Brexit, and we did our best to give them some answers other than just shrugging and saying “we don’t know”!

TUM’s oldest lecture theatre

After the morning of presentations, which was really like a mini conference arranged just for us, they said it was time for lunch and we set off thinking we’d be going to the TUM’s cafeteria. Instead they took us to lovely restaurant, down the road, to sample some traditionally Bavarian food. The food was delicious, but really filling, so we were glad that the afternoon was out of the classroom, starting first with a campus tour, their buildings are built in the Brutalist style and were pretty interesting to look at and we took lots of photos. Then it was off to their science and technology campus to see their Makerspace, which they are very proud of, with good reason, as the next installment of the blog will explain!

Alex Morgan from Newcastle University


UnternehmerTUM: MakerSpace – Die Prototypen Werkstatt

Into Day 3 of the AUA excursion and we are taking the German HE Sector by storm! The weather has only got better (if that’s possible) and our list of beautiful cities visited longer. Munich offers such a vast array of beauty, culture, music and food (the Schnitzel is out of this world), and our hosts at the Technische Universität München certainly delivered. 

We enjoyed a wide and varied agenda discussing all things leadership, research and strategy, as well as extensive tours of the Munich central campus and the Garching campus just outside of the centre (and near the Allianz stadium!). 


The cherry on top was our fully loaded tour of the revered MakerSpace. A wonderful creation located within the Entrepreneurship Centre at TUM sees creators, thinkers, designers and innovators come together to bring their ideas into the real. With over 90% of materials you could possibly need, all the toys and whistles to craft, mould, create and refine, a simple membership model and training by the friendliest and funniest staff will see you innovating before you’ve hung your coat up.

House rules at MakerSpace

The team were captivated by the exceptional designs and seemingly intimidating apparatus, but even more so by the witty charisma of our tour guide (see in photo!).

With the world’s most enthusiastic and engaging host!

The crew at MakerSpace

Despite all the fun and creativity oozing out of the MakerSpace, it was a brilliant insight into the vibrant and ever-changing world of learning, and in this case, learning by doing. My favourite pearl of wisdom was likening the MakerSpace to the parents’ home for a child: “Eventually your son or daughter gets too big and too grown up to stay at home, so they have to move out and move on; that’s the MakerSpace, they can create and innovate here, but eventually if they’re on the right track, they will have to move on and take their creation to mass production and beyond”.

Jordan James Kirkwood from Aston University


Day 4: The small town of Jena

Max Planck Institute for Science in Jena

It’s Thursday and today we made our way out of Munich and into the former East. A four hour train trip in the glorious early morning sunshine, passing some beautiful countryside, brought us to the town of Jena. After being in some of Switzerland’s and Germany’s bigger cities, it made a pleasant change to be in a smaller town. First stop was the Max-Planck Institute for Science of Human History based slightly outside the town centre.


All of us were inspired by the philosophy of Max-Planck that “Insight must precede application!”. The Institute is one of 83 M-P Institutes including 5 located outside Germany and is one of 3 based in Jena. A winding walk back down the hill took us into the town itself and to our next hosts – the Graduate Academy at Fredrich Schiller University, the oldest graduate academy in Germany.

What a beautiful old building with bags of character, now converted into the offices and student facilities for Doctoral candidates. It’s been so interesting to hear about the differences and similarities between the Swiss, German and British graduate systems.

Next stop … Berlin!

Marcella Avis from DeMontfort University

Day 5: Berlin

Last day of the Study Tour : Berlin

Arriving later than we anticipated (train travel has its ups and downs all over the world), it was a quick dash to the hotel to freshen up before meeting with members of the Berlin region branch of the Netzwerk Wissentschaftsmanagement at Gaffel Haus for dinner and extensive discussion of our respective perspectives on Brexit. Lots of food for thought, as well as for our bellies! Our hosts were both gracious and accommodating; we look forward to returning the gesture! 

With Netzwerk colleagues

Friday, and, after an early morning check-in at Checkpoint Charlie, our last day of visits started at The German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies where we heard about work the Centre is leading to develop a core dataset for research that all universities across Germany might buy into.  

Checking in at checkpoint Charlie

Fascinating stuff, with some big differences apparent in attitudes to data between our two systems. It was then a ‘leisurely’ stroll to our next visit at The Federal Ministry of Education and Research, where we had an overview of the German HE system from representatives of the Ministry and of the German Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (cf UUK). There were interesting differences of opinion between the two parties on certain issues!

Federal Ministry for Education and Research

We then headed on to the headquarters of the Leibniz Association,  the most recently established of the four big publicly-funded non-university research foundations, to hear about how Leibnitz works with HEIs. Quite a different approach from that taken by the Max Planck Society.  

Inside the stunning new British Embassy building

Then it was back out into the rain for a glimpse of the iconic Brandenburg Gate and the very moving Holocaust Memorial en route to our final appointment at the British Embassy. This was an late addition to the schedule – someone we’d met in Basel on Tuesday had told a friend in Berlin about us and we then received a surprise invitation to come along for a debrief on our visit. A fitting end in stunning surroundings!

Wendy Cairney from Edinburgh Napier University